The Bookseller of Kabul
by Asne Seierstad
When Sultan Khan thought the time had come to find himself a new wife, no one wanted to help him. First he approached his mother.
"You will have to make do with the one you have," she said.
Then he went to his eldest sister. "I'm fond of your first wife," she said. His other sisters replied in the same vein.
"It's shaming for Sharifa," said his aunt.
Sultan needed help. A suitor cannot himself ask for a girl's hand. It is an Afghan custom that one of the women of the family convey the proposal and give the girl the once-over to assure herself that she is capable, well brought up, and suitable wife material. But none of Sultan's close female relations wanted to have anything to do with this offer of marriage.
Sultan had picked out three young girls he thought might fit the bill. They were all healthy and good-looking, and of his own tribe. In Sultan's family it was rare to marry outside the clan; it was considered prudent and safe to marry relatives, preferably cousins.
Sultan's first candidate was sixteen-year-old Sonya. Her eyes were dark and almond-shaped and her hair shining black. She was shapely, voluptuous, and it was said of her that she was a good worker. Her family was poor and they were reasonably closely related. Her mother's grandmother and Sultan's mother's grandmother were sisters.
While Sultan ruminated over how to ask for the hand of the chosen one without the help of family women, his first wife was blissfully ignorant that a mere chit of a girl, born the same year she and Sultan were married, was Sultan's constant preoccupation. Sharifa was getting old. Like Sultan, she was a few years over fifty. She had borne him three sons and a daughter. The time had come for a man of Sultan's standing to find a new wife.
"Do it yourself," his brother said finally.
After some thought, Sultan realized that this was his only solution, and early one morning he made his way to the house of the sixteen-year-old. Her parents greeted him with open arms. Sultan was considered a generous man and a visit from him was always welcome. Sonya's mother boiled water and made tea. They reclined on flat cushions in the mud cottage and exchanged pleasantries until Sultan thought the time had come to make his proposal.
"A friend of mine would like to marry Sonya," he told the parents.
It was not the first time someone had asked for their daughter's hand. She was beautiful and diligent, but they thought she was still a bit young. Sonya's father was no longer able to work. During a brawl a knife had severed some of the nerves in his back. His beautiful daughter could be used as a bargaining chip in the marriage stakes, and he and his wife were always expecting the next bid to be even higher.
"He is rich," said Sultan. "He's in the same business as I am. He is well educated and has three sons. But his wife is starting to grow old."
"What's the state of his teeth?" the parents asked immediately, alluding to the friend's age.
"About like mine," said Sultan. "You be the judge."
Old, the parents thought. But that was not necessarily a disadvantage. The older the man, the higher the price for their daughter. A bride's price is calculated according to age, beauty, and skill and according to the status of the family.
When Sultan Khan had delivered his message, the parents said, as could be expected, "She is too young."
Anything else would be to sell short to this rich, unknown suitor whom Sultan recommended so warmly. It would not do to appear too eager. But they knew Sultan would return; Sonya was young and beautiful.
He returned the next day and repeated the proposal. The same conversation, the same answers. But this time he got to meet Sonya, whom he had not seen since she was a young girl.
She kissed his hand, in the custom of showing respect for an elder relative, and he blessed the top of her head with a kiss. Sonya was aware of the charged atmosphere and flinched under Uncle Sultan's searching look.
"I have found you a rich man, what do you think of that?" he asked. Sonya looked down at the floor. A young girl has no right to have an opinion about a suitor.
Sultan returned the third day, and this time he made known the suitor's proposition: a ring, a necklace, earrings, and bracelet, all in red gold; as many clothes as she wanted; 600 pounds of rice, 300 pounds of cooking oil, a cow, a few sheep, and 15 million afghani, approximately $500.
Sonya's father was more than satisfied with the price and asked to meet this mysterious man who was prepared to pay so much for his daughter. According to Sultan, he even belonged to their tribe, in spite of their not being able to place him or remember that they had ever met him.
"Tomorrow," said Sultan, "I will show you a picture of him."
The next day, fortified by a sweetener, Sultan's aunt agreed to reveal to Sonya's parents the identity of the suitor. She took a photograph with hera picture of Sultan Khan himselfand with it the uncompromising message that they had no more than an hour to make up their minds. If the answer was yes, he would be very grateful, and if it was no, there would be no bad blood between them. What he wanted to avoid at all costs was everlasting bargaining about maybe, maybe not.
The parents agreed within the hour. They were keen on Sultan Khan, his money, and his position. Sonya sat in the attic and waited. When the mystery surrounding the suitor had been solved and the parents had decided to accept, her father's brother came up to the attic. "Uncle Sultan is your wooer," he said. "Do you consent?"
Not a sound escaped Sonya's lips. With tearful eyes and bowed head, she hid behind her long shawl.
"Your parents have accepted the suitor," her uncle said. "Now is your only chance to express an opinion."
She was petrified, paralyzed by fear. She did not want the man but she knew she had to obey her parents. As Sultan's wife, her standing in Afghan society would go up considerably. The bride money would solve many of her family's problems. The money would help her parents buy good wives for their sons.
Sonya held her tongue, and with that her fate was sealed. To say nothing means to give one's consent. The agreement was drawn up, the date fixed.
Sultan went home to inform his family of the news. His wife, Sharifa, his mother, and his sisters were seated around a dish of rice and spinach. Sharifa thought he was joking and laughed and cracked some jokes in return. His mother too laughed at Sultan's joke. She could not believe that he had entered into a proposal of marriage without her blessing. The sisters were dumbfounded.
No one believed him, not until he showed them the kerchief and sweetmeats the parents of a bride give the suitor as proof of the engagement.
Sharifa cried for twenty days. "What have I done? What a disgrace. Why are you dissatisfied with me?"
Sultan told her to pull herself together. No one in the family backed him up, not even his own sons. Nevertheless, no one dared speak out against himhe always got his own way.
Sharifa was inconsolable. What really rankled was the fact that the man had picked an illiterate, someone who had not even completed nursery school. She, Sharifa, was a qualified Persian language teacher. "What has she got that I haven't got?" she sobbed.
Sultan rose above his wife's tears.
No one wanted to attend the engagement party. But Sharifa had to bite the bullet and dress up for the celebrations.
"I want everyone to see that you agree and support me. In the future we will all be living under the same roof and you must show that Sonya is welcome," he demanded. Sharifa had always humored her husband, and now too, in this worst circumstance, giving him to someone else, she knuckled under. He even demanded that Sharifa should put the rings on his and Sonya's fingers.
Twenty days after the proposal of marriage the solemn engagement ritual took place. Sharifa pulled herself together and put on a brave face. Her female relatives did their best to unsettle her. "How awful for you," they said. "How badly he has treated you. You must be suffering."
The wedding took place two months after the engagement, on the day of the Muslim New Year's Eve. This time Sharifa refused to attend.
"I can't," she told her husband.
The female family members backed her up. No one bought new dresses or applied the normal amount of makeup required at wedding ceremonies. They wore simple coiffures and stiff smilesin deference to the superannuated wife who would no longer share Sultan Khan's bed. It was now reserved for the young, terrified bridebut they would all be under the same roof, until death did them part.
Copyright © 2002 by Åsne Seierstad
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