Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cannonball Read #18: The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

I was about twenty pages into The Bookseller of Kabul before I realized why it felt so familiar. An excerpt of it was included in the article packet for my Religious Reporting class in sophomore year, and I remember there being a note from the author, Asne Seierstad (cool name huh? She's Norwegian), saying that the Sultan (the bookseller) had read the book and disagreed with her portrayal of him.

To be honest, I felt a little tricked by the book's blurb on the back. I thought that it was going to be about how the Taliban rule had affected the bookseller's life, and perhaps there would be some political commentary about his ideals (which are Westernized). It ended up being a great deal about his personal life and about how he and the males of his family treat their female relatives. It's not that the latter is an uninteresting subject – I just didn't know I was going to get so worked up while reading it. I thought it was going to be more of an intellectual read instead of a "God, these people are so terrible to their moms/sisters/aunts" read.

Asne Seierstad is a journalist who lived with Sultan Khan (a fake name) and his family for three months because she wanted to write a book about him. She thought that Sultan was going to be a different Afghan – the new, post-Taliban-world Afghan man – because when she visited his book store, he seemed well-educated and supportive of Western ideals, such as democracy or women rights. However, she realized that at home, Sultan was just like any Afghan – the women of his house had literally no say in anything, and all his sons and younger brothers must obey everything he says.

His hypocrisy is evident in the way he treats his son. Sultan often complains that Afghans are uneducated, which is why the country can never progress (he is a big talker about "progress.") However, he refuses to send his sons to school because he says that they must help him in his bookstores.

In the chapters surrounding the women of his family, like his sister, Leila – who wakes up first to put out everyone's clothes for the day, and then goes to bed last because she must prepare the breakfast for the next day – it is so heart-breaking because Leila constantly tries to reach beyond the four walls of her house to the outside world, and is always pushed back down. Leila knows a bit of English and she wanted to be an English teacher. She keeps trying to apply for the license, but there are so many bureaucratic stops, not to mention societal obstacles. If her brother does not want her to be teacher, Leila cannot disagree.

For me, this was an incredibly frustrating book. I think that Seierstad's writing is much better suited for the news than for this format that the book took, which was kinda like a story. Seierstad's strength was in keeping her voice (and her opinions) out of the book. Leila's story (and the other stories) are told in a very neutral tone. It's a sad, frustrating topic that probably doesn't need more fuel; but I still wanted her to show... i don't know... some sort of indignance.

Of course, after thinking that, I felt guilty because I realized that I was imposing my Western ideals upon these Afghan customs. But is gender slavery really something that should be culturally ok?

Like I said, this was a difficult read, and the writing wasn't especially emotional (the topic is emotional enough) so I had trouble staying engaged with it. Parts of it were really interesting though because I got to better understand some Afghan customs, like how weddings are arranged and how a prospective bride and groom are supposed to behave. Stories like those were told in a gossipy way, so it made it more fun to read.


blakspring said...

one thing i love about your book reviews is the variety of books that you read, especially when i haven't heard of it, like this one. how sad and frustrating that this man seems one way to foreigners but does the same old thing at home with his family. what a shame...

Denesteak said...

thanks :) I usually just pick things from authors I've heard before but never read, or if the cover interests me, I pick it up. I very rarely read the blurbs to these books, which is why you can see in my review occasionally, I say, "I sooooo wasn't expecting that!"

Yea, this one frustrated me, if only because i know it's true. And you are right to compare this reality to the one in "The Handmaid's tale," and I tried to keep that in mind while reading that book, to think, "this can reallly actually happen! Because it does!"