Excerpt from The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Bookseller of Kabul

by Asne Seierstad

The Bookseller of Kabul
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2003, 320 pages
    Oct 2004, 320 pages

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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 her—a picture of Sultan Khan himself—and 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 him—he 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.

Copyright © 2002 by Åsne Seierstad

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