So, after I finished reading a book by a Western woman who visited a heavily Islamic country, I read…. another book by a Western woman visiting another heavily Islamic country. However, whereas In the Land of Invisible Women was about Qanta Ahmed’s journey and experience in Saudi Arabia, The Bookseller of Kabul is very different. In this book, Seierstad travels to Afghanistan and wants to study the culture, so she lives with an Afghani family and writes about them.
Her aim isn’t to show what a typical family in Afghanistan is like, but rather, just to show what a family is like. Because like any country, there are bound to by many different types of people, and there’s no way to write a story that truly represents them all. So here, Seierstad writes about a bookseller and his family, and this is a particularly interesting facet of Afghani society, because most people in Afghanistan do not know how to read and/or write. Thus a bookseller naturally must have a limited audience, and it would not be a common profession.
Still, I found The Bookseller of Kabul to be a very interesting book. How the bookseller, Sultan Khan, and his large family live is riveting, yet oddly familiar. Familiar in the sense that I can picture it in my mind, because it is like my distant memories of life in Pakistan, the few times that I have visited there. And it shouldn’t be any surprise, since Afghanistan and Pakistan share a border. In fact, Seierstad even talks about the all-too-common illicit border crossings; that traveling from Afghanistan into Pakistan is dangerous and difficult, but the return trip, back into Afghanistan, is relatively safe and easy. Seierstad attributes this to the notion that Afghanistan’s economy is failing and people are having a hard time living their daily lives.
Specifically, in Sultan’s family, Seierstad talks at length about Leila, one of Sultan’s sisters. As the youngest and unmarried female, Leila’s life is basically consigned to that of a maid. She spends all day, every day cooking, cleaning, taking care of people. She aspires for something more, to teach English at the school, and tries in earnest to make it happen, but it never does. It’s heartbreaking, because you can imagine how Leila envisions a better future for herself, only to be stopped by endless bureaucratic issues.
At the same time, Leila had another potential lifeline in the form of Karim, a man with whom she’d started corresponding who purported to want a future with her. Of course, being traditional Muslim culture, she couldn’t just bring the guy home, introduce him to her parents, and get their blessings. Rather, it is an extremely intricate type of dance, in which she can’t show interest in him because that would reveal her to be immodest, but her family must be the one to assess him on her behalf. Whether or not this arrangement between Leila and Karim works out, you’ll have to read the book to find out!
Seierstad also talks a lot about Mansur, Sultan’s oldest son, who wants to set his own course but is hindered by his father, the patriarch of the family. Mansur and Sultan come head-to-head several times, particularly when it comes to a particular issue of a poor man who stole some postcards from Sultan. Sultan will not back down for any reason and demands justice at all costs. Reading that whole account, I couldn’t help but feel that Sultan is extremely pompous and unreasonable, but there really is more to it. True he seems merciless, and I am not defending his actions, but he worked hard to raise himself up to where he is now, and he does not want his honor and success ruined.
Seierstad writes of Leila, Mansur, Sultan, Sultan’s two wives, and all the assorted relations, and how they all interact with one another. To write about such intricate relationships without putting much of a personal bias into the story must be extremely difficult, but Seierstad effectively conveys an aspect of Afghani society and makes the reader feel intimately connected, as if the reader him/herself is living with this family.
The next book I’m reading is completely different! It’s a fiction book about a white Americans living in America: Danielle Steel’s Power Play.