Off The Shelf: The Bookseller of Kabul

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

Every other week or so, we will post a new review of a book relevant to war, peace and women.  This week, CODEPINK organizer Lisa Savage of Maine reviews The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. For more great reads, visit here.

In The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad (Little, Brown, 2003), a Norwegian journalist spent the spring of 2002 living with a family in Kabul, her stated intention to write an account of their life. Unusually affluent, the Khans were for the most part literate, in keeping with their livelihood. Seierstad was first a customer for their wares, but gradually became embedded in the family without any official plan. Here she shares her understanding of the experiences of many family members, young and old, female and male. Through her eyes we see love and marriage in disturbing ways contemplating life as experienced by women in Afghanistan.

Sharifa, family matriarch, is a competent manager whose husband often insists she stay in Pakistan to look after the business interests there. Leila, youngest sister, makes repeated, frightened forays into the world of bureaucracy hoping to secure a job as a teacher, her only viable escape from being married off as a workhorse to another family. Sonya is a young and illiterate second wife whom everyone scorns when her husband is away, and whom he orders to discard the burka."I don't want a prehistoric wife. You are the wife of a liberal man, not a fundamentalist," he says, ironically ordering her to obey his dictate without question.

Women bearing the load of tradition -- or the need to cast it off, as the case may be -- is the theme of a related good book by expat Ann Jones, Kabul in Winter. A poignant example of a woman hobbled by tradition in the bookselling family was Shakila, once a schoolteacher until the Taliban banished her to home. An early love affair with an already married man had left her disappointed. Practically on the verge of being considered too old to marry at age 30, she is torn between the safety of what she knows and the lure of a home of her own as the bride of a widower with ten children. Unlike most Americans, being a step-mother to ten hardly seems to faze her.  It is the prospect that her husband will turn from a kind suitor into a household tyrant, perhaps forbidding her to work outside the home once this again becomes possible, that Shakila finds most daunting. Once she takes the plunge, she must submit to the humiliating practice of producing a bloody piece of cloth the morning after, as proof of her "virtue."

How did this barbaric practice devised to serve patriarchy spread in an area as large as from Sicily, where my best friend's grandmother had to do it, to central Asia? How many cultures still practice this? Goddess help the poor girl with a differently shaped hymen or one torn by a childhood accident -- she could pay with her life.

Warmly written, but with warts on display, Seierstad's account of the Khans has you rooting for them, especially the women. The difficulties they have making their way around the market in the blinkered visibility and stifling heat of the burka are vivid. And at the same time there's an awareness of how lucky they are, surrounded by reading material, in a country where education is a scarce, precious commodity.


Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Alex Whittaker
    commented 2020-03-27 13:37:36 -0400
    The situation of women in the Middle East is still very difficult. When I worked at I often came across student papers about women rights in Muslim countries. Given the time when a writer lived in Kabul, nothing major has changed since then, unfortunately. But this is an important topic, and it needs to be raised.