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VINE VOICEon 29 September 2003
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. Nor do the other men of the family fair much better: Khan’s 19 year old, sexually frustrated, son learns from a friend how to exploit helpless, penniless war widows, safe in the knowledge that if he caught, it will be the women who are condemned: but he too resents Khan’s iron fist, particular when it falls on a wretched carpenter who steals postcards. Khan, driven by his sense of honour, insists on full punishment, despite the fact that this will make the carpenter’s family destitute. Khan’s youngest son is forced to work 12 hours a day selling sweets in a hotel foyer when he would rather be a school, something which Khan could easily afford.
Seierstad clearly feels for the women, but also for the country: the sense of what Afghanistan was – a prosperous, beautiful land– what it became through years of strife, conflict and war, and what it could be, pervade every chapter.
No doubt this book will nestle against numerous Afghanistan travelogues in the bookshops but don’t be fooled. Reading it is a unique experience. Some will see Seierstad’s expose as disrespectable to Khan, to women, to Afghanistan and to Islam. Perhaps it is. But it nonetheless provides a unique insight into a country that has so long been closed to western eyes.
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on 19 September 2003
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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on 12 July 2004
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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on 7 May 2012
The Bookseller of Kabul is written by Asne Seierstad who is a Norwegian. Asne wrote about real events, gave a true account and an honest perspective of Afghan life through an Afghan lenses without distortion. The story is about one family but a representation of the majority of Afghani lives in a microcosm.

The main character of the book is Sultan, the bookseller in Kabul who according to the author is"An Afghan hero who let down by his country time and again".
Asne started to tell the Afghan life through the culture and tradition like wedding ceremonies and catapulting the reader back to the time of the communists, mujahdins and the talibans where culture, art, literature were undermined. Books and any printed materials seemed foreign or blasphemous were burnt and those in possession were put in prison. That was what happened to Sultan.

Sultan has been driven by a burning ambition to collect, print and make available invaluable and priceless books by travelling to Tehran, Lahore to ensure the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation.
The book tells us about the history of Afghanistan the wars it had with the British, Russians and the civil wars. It also showed peoples' desire for liberty but punished and crushed harshly during the Mujahdains and the Talibans rule respectively.

The book is interspersed with joy, adventure, sadness and a quest for GOD. Various stories that happened in different places outside and inside Afghanistan filled the book with tensions, relief, danger, sadness, joy and other emotions that a reader would experience.The author as a woman identified with Afghani women but kept her emotion under control when she witnessed their ill- treatment by men. To love and to express love freely was a crime for a young girl who defied the custom and ended in death or committed suicide.

The book ended with a sad note that a young woman condemned to family slavery and was prevented to marry and lead her on life. Though educated and capable to earn her living as a teacher, Leila condemned looking after everybody-her mother, brother, the children and her nephews because she was a woman without any voice in a patriarchal society.

Have a pleasant reading,
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on 31 January 2005
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. However, certain details, such as the unflattering description of Mr Khan's mother at the hammam (public baths), appeared unnecessary, serving only to lower the tone of the book.
It was refreshing to note the contrasts between the harsh existence during the Taliban regime and the liberal mentalities of the past. It was interesting to read about fashionably attired young ladies and the former customs of toasting weddings with champagne. Despite its controversy and the issues surrounding the factual accuracy of various events, the book is very easy to read. It should be recommended in the context of providing a unique narration of the lives of one particular middle-class educated Afghani family.
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on 21 February 2006
This is a well put together book, with some fascinating observations into life as Afghani men and women live it. I was dissapointed to see one review that suggested that the author did not like the subjects. I found that the treatment of the subjects was moderate, describing fact, not opinion. If the author reports that the head of the family has a carpenter who stole postcards from him imprisoned for three years, that is a representation of fact, not opinion. I felt I was left to make up my own mind, and discovered a more moderate and modern country prior to Taliban rule which I had no idea existed. It has still been ravaged by a history steeped in sex discrimination, lack of choice, and hugely punitive attitudes, reminiscent of a much darker time in Britain.
If nothing else, I think the sense of unfairness in this middle eastern country comes across in the description of the circumstances of many of the families involved.
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on 15 May 2004
Sometimes I switch off when hearing about war/ misery/conflict. I did not think that I would have the desire to read about Afghanistan at all, having been exposed to so much news coverage over the past few years. However by chance I was encouraged to read "The Sewing Circles of Herat" by Christina Lamb & this was so interesting that I read "the Bookseller of Kabul". Both are filled with personal detail which "humanises" the people of Afghanistan as opposed to me thinking of them as just another islamic country. It makes me feel very appreciative of the society I was born into. I now feel that I am much better informed about another culture and I wonder what parallels the West can learn from Afghanistan with respect to Iraq?? Both books were well worth a read in different ways and would give good sources of discussion with others! The "Bookseller of Kabul" was an easy quick read & I shall recommend it to my teenage daughter & my mother. It's writing style is simpler but that may be partly as it is translated from Norwegian.
"The Sewing Circles of Herat" is written with better style and had a lot more background information over a greater length of time (10 or so years). This is the book I have discussed most with friends. Cold War weapons US & Pakistani meddling & lack of money for education makes one realise how Al Quaida has managed to gain such power. Christina Lamb has also personally met/knew well many of the main political characters, including the current Afghanistan leader. It had an immense bibliography for a "popular book" It also had pictures which I felt helped with picturing the people talked about.
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on 6 December 2007
There is no doubt that I was saddened, shocked and angered by the story which emerges from this book. Apparently based on fact, the book follows the life of an Afghani family after the fall of the Taliban. Despite the so-called freedoms which that event should have brought about, the women continued to live a sheltered life of virtual servitude.

I found the double standards which existed completely incomprehensible. Women weren't to speak, smile, or even go out and be seen by a strange man, let alone commit the heinous crime of falling in love! I had to keep reminding myself that I was viewing the book with my Western eyes and my Western upbringing and therefore my anger came from my own sense of injustice more than anything else. It was a difficult thing to do.

A great read to introduce a different culture and an incredible reminder of how lucky we are living in the UK.
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on 12 May 2008
Asne was privileged to live with the `Khan' Afghan family in Kabul and was able to mingle with both men and women, probably because she was a westerner and knew no better. As a successful journalist Asne had spent six weeks with the commandos of the Northern Alliance - in the desert, the mountains, the valleys and the steppes, following their offensive against the Taliban.

What makes this book so interesting is that Asne has dared to describe thoughts and feelings of the family members - based on what they told her. This creates an immediacy and intimacy many similar books lack. We can definitely feel the frustrations of the men and the women - especially the downtrodden women!

Afghanistan in the 1970s was `westernised' in many ways, with luxurious hotels, electricity and running water in the towns and cities. (Since the fall of the Taliban, that's not the case now - it's a derelict city, filthy and crammed but not defeated). Women didn't have to wear the burka and could be seen in public without a veil; they could work and helped the economy keep afloat. Unfortunately, three years of drought and a catastrophic famine in 1973 led to a coup against the ruling monarchy. The new regime was more repressive and proved incompetent. The Soviet invasion in 1979 was supposed to stabilise the area but had the opposite effect. Egypt, China, Pakistan and the US armed the rebels fighting the Soviets and war raged for almost ten years, devastating the country. Into the vacuum left by the departing Soviets came the Taliban. White flags - Taliban's holy colour - flew over the mosques. The war was over - a new war was about to start, a war that would trample all joy under foot. Art and culture were anathema to these religious bigots.

It was against the backdrop of this regime that Sultan Khan tried to save parts of Afghanistan's culture - books about the history and geography and the people, including poetry. We take books for granted in our country, we have more than enough clogging up charity shops - yet in Afghanistan - and in other restrictive regimes such as the now-defunct Soviet Union - books were rare and therefore treasured, passed from hand to hand until they fell apart. Sultan risked imprisonment and worse by secretly buying and selling books.

Then of course the terrorist attack on 11 September changed everything. The Taliban were ousted and for once in almost a generation it was felt that people could return to normality - if the warring power-hungry tribal leaders would let them.

Sultan was able to open his book shops. The books are Sultan's life and his livelihood. He employs his sons in his shops too. The women stayed at home, providing for the men.

So since the fall of the Taliban, things have improved, but not greatly, it seems. A woman's lot is better, but not by much, in Afghanistan. Some women have abandoned the restrictive burka. Asne describes the archaic clothing - it pinches the head and causes headaches; it's difficult to see anything through the cloth grille; you're enclosed, little air gets in and you continually perspire; and you must walk with care because you can't see your feet. How liberated the women feel when they get home and take off the burka!

In Afghanistan a woman's longing for love is taboo. Young people have no right to meet, to love or to choose. Young women are above all objects to be bartered or sold because marriage is a contract between families or within families. Some women protested with suicide and song and Asne quotes from a book of poems: one asks Gods to make her a stone in the next life, rather than a woman.

It's the men's attitude to their women that really annoyed Asne. To all appearances there's no sex life in Afghanistan. Women hide behind the burka. Men and women who do not belong to the same family mustn't sit together in the same room. They must not talk to each other or eat together. But human nature can't be deprived; under the surface all is seething. In spite of running the risk of the death penalty, in Afghanistan too people have lovers and mistresses.

Asne has an observant eye and her fascination with everything she witnessed comes across, infusing the book with wonderful dialogue. Besides writing about weddings and journeys, relations and family squabbles, she also tells the stories of some female family members and how they face up to the bullying and hypocrisy of their men-folk. Especially poignant is Leila's story - frustrated in love, she is used as a virtual slave by her family. Asne's writing is fine and often moving: `... her crushed heart she leaves behind. Soon it blends with the dust... That evening she will sweep it up and throw it out...'

There's no happy ending. Let's hope the country will one day find one.
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VINE VOICEon 6 September 2004
I began this book fully prepared to dislike it- however i found myself very surprised- the book is astonishing, shocking and galling in equal measure. By itself it stands as a testimony to a tribal way of life which, happily some might say, is on the verge of extintiction. The writing style is easy to follow and dispassionate, which makes it all the more compelling. Sierstad herself does not appear in the book, which adds to the feeling that you are reading a "fly-on-the-wall" style document, novel verite if you like.
It is the book's very readability which makes it a concern. In the authors preface to my edition the author writes that certain passages (we're not told which, or how many) have been "fictionalized" to make for easier reading. For a book which is written as an expose this is deeply worrying, and makes me immediately distrustful of the text. If this is fiction, this book is appalling slander, written to pander to a western audiences prejudices of life and people in a poor battered nation. If it is reportage or journalism, this is an astonishing look at a country which has almost been bombed into the stone age. I've only given this two stars as I still can't decide.
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