The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

The Bookseller of Kabul–Seierstad. Recommended at Bookfest.

The Bookseller of Kabul is a nonfiction account of the lives of a real family in Kabul, Afghanistan. Journalist Asne Seierstad lived with the family for four months as a guest, welcomed by the patriarch of the family, a man she calls “Khan” in her story. Unfortunately, her first impression of Khan as a liberal, forward-thinking Afghan intellectual changed as she came to know his family and his family interactions. In particular, it becomes quite clear, although Ms. Seierstad does not include herself as a player or even an observer in the book, that she was appalled by the treatment of women in Khan’s family and in Afghan society as a whole. She describes how Khan takes a sixteen year old second wife and exiles his first wife to Pakistan to take care of his business affairs there. She also shows the way the other women in the family, especially Khan’s sister Leila, are trapped and limited by the circumstances and assumptions that are taken for granted in Afghan family life, at least in this particular Afghan family.

Khan, whose real name Shah Mohammed Rais was rather obvious to anyone who actually lived in Kabul, read the book after it was published and immediately screamed bloody murder. From a New York Times article December 21, 2003:

Seierstad lived with the family for four months, and then wrote a detailed account of the experience — in which she portrayed the bookseller as a liberal intellectual in public but a tyrant to his family. This summer, Rais received a copy of the book in English. And then the trouble began. Furious at what he viewed as Seierstad’s misrepresentations and betrayal of his hospitality, he vowed to sue her for libel in a Norwegian court. He wants damages and a cut of the profits from ”The Bookseller of Kabul,” which became an international best seller (and the most successful nonfiction book in Norway’s history).

I don’t know what Mr. Rais expected Ms. Seierstad to write. Perhaps she flattered him and lied to him and implied that she approved of his polygamous lifestyle and autocratic family governance. At any rate, according to Wikipedia as of 2005, Rais has “declared he was seeking asylum in either Norway or Sweden, as a political refugee. Things revealed about him in Seierstad’s book had made life for him and his family unsafe in Afghanistan.”

This Salon article calls Ms. Seierstad “The Hypocrite of Kabul” and accuses her of cultural insensitivity. However, the same author Anne Marlow, writes approvingly of Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner. I guess she hadn’t had a chance to read Mr. Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns in which he directly engages with the tradition and practice of Afghan subjugation and mistreatment of women.

Did Asne Seierstad betray the hospitality offered to her by writing frankly and disparagingly of the family with whom she shared a home for four months? Probably. I wouldn’t have written a book about such a family without at least spending a lot more time and energy disguising the main characters.

Are the women of the Rais family mistreated by my (Western) standards? Absolutely. And I would defend cultural standards that allow women to leave the house without covering their faces and to receive an education and to be more than household slaves, as standards that should prevail in both the East and the West, human standards.

The slave owners in the South didn’t like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book messing with their “way of life” either. On the other hand, she wrote fiction, not a poorly disguised invasion of privacy.

Insightful and illuminating but voyeuristic.

5 thoughts on “The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

  1. I really appreciated reading about your background investigation. I was unaware of some of that information. I also agree with your insights into Seierstad’s character which is displayed (like it or not) in her writing. I thought it odd that “Khan” would be so willing to let a woman (or a man) into his home to write about his family. What exactly did he EXPECT them to write about? It’s all very curious. I can imagine he regrets his decision.

    Thanks for your review and the link to Bookfest!

  2. I actually liked that she was so candid about life in the family and the reality of life for the women, and I find it unlikely that Khan (who was so familiar with books) would be unaware of what she was planning to do. I tend to think that he was perfectly willing to justify himself and his decisions and that he wouldn’t be at all ashamed.

  3. interesting. A book club friend gave it to me to read and its been on my shelf since Christmas. It looks like a good, but not altogether easy read.

  4. Ginger

    I dreaded having to read this story at first for my summer reading, but as i read on, i realized the story was quite interesting. Asne tells the real truth about Afghan society, even though it was a dangerous thing to do during that time. I have to say “Khan” HAD to know, at least somewhat of what she was going to write. I for one am glad to have read this story, because it has let me see how privledged i am in America.

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