Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Bookseller of Kabul

The Bookseller of Kabul
Author: Åsne Seierstad
Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 2002
288 pages

One of my friends from Europe gave me this book in 2009, saying it was a must-read book for our time. I put it on my shelf and there it sat . . . until a few days ago, when suddenly, it jumped out at me, demanding to be read. Sometimes books are like that, you know.

The Bookseller of Kabul examines life in Afghanistan, focusing on a man named Sultan Khan, who is the head of a large household as well as the owner of multiple bookstores in that city. The author, a Norwegian woman, went to Afghanistan within a few weeks of September 11, 2001 and after developing a customer relationship with Sultan and being impressed with what she considered his forward-thinking ways (for a man of his place and time) made a proposal: she'd live with his family for a few months if he'd let her write a book about him.

He agreed, but the author soon learned that Sultan wasn't as progressive as she thought he was. The book begins with the tale of a wedding. Sultan, who's in his fifties and married, wants to take a younger, second wife. He chooses Sonya, who at sixteen is some forty years younger than Sultan. His first wife, Sharifa, isn't too happy about this, especially when Sultan sends her off to live in Pakistan for a while.

The book's chapters focus on specific people in the family, such as Sharifa; Mansur, one of Sultan and Sharifa's sons; and Leila, Sultan's youngest sister, who lives with the family and is basically treated as a servant. Mansur is in his late teens and alternates between being somewhat likeable and a complete jerk. Deathly afraid of his father, he's struggling to determine the type of man he will become. There's a heart-wrenching scene involving a young street girl that leads him down a path of soul-searching and religious inquiry, but will it change Mansur's heart? Then there's Leila, who has dreams and so much potential, yet is trapped by the confines of her family and society. When an opportunity for change comes her way, will she take it? Or will it, like so many other things, slip from her fingers? These are just a few examples of the people and drama in Sultan's family that I won't forget anytime soon.

In addition to the family stories, Seierstad weaves in some historical background about Afghanistan. In the 1950s and 60s, it was an up-and-coming "modern" country. By the mid-1960s, the country was a democracy with free elections and women's rights. Then in 1979 the Soviets invaded, and things just went downhill from there. Reading this book was a good reminder of the complexity that is Afghanistan. Despite the controversy over the book (which you can read about online if you desire), The Bookseller of Kabul provides a fascinating look at culture, history, and family life, and I'm glad I finally read it.