Thursday, April 24, 2008

A World of Difference

In November 2001 a young (age 31) Norwegian female journalist arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan. By February 2002 she had made the acquaintance of a prosperous bookseller Sultan Khan and persuaded him to allow her to come to live with his family: 3 generations, 2 wives, 13 people, 4 rooms. This book, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, is the author’s account of the three months that she spent in that household and in Kabul in that tumultuous time period.

Although she is fluent in five languages, Seierstad did not speak the particular dialect of the Khan household. Fortunately three of the family spoke English: Sultan, his 17-year-old son Mansur and his 19-year-old sister Leila. As you would expect then, most of the events in the book involve one of these three. The behavior of Sultan and Mansur is infuriating; and the situation of Leila heartbreaking.

The author successfully introduces much of recent Afghan history and culture – the same history and culture that Khaled Hosseini portrays in A Thousand Splendid Suns but this time it is in a non-fiction context. Having read the Hosseini book first, I found it helpful to review the history again. On the cultural side there are the stories of arranged marriages; preference for male children; the roles of women in girlhood, adulthood and old age; the burka; pilgrimage; local justice and tribal warfare. There are some lighter moments but not many. It makes sense that, when a woman is covered literally head to heel, shoes take on a special role and importance! One of the most dispiriting passages describes the restrictions that some of the women place on themselves. Even though education is made available to them after the defeat of the Taliban, many women are unable to accept and embrace their freedom.

One would like to think that in the six years since the period portrayed in the book things have improved. But I heard on the radio this morning that still today in Kabul the residents have electricity for only a few hours every other day. We are so used to rapid change in our world but we start from a much different place. One can only wonder how long it will take for true change to come to that part of the world.

1 comment:

  1. My online book club, 5-Squared, also reviewed this book.

    Personally, I felt the book was biased and unreliable, and I was sadly disappointed with it. I feel sorry for the people in it, whose images I'm sure are distorted and exaggerated for the sake of "good reading."