....From a strictly literary perspective, ''The Bookseller of Kabul'' is an effective portrait of one rather unhappy Afghan family. It is certainly the most intimate description of an Afghan household ever produced by a Western journalist. Richard McGill
The Bookseller of Kabulby Asne Seierstad
With The Bookseller of Kabul, award-winning journalist Asne Seierstad has given readers a first-hand look at Afghani life as few outsiders have seen it. Invited to live with Sultan Khan, a bookseller in Kabul, and his family for months, this account of her experience allows the Khans to speak for themselves, giving us a genuinely gripping and moving portrait of a family, and of a country of great cultural riches and extreme contradictions.For more than 20 years, Sultan Khan has defied the authoritieswhether Communist or Talibanto supply books to the people of Kabul. He has been arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned, and has watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. Yet he had persisted in his passion for books, shedding light in one of the world's darkest places. This is the intimate portrait of a man of principle and of his familytwo wives, five children, and many relatives sharing a small four-room house in this war ravaged city. But more than that, it is a rare look at contemporary life under Islam, where even after the Taliban's collapse, the women must submit to arranged marriages, polygamous husbands, and crippling limitations on their ability to travel, learn and communicate with others. About the Author
Asne Seierstad is an award-winning journalist who has reported from such war-torn regions as Chechnya, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.
New York Times Book Review
Washington Post Book World
An admirable, revealing portrait of daily life in a country that Washington claims to have liberated but does not begin to understand. Seierstad writes of individuals, but her message is larger."Mark Hertsgaard, Washington Post Book World"
A compelling portrait of a country at a crossroads - desperate for tranquillity, factionalized beyond imagination, struggling both to uphold tradition and to modernize, hoping to prove to itself and the rest of the world that it knows peace and stability."Scott W. Helman, Boston Globe"
An unusually intimate glimpse of a traditional Afghan family. . . . Seierstad imbues a grim story with language of desolate beauty."S. L. Allen, Entertainment Weekly"
A compelling book. . . . Seierstad infiltrated a world most readers will never see."Steve Weinberg, Denver Post
- Little, Brown and Company
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Read an Excerpt
The Bookseller of Kabul
By Asne Seierstad
Copyright © 2002
All right reserved.
When Sultan Khan thought the time had come to find himself a new
wife, no one wanted to help him. First he approached his mother.
"You will have to make do with the one you have," she said.
Then he went to his eldest sister. "I'm fond of your first wife,"
she said. His other sisters replied in the same vein.
"It's shaming for Sharifa," said his aunt.
Sultan needed help. A suitor cannot himself ask for a girl's hand.
It is an Afghan custom that one of the women of the family convey
the proposal and give the girl the once-over to assure herself that
she is capable, well brought up, and suitable wife material. But
none of Sultan's close female relations wanted to have anything to
do with this offer of marriage.
Sultan had picked out three young girls he thought might fit the
bill. They were all healthy and good-looking, and of his own tribe.
In Sultan's family it was rare to marry outside the clan; it was
considered prudent and safe to marry relatives, preferably cousins.
Sultan's first candidate was sixteen-year-old Sonya. Her eyes were
dark and almond-shaped and her hair shining black. She was shapely,
voluptuous, and it was said of her that she was a good worker. Her
family was poor and they were reasonably closely related. Her
mother's grandmother and Sultan's mother's grandmother were sisters.
While Sultan ruminated over how to ask for the hand of the chosen
one without the help of family women, his first wife was blissfully
ignorant that a mere chit of a girl, born the same year she and
Sultan were married, was Sultan's constant preoccupation. Sharifa
was getting old. Like Sultan, she was a few years over fifty. She
had borne him three sons and a daughter. The time had come for a man
of Sultan's standing to find a new wife.
"Do it yourself," his brother said finally.
After some thought, Sultan realized that this was his only solution,
and early one morning he made his way to the house of the
sixteen-year-old. Her parents greeted him with open arms. Sultan was
considered a generous man and a visit from him was always welcome.
Sonya's mother boiled water and made tea. They reclined on flat
cushions in the mud cottage and exchanged pleasantries until Sultan
thought the time had come to make his proposal.
"A friend of mine would like to marry Sonya," he told the parents.
It was not the first time someone had asked for their daughter's
hand. She was beautiful and diligent, but they thought she was still
a bit young. Sonya's father was no longer able to work. During a
brawl a knife had severed some of the nerves in his back. His
beautiful daughter could be used as a bargaining chip in the
marriage stakes, and he and his wife were always expecting the next
bid to be even higher.
"He is rich," said Sultan. "He's in the same business as I am. He is
well educated and has three sons. But his wife is starting to grow
"What's the state of his teeth?" the parents asked immediately,
alluding to the friend's age.
"About like mine," said Sultan. "You be the judge."
Old, the parents thought. But that was not necessarily a
disadvantage. The older the man, the higher the price for their
daughter. A bride's price is calculated according to age, beauty,
and skill and according to the status of the family.
When Sultan Khan had delivered his message, the parents said, as
could be expected, "She is too young."
Anything else would be to sell short to this rich, unknown suitor
whom Sultan recommended so warmly. It would not do to appear too
eager. But they knew Sultan would return; Sonya was young and
He returned the next day and repeated the proposal. The same
conversation, the same answers. But this time he got to meet Sonya,
whom he had not seen since she was a young girl.
She kissed his hand, in the custom of showing respect for an elder
relative, and he blessed the top of her head with a kiss. Sonya was
aware of the charged atmosphere and flinched under Uncle Sultan's
"I have found you a rich man, what do you think of that?" he asked.
Sonya looked down at the floor. A young girl has no right to have an
opinion about a suitor.
Sultan returned the third day, and this time he made known the
suitor's proposition: a ring, a necklace, earrings, and bracelet,
all in red gold; as many clothes as she wanted; 600 pounds of rice,
300 pounds of cooking oil, a cow, a few sheep, and 15 million
afghani, approximately $500.
Sonya's father was more than satisfied with the price and asked to
meet this mysterious man who was prepared to pay so much for his
daughter. According to Sultan, he even belonged to their tribe, in
spite of their not being able to place him or remember that they had
ever met him.
"Tomorrow," said Sultan, "I will show you a picture of him."
The next day, fortified by a sweetener, Sultan's aunt agreed to
reveal to Sonya's parents the identity of the suitor. She took a
photograph with her-a picture of Sultan Khan himself-and with it the
uncompromising message that they had no more than an hour to make up
their minds. If the answer was yes, he would be very grateful, and
if it was no, there would be no bad blood between them. What he
wanted to avoid at all costs was everlasting bargaining about maybe,
The parents agreed within the hour. They were keen on Sultan Khan,
his money, and his position. Sonya sat in the attic and waited. When
the mystery surrounding the suitor had been solved and the parents
had decided to accept, her father's brother came up to the attic.
"Uncle Sultan is your wooer," he said. "Do you consent?"
Not a sound escaped Sonya's lips. With tearful eyes and bowed head,
she hid behind her long shawl.
"Your parents have accepted the suitor," her uncle said. "Now is
your only chance to express an opinion."
She was petrified, paralyzed by fear. She did not want the man but
she knew she had to obey her parents. As Sultan's wife, her standing
in Afghan society would go up considerably. The bride money would
solve many of her family's problems. The money would help her
parents buy good wives for their sons.
Sonya held her tongue, and with that her fate was sealed. To say
nothing means to give one's consent. The agreement was drawn up, the
Sultan went home to inform his family of the news. His wife,
Sharifa, his mother, and his sisters were seated around a dish of
rice and spinach. Sharifa thought he was joking and laughed and
cracked some jokes in return. His mother too laughed at Sultan's
joke. She could not believe that he had entered into a proposal of
marriage without her blessing. The sisters were dumbfounded.
No one believed him, not until he showed them the kerchief and
sweetmeats the parents of a bride give the suitor as proof of the
Sharifa cried for twenty days. "What have I done? What a disgrace.
Why are you dissatisfied with me?"
Sultan told her to pull herself together. No one in the family
backed him up, not even his own sons. Nevertheless, no one dared
speak out against him-he always got his own way.
Sharifa was inconsolable. What really rankled was the fact that the
man had picked an illiterate, someone who had not even completed
nursery school. She, Sharifa, was a qualified Persian language
teacher. "What has she got that I haven't got?" she sobbed.
Sultan rose above his wife's tears.
No one wanted to attend the engagement party. But Sharifa had to
bite the bullet and dress up for the celebrations.
"I want everyone to see that you agree and support me. In the future
we will all be living under the same roof and you must show that
Sonya is welcome," he demanded. Sharifa had always humored her
husband, and now too, in this worst circumstance, giving him to
someone else, she knuckled under. He even demanded that Sharifa
should put the rings on his and Sonya's fingers.
Twenty days after the proposal of marriage the solemn engagement
ritual took place. Sharifa pulled herself together and put on a
brave face. Her female relatives did their best to unsettle her.
"How awful for you," they said. "How badly he has treated you. You
must be suffering."
The wedding took place two months after the engagement, on the day
of the Muslim New Year's Eve. This time Sharifa refused to attend.
"I can't," she told her husband.
The female family members backed her up. No one bought new dresses
or applied the normal amount of makeup required at wedding
ceremonies. They wore simple coiffures and stiff smiles-in deference
to the superannuated wife who would no longer share Sultan Khan's
bed. It was now reserved for the young, terrified bride-but they
would all be under the same roof, until death did them part.
Excerpted from The Bookseller of Kabul
by Asne Seierstad
Copyright © 2002 by Asne Seierstad.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Åsne Seierstad is an award-winning journalist and writer renowned for her work as a war correspondent. Her books include One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya, and, most recently, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. She lives in Oslo, Norway.
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This book opened my eyes to many things that I would have never learned about Afghanistan from American media or literature. It was very enlightening, and I felt that for once I was getting truly expositional and objective information on the country, it's culture and beliefs etc. The author actually lives with an Afghani family and writes down what she witnesses. Much different than what we see on the CNN headlines. I would read this book again, it was very stimulating and made for interesting and intelligent conversations.
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.Disciples of Fortune, Swallows of kabul are other titles which helps us foreigners understand what the news do not present.
I'm a soon to be junior at Holt High School. I'm doing a review in English class for the book The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seirstad. I came across this book one day in my school library when I was looking for a silent reading book. I told our librarian that I really liked the book The Kite Runner which had similar themes and she introduced me to this new book that had not even been put in our school library system yet. When she told me about the book and how it has a lot of connections with Afghan culture it made me want to read it more because that subject interests me. This book is about a family living in Afghanistan during the rise of the Taliban. They allow a reporter to come and stay with them for several months and shadow them as they go about their lives. The main character is Sultan Khan, a bookseller in Kabul. During the Taliban rule all books were banned besides the ones given by the Taliban. He is so in live with his books that throughout the book you will find yourself following him to prison and conflict. Another character in the book is Sultans wife Sharifa and his main wife Jamila. You also follow them as they demonstrate the strong principles of the role of women. You will get to experience Sultans son's first rebellion as a youth and his younger sisters as they get married and find jobs to escape their family's tight grip on their lives. Overall I give this book 3.5 stars because it is a very hard book to read and I would only suggest for advanced readers. It is interesting if you truly want to read but if you are not enjoying it the book will not make sense so a book I might suggest for you is the Kite Runner.
This book satisfied some of my desire for knowledge about Afghanstan; the country, people and culture. The writing style made a difficult subject a pleasure to read and encouraged me to continue my search for further knowledge of this subject. A highly recommended read.
Seierstad's intimate portrait of an atypical family in Kabul, Afghanistan evokes a myriad of emotions. The reader, at times, feels caught between admiration for Sultan the bookseller who defends women's rights, and Sultan the tyrannical leader of his family who takes a different stance when it comes to the women in his household. I was left with a feeling of frustration and anger towards him and felt that his passion for books and knowledge was the most important thing in his life. His lack of compassion and concern for the plight of family members (especially the women) mirrored the way his father had ruled his family and, I suspect that Sultan's sons will follow in kind. One is left wondering if this cycle can ever be broken. A good read.
As someone who is not very knowledgeable of Afghanistan's culture, I found that Ms. Seierstad's book opened up a whole new world for me. She gave a revealing glimpse into the daily lives of the Khan family and I was impressed that they allowed her to experience, live and be a part of all these intimate details. What left the biggest impression for me is the way the author presented the personal conflicts of the younger Khan family members and in particular, Leila. Here she is, a 19 yr old who is clearly torn between her duty as an obedient daughter strapped by their culture and her own desires to live a different life. In the end, her choices were still made for her and one can't help but feel a little saddened. Great read!
This well-written book gave, what I assume, is an accurate view of daily living in almost any Middle-Eastern country. I thought the descriptions of what women must deal with on many levels was informative and gave me pause not to complain about a particulary hard day in my life. My perception of the bookseller was that he was basically a good person yet so rigid with his rules. He did have a sense of fairness about him shown briefly but he always went back to the rules. His thought that if you didn't have an orderly house, how could you have an orderly community, etc. makes sense except it was carried to the extreme and then it lost its humaness. I thought the book was very readable, kept my interest, told life like it is, and I applaud the author in her honesty. This is definitly a book to be read by men and women.
I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast read for me, mostly in part because once I started I wanted to finish it! The chapters did not flow together well, but the stories within the chapters were very interesting. I thought Seierstad did an excellent job portraying the life of women in the post-Taliban era. I was amazed on how little their lives had changed since the Taliban had left. I would recommend this to anyone wanting to learn more about Afghanistan and women there.
I picked this book up from the library at around the height of the controversy about building an Islamic culural center and mosque a few blocks from ground zero in NYC. That fact was purely coincidental but while beforehand I had not been too interested in the controversy one way or the other, this book did give me pause to think more deeply about the issue. This book is really less a cohesive novel than a series of stories about the individual dreams and plights of various people within Sultan, the bookseller's family. If Sultan is a modern and moderate Muslim, and if this depiction of family life is largely true, then God help all of these people. More interestingly, it seemed to me that in Afghanistan, at least, culture and religion are so strongly intertwined that it would be difficult to condemn the culture without at least seeming to condemn the faith. How can you separate the two? In this book it seemed Afghani culture was one in which women were bought and sold like animals, their only value to society on whether they could produce male offspring. Men's lives were no piece of cake either and it seems relationships between people are largely based on manipulation and fear, rather than love and mutual respect. One thing I did notice was that several of the men (and women too) would follow the strictures of their faith more for appearances than anything else. Where one minute they might be praying devoutly, the next minute they might be speaking and treating each other with the most callous of behaviors. I would not be surprised if some of these families--if they relocated to a western country--might simply abandon the demoralizing aspects of their culture/faith. I also can't help but think if they encouraged education for all, encouraged safe and responsible birth control and allowed both women and men to help earn money for their families, how so many more families would be lifted out of dire poverty. Western civilization is far from perfect, but I'll take being an infidel over Afghani life any day.
It gave me a glimpse of what it would be like living in Afganistan...
I found this book to be wonderful. However, some parts were very boring--which of course made me uninterested and made me want to skim through the chapter instead of reading it. But, the majority of this book was great! Very detailed and really let you learn about the life of a bookseller, the repressiveness in Afghanistan, the Taliban rules, Afghan history, and the horrible lives of women their. Overall, I recommend this book to everyone.
This book is fantastic..... I allways understood that women in this scociety led such a miserable existance, but I never realized how it also affects the males of this scociety..... . This book is a real eye openner for anyone that wants to catch a glimpes into what life must be like in another part of the world, few have had the oppertunity too see. It has allowed me to understand at some level why it is that (they) view us the way (they) do and how very diffrent our culture's are. It will haunt me for a long time.... Everyday is a good day because, I did not wake up in Kabul,Afghanistan.
The story of a bookseller, braving the Taliban and risking everything to keep some part of Afghan history alive, presents a startling look into the daily life of Afghanistan today. Presented through the words of Asne Seierstad, the reader experiences her intial reactions to the suppression of the people, especially women. The world surely looks different when one is wearing a burka, and Seierstad does a wonderful job of presenting those differences. Little knowlegde of current affairs is neccessary to appreciate this story. A relatively quick read, this book is worth your time!
'The Bookseller of Kabul' was a very informative book for me to read. I knew much more about Afghani life during the Taliban than I knew of life after the fall of the regime. 'Bookseller' really delved into actual situations that Afghani people faced. I was especially astonished of the treatment of women even after the Taliban. This book, though not 100% fact, illustrated the dire straits of the Afghani women, and even more surprisingly, the hard life that even the men must live. We have heard so much about the mistreatment of women in Afghanistan that the horrible standards of living faced by everyone is largely ignored. The stark contrast between our way of life and theirs is unsettling, but the author also allows the similarities among all humans to shine through. The only difficulty that was faced in reading was the author's fondness for jumping from story to story.