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The Bookseller Of Kabul [Paperback]

Åsne Seierstad , Ingrid Christophersen
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (124 customer reviews)
RRP: £8.99
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Book Description

4 Mar 2004

Two weeks after September 11th, award-winning journalist Åsne Seierstad went to Afghanistan to report on the conflict there. In the following spring she returned to live with an Afghan family for several months.

For more than twenty years Sultan Khan defied the authorities - be they communist or Taliban - to supply books to the people of Kabul. He was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the communists and watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. He even resorted to hiding most of his stock in attics all over Kabul.

But while Khan is passionate in his love of books and hatred of censorship, he is also a committed Muslim with strict views on family life. As an outsider, Seierstad is able to move between the private world of the women - including Khan's two wives - and the more public lives of the men. And so we learn of proposals and marriages, suppression and abuse of power, crime and punishment. The result is a gripping and moving portrait of a family, and a clear-eyed assessment of a country struggling to free itself from history.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Virago; New Ed edition (4 Mar 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844080471
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844080472
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (124 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 67,486 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Written sometimes more like fiction than fact ... this is a remarkable portrait, with deftly woven accounts of weddings and journeys, books and bookselling, relations and squabbles, firmly anchored by pleasing details about food and customs, all set against the backdrop of a derelict city, filthy and crammed but not defeated" Independent ("Remarkable . honestly and intelligently written" Isabel Hilton, Daily Telegraph)

" Fascinating ... a colourful portrait of people struggling to survive in the most brutal circumstances ... bear[s] witness to the power of literature to withstand even the most repressive regime" Michael Arditti, Daily Mail ("An intimate portrait of Afghani people quite unlike any other book available on the country. It is a compelling read" Sunday Times)

"A unique insight into another world as the Norwegian answer to Kate Adie shares the life of a family in Kabul" Daily Mirror ("A compelling picture of a country" Sunday Telegraph)

"...she wrote about this family simply because it interested her. This interest leaps from the pages. Seierstad's great strength lies in bringing all the characters to life with wonderful dialogue ... reads much like a novel ... there are vivid descriptio ('Seierstad's compelling family portrait is the heart of the book. Full of gossipy, jokey, intimate moments, sniffing the dust beneath the carpets, it shines it own fascinated gaze on rites of courtship and strictures of duty, kinship and protocol ... but)

Book Description

* The international bestseller: 'An intimate portrait of Afghani people quite unlike any other ... a compelling read' Christina Lamb, SUNDAY TIMES

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
When Sultan Khan thought the time had come to find himself a new wife, no one wanted to help him. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
335 of 343 people found the following review helpful
Sultan Khan is the head of a prosperous Kabul family. A bookseller by trade, he has seen his books burnt by one regime, defaced by another, then burnt again. As the Taliban regime falls in 2001, he meets Norwegian war correspondent, Seierstad. They agree that Seierstad should live with his family for several months. This book is the stunning result.
It reads like fiction -- penetrating, prejudicial and convincing but, although names have been changed, it is an honest, warts and all, account of life in Kabul. Khan, seemingly urbane, educated and liberal, is the tyrannical head of large family – mother, siblings, two wives and five children. Khan’s subjugation of the women in his family is shocking from a Western point of view: As Seierstad moves into his home, Khan takes a second wife, a sexy, uneducated sixteen-year-old, dishonouring and cutting to the quick his loyal and educated first wife: his youngest sister is treated as little more than a slave. And it is this that is the meat of the book; the personal power struggles that exist within the family – struggles which Khan will always win.
The shocking portrait of women’s lives, even under the liberalising regime of Afghan leader Karzai, is frightening, repulsive even from a western perspective, but there is nothing here to suggest that Khan is anything other than a typical head of the family. His mother, sisters, wives and daughters, seem to lose identity under the burqa, which hides not only their femininity and personality, but also their imaginations. Not here will you find justification of the regime: these women resent, in different ways, their position.
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108 of 114 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Behind the iron veil 19 Sep 2003
By Alba
Journalist Åsne Seierstad reported from the most recent war in Afghanistan, then lived in post-war Kabul for several months. But this is not a war correspondent’s travelogue. This is the story of one Afghani family - an educated and privileged one. Most of all it is the story of a group of women in a patriarchal society. It is well written, compelling, and terribly sad. “The bookseller of Kabul” describes misogynist cultural practices from a feminine perspective, and has suffered a wave of aggressive criticism in the writer’s home country.
The book tells of how one woman was murdered for “honour”, how women are bought and sold in marriage, how polygyny affects women who can’t divorce for cultural reasons, how women are denied the right to work by sons or brothers, how the life of women is restricted by culture and traditions.
Don’t read this book if you are looking for a culture relativist feel-good message. Do read this book if you are interested in the realities of life inside the burqa, life behind the “iron veil”.
P.S. And you’d better hurry, because the bookseller is now threatening to sue publishers in seventeen countries, demanding the book to be censored.
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77 of 83 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read this with 'My Forbidden Face' by Latifa 12 July 2004
By A Customer
I bought this book expecting it to be an insight into how an Afghan family coped with the horrors of the last 25 years in Afghanistan. Although the book does cover the oppression by the various regimes, it concentrates on the interactions of one family.
Sultan Khan oppresses his entire family. Even though he's well educated and wealthy, he refuses to allow his children and youngest sister to go to school. At more than 50 years old, he decides to marry a 16 year old girl, but the women in the family are given no choice who they marry. Most of this book makes me very angry. It protrays a family where one man decides all their lives and they regard this as normal. At the same time, the few references to Sultan Khan's imprisonments and the destruction of his books do make me sympathise with him to some extent.
I would recommend that anyone who reads this, should also read 'My Forbidden Face' by Latifa. The latter book shows that not all Afghani families are oppressive like the Khan family. Latifa grew up in the suburb where the Khan's live, but her family situation was like most in the west. She was free to follow her dreams for her career and love until the Taliban arrived.
I would recommend 'The Bookseller of Kabul', but only with 'My Forbidden Face'.
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42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing account of a grimy and bleak existence 31 Jan 2005
By A Customer
When I first came across The Bookseller of Kabul at an airport bookshop, the blurb implied to me an insight into the life of the bookseller himself, perhaps with more of an emphasis on his passion for books and how he managed to maintain and build his collection of prized treasures despite the oppressive regimes of the Soviets and the Taliban.
However, the book appears to focus less on the "book-selling" aspect rather than his personality and family life. It is nigh on impossible to come away from the book without loathing Sultan Khan, for his pompous arrogance and selfishness. It is thus possible to see why the bookseller in question filed a lawsuit against Ms Seierstad.
My heart bled for various members of his family who were at his mercy, including his nephew, dismissed in the blink of an eye for no reason other than that Mr Khan had tired of him. Few male characters were truly likable, although Mr Khan's son was pitiable at times, primarily because he too was subject to the will of his father.
Even the most hard-hearted individual would feel for his poor sister Laila, who as the youngest unmarried daughter of the clan, is at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Hers is a truly miserable existence indeed, and she captures the essence of confinement, subservience and "eating dust".
The women suffer greatly at the hands of Sultan Khan, not least his first wife Sharifa, a qualified teacher who at the beginning of the book is subjected to the humiliation of a second wife entering her household: that too an un-educated teenager, whom she specifically must welcome into the family as her own.
The book contains vivid descriptions of the Afghan way of life.
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