Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad is perhaps the only one who got to cover the Afghan war after 9/11, and the Iraq-US war in 2003. To put out information as the war happens in the form of news is one thing: but to chronicle one’s story and rendition of their time in the country is a whole different endeavour. Attempting to do the latter, Seierstad’s book is a narration of her time in Afghanistan with a local family, and of the view of the world from their side of the lens.
With the Taliban falling in November 2001, Seierstad managed to find a rather educated and sympathetic Afghan bookseller in the heart of Kabul. Their lives are a sharp contrast: whether in the most basic difference of ethnicity, or in their way of leading life and treating others in their family. Written in simple language and in a narrative style that is very casual, the book is a beautiful reflection that drives home a simple truth: whether you are Norwegian or Afghan, a relief worker or a reporter, a bookseller or a bomb-squad expert, at the end of the day, all you want is some food, shelter and clothing, and a way to stay safe.
Seierstad begins from the same spot that most international reporters started from. Their trip down the Hindu Kush, right into the interiors of the Intercontinental Hotel, where there is a well-stocked bookstore that has some of the most coveted titles of all time. The owner is intelligent, to say the least, and an exception to the norm of grossly prevalent illiteracy. He leaves you with haunting words of truth: ‘First, the Communists burnt my books, then the Mujahideen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burnt them all over again.’
The narrative is a fictionalized account, and does not degenerate into a boring and linear narrative of her adventures as a traveller. She meets the bookseller and moves in with him, and watches his family as they go about their normal lives. But she is nowhere in the book – for it is written as one would write a piece of fiction.
Seierstad’s leading protagonist is the quintessential patriarch, for all the exposure he boasts of otherwise. His family is also an extension of his business, as each one stands sullenly in their allotted roles, unflinching in their “duties” to each other. Seierstad makes an explosive display of the family dynamics: the bookseller’s sister is nearly his slave, his son is a breadwinner of sorts as he is made to sell sweets at the hotel rather than study at school, his first wife is in a difficult spot as he chooses a sixteen-year-old to be his second wife and his elder son speaks candidly about sexual slavery and how poverty stricken women are made to suffer sexual abuse in the face of utter poverty. There are tales of harsh reality: stories of sexual abuse, discrimination of women and honour killings where brothers are sent to kill a girl who follows her heart and gives into an affair that her family frowns on.
After meeting resounding success for the book in its Norwegian version, the book made waves when its English version hit the markets. One among myriads of books that the rich landscape of war-stricken Afghanistan has inspired, The Bookseller of Kabul holds its own ground without much difficulty. The quality that swings everything in its favour is the candour with which the story is told. That Seierstad adores the family she stayed with is obvious, as she accepts them un-judgmentally. But her heart goes out for the women in the family, as they are jostled about and treated like dust. It doesn’t matter how old or young the man is: just being male is qualification enough to dominate over a woman.
To Seierstad, the book is about just ‘one middle-class family, if one can use that expression in Afghanistan’. And, of course that is what is so compulsive, repulsive and frightening. If this is what life is like in the family of Afghanistan’s answer to Tim Waterstone, there is clearly no hope for Afghanistan.