The Bookseller of Kabul – Book Review

Åsne Seierstad lives the life of my dream. The wanderlust journalist travels across the globe with minimal clothing, plenty of notebooks and her trustworthy laptop in tow. Seierstad is a Norwegian war correspondent (isn’t that a splendid designation to put on your name card?) covering the unfolding events in the war torn Afghanistan.

As Seierstad wandered the streets of Kabul (post Taliban era) she met a lonesome figure, Sultan Khan, who seemed detached from political turmoil which enveloped the whole of Afghan’s capital city. A fast friendship was quickly formed where Seierstad moved into Khan’s family home for the next four months: to tell their story.

The Bookseller of Kabul (TBK) is a crossbreed – in so far as genre is concerned – of culture, history, religion and semi-travelogue. What sets the book apart from other ordinary travelogues is the fact that it is creatively written in a fabric of fiction.

Åsne Seierstad yarns the story of Afghan fabric of life with intriguing conversation from a westerner’s perspective. The land where hope diminishes by days and weak leadership controlled the running of the country. To borrow the words of Will Shakespeare, “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

To digress a little, I blame my obsession with Afghanistan onto that spellbinding Afghan doctor, Khaled Hosseini, who penned the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Hosseini’s books first piqued my interest on Afghanistan with his tales of the desert.

The author partly narrates the book – at least in my personal interpretation – about women who have been reduced to second class citizen, oppressed, degraded and caged in a “burka”. The cover-all dress code was first made compulsory during the five years of Taliban’s reign of power. In short, in Afghanistan, it is acceptable for men to behave like tyrants but women must be as timid as mice.

The story is set in the recently liberated Kabul from the iron-fist clutch of Taliban. Sultan Khan is a businessman, first, before he is a husband to both wives or the father to his many children. Even though I frown upon polygamy, my heart softens when the author describes how much ‘in love’ Khan is with his collection of books; how he endangered his life during the Taliban era by printing illegal materials. However, all materials are illegal in Taliban’s eyes. Even pictures of living object are deemed as ‘sin’.

Khan’s books were raped, torn apart and dismembered, first by the communist and later by the ruthless Taliban. No history or literature can be preserved in Afghanistan.

In the tradition of Afghan, the first, second and third generation, usually roofed together in a small apartment leaving no room for privacy to the family members.

On a side-note, dust is apparently a curse to the Afghans as the Cinderella of the family sweeps the floor many times in a day. Family member’s personal belongings are stored in a trunk thus dispensing the need of cupboards and organised storage.

The author paints the picture of Afghanistan, post Taliban era, when music resumes and the previous soccer stadium – used as execution field by the Taliban where the accused was shot dead in front of hundreds of jeering Taliban supporters – is put to good use again.

Still, in Afghan’s culture, feelings were blatantly repressed and courting is doomed as the ultimate betrayal to family honour reducing young Afghans (including one of Khan’s family member) to resorts into buying sexual pleasure from underage, poverty stricken girl.

It must be a difficult task to tell a story or write a semi-memoir of one family from a 3rd party’s point of view. Not to mention the fact that, if I were Sultan Khan, I would never want to see Åsne Seierstad again in my life let alone grace a spot for the book in the shelves of his bookstore for the kind of story she depicts.

However, what the author lacks in writing this book is to inject the “soul” element into the storyline, the way Sonia Nazario did in Enrique’s Journey. Alas, comparison is never a good.

Note: I refrain from detailing the plots in this book for fear that I could not write it with fair perspective as the story is rather long.

Title: The Book Seller of Kabul
Local Price: RM55.90 (Times Bookstore, Pavilion)
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Biography/Non-Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7178-1


6 thoughts on “The Bookseller of Kabul – Book Review

  1. The English version was first published in 2003.The author although foreign to Afghan culture has unique and keen observation of the daily Afghan culture played out in front of her.

    What you read in the book are true reflections of Afghan culture,not much embellishments from her.

    I know because my grandfather came from that part of the world and I can see some of the attributes in him.

  2. “The wanderlust journalist travels across the globe with minimal clothing, plenty of notebooks and her trustworthy laptop in tow”

    Hmm… does “minimal clothing” mean being “scantily clothed”? That would have been an eye-opener in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban era – or anywhere else for that matter….


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