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March 8, 2005

The Bookseller of Kabul

Asne Seierstad – ISBN 0-316159417

The author is an experienced Norwegian war correspondent who spent months living with a successful bookseller in Kabul following the recent Afghan war against the Taliban. She took up this life, suffocating bhurka included, living with Sultan Khan and his extended family.

She describes in riveting detail the many features of daily life in “free” Afghanistan. The difficulties are enormous, overcoming decades of repression before and after the Russian war, and following the ultimate victory of the Taliban. Though now free to do more nearly what they wish, the women are still subjugated in an intensely chauvinistic, patriarchal society beholden to centuries of Islamic doctrine and belief. Life is still cruel in this divisive tribal culture. The recent wars have totally destroyed the physical, repressed the cultural, and altered the literary and metaphysical basis of this society. It has a long, long way to go to reassert itself as it was during the reign of its last monarch, who was a tolerant and benevolent man, and further still to enter the world community of the 20th century, never mind the 21st.

What she learned about middle-class life was that, after all, at all levels--even those of a relatively enlightened and successful bookseller--the repression was still stunning and omnipresent. Sultan is an autocratic and often vicious man to his core, and is, sadly, representative of the vast majority of men within that civilizational sphere. On the other hand he is also a brave and heroic figure who has endured persecution, imprisonment and threats of death because of his crusade to bring books into his country. History, art, poetry and the like have been prohibited for two decades, and he saw his store and its contents burned on several occasions during the Taliban rule.

Seierstad explores varietal subjects from shopping to weddings, education to religion, in chapter length discussions of the way things function—and are--in the Afghanistan of 2003: a snapshot of a country in flux, longing for peace, divided beyond western understanding, under pressure to resurrect itself and its traditions whilst modernizing and “democratizing” to the extent possible.

And she discusses the amazing beauty of what once was Afghanistan, and could be again, given the cooperation and conciliation of the varietal Afghani factions and the rest of the world.

It is a quick and engrossing read, and quite helpful if you wish to understand the Middle East a little better: especially so the plight of its women. For those of you Westerners who feel that it’s none of our business, you might just want to re-think that attitude after reading this--especially those who believe in the liberation of the female half of humanity, or that females are oppressed in America.

For those on the left it raises the not altogether unreasonable question of whether or not a Middle-Eastern culture can be “democratized.” For those on the right, it leaves no question that some effort must be made. For all, even those without an agenda—if such there be—it addresses the difficulties in a cultural milieu that is steeped in overbearing paternalism and underscores the need for this portion of the globe to consider and address “Western Values” . . . and, more, to adopt those proven to be worthy and successful.

Posted by respeto at March 8, 2005 1:21 AM