Posted by: Natalie | March 5, 2010

The Book Seller of Kabul

Last night I finished reading the “Book Seller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad. A previous post of mine Independent Traditionalist discussed the early themes that are addressed in this book; the role of women in the home.

I found this book very readable and was captivated by how the way the life in Afghanistan was portrayed by different members of the same extended family. This is not a surprise though as the author was a journalist who lived with this family for four months. Being a Westerner, she was perceived with masculine attributes and therefore was accepted into both the male and female worlds. Although the family members would hush up when Asne was in ‘reporter mode’ they often slipped lots of crucial detail through daily gossip over food and drink.

She tells the stories as fiction, but ultimately portray some quite distressing elements of the life they currently lead, all affected by the control of the Soviets, the Taliban and Mujahideen powers. Although Afghanistan was a forward thinking country, civil war and invasion plunged the country back into the dark ages where women’s rights and free thought became almost archaic symbols of a lost past.

Images of living things were torn from books (those that were not burnt), school children learnt maths by multiplying the amount of ammunition needed to supply a set amount of Kalashnikovs, women were stoned to death for seemingly minor indiscretions. All these things were still lingering in the air of the contemporary climate, despite attempts to undo the regime implemented by the Taliban. But, there is light at the end of the tunnel; the bhurka is becoming a thing of the past, women are going back to work in ‘suitable’ professions, books and print are becoming accessible once more.

But with any change comes resistance. There are still the elders of the communities who are entrenched in the past; those who stick to the strict rules of morality that the extremist factions of Islam had once implemented. Fear still reigns. Whether it be fear of being caught breaking certain moral rules by the authorities, or worse, by the family. Fear of being ostracised and shunned by the extended families is more pertinent than any law they could break.

Obviously there are strong themes surrounding families and their interactions, but this book covers so many other aspects including poverty, class divides, pride and actually least of all, religion. The mark of Islam does not smack you in the face as I anticipated it would. Instead, it shows how everyday ‘normal’ Afghans follow their religion much like many Christians, they pick and choose the elements they want. They pray at the times they desire, they choose the passages of the Koran that they deem important, they believe the aspects of their religion that fit in with their choice of lifestyle.

I guess that’s one of the important words for this book: choice. Some, mainly the male head of the household, have the power to choose in all areas of their life. But essentially as you move through the ranks and ladders of a family, choices become narrower and less obvious. But at the end of the day they are moving into a world were choice is available, to some extent, for all.

An unwritten Moral Code figures higher in the communal family world than Islam, and although sometimes extreme, Sultan’s family teach a positive lesson about moral living. It in some ways shows many of the failings of western families and their inability to reinforce the simple expectations of human interaction. I would not want to live by Sultan’s rule, but aspects of his conduct are quite refreshing.

There is so much more to this book though, so much to learn. There is a fascinating chapter towards the end that deals with the warlords of the wild regions of Afghanistan and their see-sawing allegiance to Osama Bin Laden or any other power that is able to bribe them. One of the most poignant statements, I think, in this chapter is when a soldier mourns the fact that they have deep knowledge of weaponry but yet do not know the simple pleasures of using a telephone.

I have a completely fresh look on the Afghan situation and a new found desire to learn as much as I can about their history and culture.


I am starting this by reading “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, recommended to me by Lauren at A Typical Atypical.  Already in the first few pages I am aware of the very different view point from which the issues will be told. It has started prior to the various take overs that have completely destabilised all the positives of the country, so hopefully it will be a clearer insight into how these terrible things occurred.

I am sold on this. I am truly fascinated and have a sense of anxiety and compassion for the everyday people who still suffer from the past. More people in power should read these books, or experience what Asne Seierstad experienced in four short months. With a closer look at the human aspect involved, who knows, answers to the Afghan problem could be found, even through the tangled web of mess that the western world has so far only seemed to have made worse.



  1. Hi Nat,

    Christie told me about your blog…

    The Kite-Runner is a fantastic book, as is A Thousand Splendid Suns by the same author. I hadn’t heard of The Bookseller of Kabul but think I will look out for it now.

    Hope all is well with you,

    • Hi Sue! Lovely to hear from you, and I am sorry Christie has forced you to read this!! Heehee! Bless her!

      I am really well thank you, busy busy busy, but with all good things. The Book Seller is quite a simple book, but for me with relatively little knowledge of the whole affair, I found it fascinating! I would highly recommend it. I also have A Thousand Splendid Suns on my pile, look out, I appear to be getting a bit cultural in my old age!

      Hope all is well with you and your Mr! Take care,

  2. […] of Kabul’s Wife Back in March I wrote a review of The Book Seller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. I was more thank taken with the book, it fuelling my desire to learn more about […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: