Sunday, June 3, 2012

Book 7: The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

The Bookseller of Kabul is the best-selling non-fiction book written by Åsne Seierstad, first published in 2002.  Seierstad went to Afghanistan two weeks after the September 11th attacks, where she met Sultan Kahn, the titular character in her account of modern Afghan life.  Kahn was a wealthy Afghani man who had been persecuted for years by the Taliban and other regimes for his refusal to give up his profession of selling and publishing books.  Kahn intrigued Seierstad because of his love of art and literature and his fairly liberal views on women and politics.  After having dinner at with Kahn and his family, Seierstad got the idea to write a book about them and was enthusiastically welcomed to their home for several weeks.  Seierstad had to rely on three members of the family to interpret for her: Kahn, his son Mansur, and his sister Leila, each providing a completely different viewpoint. 

Seierstad’s intention was to write an honest portrayal of an Afghan family, even though they are far from the average family.  Several of Kahn’s relatives, even the women, were able to read and write, and the family as a whole had more means than a typical Afghan family.   But Seierstad soon found that in many ways that Kahn and the male relatives in his family were not as open-minded as they asserted, especially when it came to their treatment of women: “The belief in male superiority was so ingrained that it was seldom questioned” (Seierstad, xiv).  Throughout the book are descriptions of life in Afghanistan amidst social and political upheaval.  The Taliban had been removed from power but religious fundamentalists still kept many in fear of returning to their lives before Taliban rule, and many more do not remember a time before it.  The United States and other western nations have taken over and attempt reform in a country that distrusts outsiders. 

Kahn is preoccupied with his business throughout most of the book and is the undisputed head of the family.  His sons all work for him in his various stores, instead of starting or continuing their education.  His female relatives are not forbidden from working outside the home, but their attempts to get employment are thwarted by the males in the family.  Everyone must obey his commands:
“When they live in my house, they should respect me, shouldn’t they?  If the families don’t have rules, how can we form a society that respects rules and laws, and not just guns and rockets?  This is a society in chaos; it is a lawless society, right out of civil war.  If the families are not guided by authority, we can expect an even worse chaos to follow.” (286)
This was the explanation given for throwing out his mother, brother, and two sisters after an argument that occurred not long after Seierstad left.  As the oldest male in the large family, culture gives Kahn every right to treat his family as he pleases, which often involves ostracizing non-complying family members.  

The family is composed of Kahn, his two wives and their children, his mother, brother, and unmarried sisters.  They all live a small apartment with four rooms, three for the twelve family members and one for storage.  Kahn’s youngest sister Leila does most of the chores and is the scapegoat for the family.  Her part in the book was one of the most heartbreaking.  Leila spoke impeccable English but was prevented time and again from getting a post as a teacher in the newly reopened schools and is finally promised in marriage to a man she despises.  Mansur, Kahn’s eldest son, is shown as a fairly selfish young man.  When he discovers that a man he has called his friend has been raping widows and young girls, he does not alert authorities, he instead worries about his own soul and embarks on a pilgrimage.  Even after his “spiritual awakening” he reverts to his characteristic behavior of abuse towards his aunt Leila and anyone else he is superior to.  Seierstad describes marriage negotiations, weddings, travels, daily routines, and gossip that she observes during her stay, most of it focused on the repression of women in Afghan society.

This book is non-fiction but it is presented in a narrative format, so aside from the preface there are no overt opinions expressed.  However, it is clear from Seierstad’s descriptions that she is deeply disturbed by some events.  One of these is the story of Jamila, who had an extramarital affair and was “honor killed” by her brothers.  It is therefore easy to infer that she feels the inequality between women and men in Afghan society is a pressing social problem.  She puts forth the stories of the various women in their own words, including how they feel about their life in the family and in society.  Some, like Kahn’s sister Shakila, long to return to life before the Taliban, when they held jobs or were in school.  Shakila is lucky in this respect; her husband allows her to work as a teacher part time. 

All the women interviewed want to get rid of the burka.  This covering was required for women under Taliban rule but is still commonly worn because male attitudes have not changed much since they were overthrown.  In one scene the women lift their burkas on the street to breath a little.  They are quickly confronted by a man telling them “cover up, girls, I’m burning” (171) and they comply when he comes back towards them.  It is still not safe to deviate far from the previous regimes laws; nail polish is one of the few safe ways to show off personality. 

Throughout the book Seierstad shows the domination of the Afghan culture by men and fundamentalists.  Women’s associations were formed during and after Taliban rule but had little luck in effecting change.  Schools for girls are still understaffed and underfunded, demonstrations were stopped, and female influence in government was almost nonexistent.  Seierstad gives a little historical background that demonstrates Afghanistan’s culture before the civil war brought about Islamic law to the country.  The burka was made illegal for civil servants in 1961, and was rather antiquated before then.  Afghanistan in the 1970’s was fairly modern, with a growing tourist trade and women in the workforce.  Even at the time the book was written there were deviations from fundamentalist rule—there are sections of southern Afghanistan where homosexuality is common and tribal groups where women are not subject to sharia law.  This demonstrates that the prejudice against women in modern Afghanistan is not just cultural and that it could eventually be eradicated. 

From an American perspective, it is difficult to find a weakness with Seierstad’s perspective.  There is no suitable reason that women should be dominated as much as they are in Afghanistan and other countries, but this does not prevent people from trying to find justification for gender inequality.  However, there was no systematic discussion of the issue from both sides.  The narrative nature of the book prevented the issue from being blatantly discussed and the men that were interviewed never presented a reason for their treatment of women, they ordered them around.  In fact, Kahn has sued Seierstad more than once for distorting him and his family in the book.  He feels that she “willfully misinterpreted almost everything she witnessed, failing to take into account deep-seated social customs and the traditional roles of men and women in Afghan society” (King).  Kahn even wrote a rebuttal to Seierstad’s book called Once Upon a Time There was a Bookseller in Kabul. 

In this respect the author missed an opportunity; there is no real argument about gender inequality, just the demonstration of it.  This was probably intentional on Seierstad’s part; she is a journalist who tried to paint an unbiased picture of Afghan life, not a scathing account of sexism in the culture, even if many view it that way.

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