Summary and book reviews of The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

The Bookseller of Kabul

by Asne Seierstad

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

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Book Summary

'An admirable, revealing portrait of daily life in a country that Washington claims to have liberated but does not begin to understand. Seierstad writes of individuals but her message is larger' -- Washington Post Book World.

In Afghanistan, just after the fall of the Taliban, a bookseller named Sultan Khan allowed a western journalist to move into his home and experience firsthand his family's life in the newly liberated capital city of Kabul.

From that act of openness emerges this remarkable book, already an international bestseller--the most intimate look yet at ordinary life for those who have weathered Afghanistan's extraordinary upheavals. One husband, two wives, five children, and many other relatives sharing four small rooms opened up their lives, unforgettably.

First is Sultan himself, a man whose love of books has exposed him to great risks over his thirty years in the trade. He has seen his volumes censored, ripped apart, even burned in the street by the Communists and the Taliban. Each time he rebuilt his business, hiding the most controversial texts, surviving prison, traveling treacherous back roads to Pakistan to order much-needed schoolbooks. He takes joy in selling books of history, science, art, religion, and poetry, and defends his business against competitors and theft with a primal ferocity.

But Sultan is also a committed Muslim with strict views on filial respect and the role of women. We meet his wife, Sharifa, when she learns that Sultan is taking a new bride, as his status in the community dictates. Despite custom, it is agonizing for the mother of Sultan's children to see her place usurped. We follow their teenage son, Mansur, as he embarks on his first religious pilgrimage, which embodies all the excitement of youth's first rebellion. And we see Sultan's younger sisters, as one coquettishly prepares for her wedding while another seeks a job to escape her family's tight grip.

Stepping back from the page, award-winning journalist Åsne Seierstad allows the Khans to speak for themselves about their joys, sorrows, rivalries, loves, dreams, and temptations. Through this close-knit household, we gain an intimate view-as few outsiders have seen it-of life in an Islamic country just beginning to find its way between the forces of modernity and tradition.

The Proposal

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 ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Washington Post Book World

...an admirable, revealing portrait of daily life in a country that Washington claims to have liberated but does not begin to understand. Seierstad writes of individuals but her message is larger....

Boston Globe

... a compelling portrait of a country at a crossroads.

The New York Times Book Review - Richard McGill

Seierstad is a sharp and often lyrical observer of Afghan domestic life. Even in Ingrid Christophersen's slightly stiff translation, ''The Bookseller of Kabul'' reads like a novel and is absorbing reportage....From a strictly literary perspective, ''The Bookseller of Kabul'' is an effective portrait of one rather unhappy Afghan family. It is certainly the most intimate description of an Afghan household ever produced by a Western journalist.

The Washington Post - Mark Hertsgaard

… [Seierstad's] closely observed, affecting account of the family's daily life, and especially of the virtual slavery its females endure, suggests that change will come slowly if at all to Afghanistan … Seierstad writes of individuals, but her message is larger, and no one who reads it will be sanguine about transforming this very traditional culture into a modern democracy anytime soon.

Publishers Weekly

An international bestseller, it will likely stand as one of the best books of reportage of Afghan life after the fall of the Taliban.

Library Journal - Lucille M. Boone

For more than 30 years, Khan risked arrest by selling books and other printed materials. Yet at home, in a cramped, war-battered apartment shared by mother, siblings, wives, children, and nephews, Sultan is a tyrant.... Seirestad presents a vivid, intimate, yet frustrating picture of family life after the Taliban. Her book has been translated into 14 languages and is sure to be of interest to general readers here who are curious about life in Afghanistan.

Booklist - Ellen Loughran

....Family members come across as very real, creating understanding at the least and sympathy at best....this fascinating, thought-provoking look at Afghanistan will add depth and a different point of view to nonfiction collections.

Kirkus Reviews

A slice of Afghanistan today, rendered with a talent for fine, sobering prose and strange, unnerving settings that recall Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Reader Reviews

Cynthia Martinez

Insightful
I enjoyed reading this book very much and wished I was there in the flat with the women to share their experiences. The book was well written, very descriptive and touching.

Adilene Martinez

A Must Read And I Will Tel You Why . . .
I've just completed reading The Bookseller of Kabul about a few minutes ago. This book has not a single climax, it has various. It has as well various antagonists and protagonists. It is like a lot of little stories gathered together in a book. Of ...   Read More

Guendalina

just Asne
This isn't simply a book it's poetry. Asne Seierstad is an excellent writer. She cares about people and you can feel it from the first to the last page. She gives every single (not for me) detail of people , so actually you can almost see the person ...   Read More

G L Rowley

A searing account of life in post-Taliban Afghanistan that stays with the reader long afterwards.

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