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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 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 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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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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VINE VOICEon 25 August 2004
I read this book some months ago and I have been fascinated to hear so many different view points since.
The book, researched and written by a Norwegian journalist, tells of post-taliban life in this country we have all heard so much about but actually know very little about.
I actually have 2 different view points on this book. The first is, like most other reviewers, that this is a shocking tale of evryday life for these people and worlds apart from the the one we know in the west. It's both deeply upsetting and also infuriating about how little control these women have over their own lives. However, I can also see how Sultan Khan, the Father / Husband is so angry and threatening to sue over its publication. This is a man who has grown up in a country without any external influences. He probably sees himself as a hard working, self made man with a large family and a good standing in the community. Along comes a western lady whom he invites into his home to live among his family and the next thing he knows people all over the world are up in arms about the "plight" of his family.
Afghanistan, along with its culture and beleifs, is not going to change overnight. Not only that, but Khan is head of a muslim household in a muslim country. It's not for us to go poking our noses in saying what is right and what is wrong in soneone elses family and beleifs.
That said, this is a very readable book and goes some way to understanding another culture, alhtough I do think I would prefer to read an account of an Afghanistani family written by an Afghanistani person.
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on 22 February 2006
I bought this book from a spontaneously decision while engaged with THE KITE RUNNER. It is an amazing story of the life of an Afghan family that is keenly observed and portrayed by the author who lived with them for several months and observed their lives listened to their stories and finally came to relate to them. Though from quite a wealthy educated background, the family's story is still a struggle for self-esteem in a domineering culture of hierarchy that favors males and the elders, a culture of denial that often looks for scapegoats. Polygamy, oriental way of engaging in business, the status of women in the tribal and religious arrangement of southern Asia and the backdrop of the Afghan war all contributed to make this story enticing and gave a view of Afghanistan that many foreigners are not aware of.USURPER AND OTHER STORIES,UNION MOUJIK, BRICKLANE, THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL are other titles which helps us foreigners understand what the news do not present.
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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 April 2004
I tried not to be, but I was. Exposing the prejudice and pain secretly suffered by millions of Afghan women in this patriarchal society dominated by fundamentalist rules and prohibitions made me angry. Testiment perhaps to the passion evident in Seierstad’s narrative and apparent frustration with Sultan's outlook, stuck somewhere between being a forward thinking liberal and archaic patron, and which exposes this deeply troubled society, itself caught between Islamic tradition and the irresistible encroachment of western ways and products. Her inability to understand Sultan's apparent schizophrenic personality is also very human and written with complete honesty.
A fine portrait of a family dynamic in a society trying to find itself after 30 years of instability. A little unsettling but interesting and moving.
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