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The Bookseller of Kabul

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1130
  • Category: Books

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This paper is a book report on “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad.  This is the true story of a journalist, (the author), who lived with a family in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.  She discovered the man, Sultan Khan, selling books at a bazaar in Kabul, and eventually moved into the Sultan’s house to learn more about Muslim life in the country.

Essentially, this book chronicles the life of Sultan Khan and his family.  By living with the family, Seierstad is able to share many intimate details of their lives with the reader.  She follows the lives of the Khan family for five months while she lives with them, but she also chronicles their lives from the 1970s, when Khan was an engineer, was imprisoned for his books, saw his bookshop destroyed several times, and emigrated to Pakistan twice with his family to save them from violence and persecution.

  The main events in Seierstad’s experience are meeting the Khan and becoming friendly with him, having the opportunity to witness Afghani life up close and first hand, and discovering her anger and disillusionment about the patriarchal makeup of Afghani society and the dominance of men over their families.  She shows that the lives of the Afghan people have not been easy, but she also shows her own shock and displeasure at the way society treats women and children, and the inability of the society to move toward modern freedoms and rights.

The author’s viewpoint is one of compassion and understanding mixed with shock and outrage at how the Afghani system treats women and children.  Her purpose in writing the book, it seems, was to show Westerners a glimpse of Afghani society, but also to show that no matter how far that society has come, there is still much room for improvement.  She does not allow her own voice to enter into the story, except in the Preface and the Epilogue of the book.  She writes the book almost as if it were a novel and that adds to the dramatic quality of the book.  It might seem like a fictional story, but it is quite real and quite engaging.

I think this was an extremely interesting book that gave an intimate look at how a middle class family lives in Afghanistan.  This is not a look at how most people live, but I think it was valuable because it shows the differences between our two cultures, but more importantly, it shows some of the commonalities.  I think that the Sultan himself is a very interesting character who dismisses many of the stereotypes Americans might have of Afghanis.

  He is literate, he is educated, and he is passionate about his love of books and writing.  He could be a next door neighbor in just about any town in America, and that makes him more human and sympathetic to the reader.  And yet, the differences in the two cultures are apparent in the way he treats his wife and his children, and that makes him less sympathetic to the reader.  However, by including both sides of the man the author truly gives an intimate glimpse into the culture of the area, both the good and the bad.

I believe the author wrote the book to show how the Afghan people live and work, but I also believe that she wanted to show the gender roles, the sexual mores, the basis of power, and how ancient tribal customs now are being used alongside modern-day Western ideas.

For example, she chose to wear the traditional female dress, the “burka” when she moved around in Kabul, and she writes of what women go through wearing the bulky garb.  She says, “Burka women are like horses with blinkers, they can only look in one direction.  Where the eye narrows the grille stops and thick material takes its place; impossible to glance sideways” (Seierstad 83).  By showing the intimate details of daily life, she helps readers understand exactly what it is like to live and work in Afghanistan, but she also shows how cultures can differ so much.

Perhaps the most interesting story in the book is the story of Leila, the youngest sister of the Sultan himself.  She is literally the family maid, and does all the cooking, cleaning, and washing for the entire family.  Seierstad writes of Lelia’s dreams of being a teacher, and how her culture and society put a damper on those dreams.  She writes, “She [Lelia] has reached the deadlock in a system which is rooted in centuries-old traditions and which paralyses half the population.  The Ministry of Education is a half-hour bus ride away; an impossible half-hour. Leila is not used to fighting for something–on the contrary, she is used to giving up” (Seierstad 193).

Her story is sad and quite alarming.  She is so frightened of men and other people that she will not allow her fear to overcome her dream of learning English by attending a coeducational English class.  Eventually, her family marries her off to a “loutish” man, and she realizes she has traded her life as a maid from one family to another.  Her story is both sad and extremely shocking, and it was a central portion of the book’s message to me.

Afghani women have not gained many advances in their culture, even without the Taliban, and it is shocking to see how they are used, abused, and taken advantage of by all the men in their lives – brothers, fathers, and husbands. Reading this book was an eye-opening experience, and showed that American women take an awful lot for granted that other women would die to have.

In conclusion, this book is an intimate look at the lives of an Afghani family.  It shows the ups, the downs, and the differences in beliefs and cultures that exist around the world.  Perhaps the author’s own words sum up her ideas and issues most succinctly.  She writes, “I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family, and I have rarely quarreled so much as I did there.

Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there. The same thing was continually provoking me: the manner in which men treated women” (Seierstad xiv).  She gives a glimpse of her anger, and the pain of Afghani women and children in this book, and it shows that Afghani society still has great strides to make before it will become a modern, viable society able to succeed and thrive in the 21st century.


Seierstad, Asne. The Bookseller of Kabul. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.

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