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The Bookseller of Kabul    by Åsne Seierstad order for
Bookseller of Kabul
by Åsne Seierstad
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2003 (2003)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Afganistan has fascinated me since a very brief (interrupted by the Communist coup) visit in 1978. Though The Bookseller of Kabul is not the best book I've read about the country (I prefer Tamim Ansary's West of Kabul, East of New York and Saira Shah's Storyteller's Daughter) it takes a unique slant on recent Afghan history, giving intimate portraits of members of a particular family. Its author is a journalist, who lived with the family of a Kabul bookseller for months.

Sultan Khan, a moderate Muslim, hid his book collections from both Communists and Taliban authorities, was jailed, and suffered as he watched book burnings of some of his beloved volumes. Books were his life and his goal was to preserve Afghanistan's history and culture, and to make a living in the process. Though the author obviously respected her host in many ways, she just as clearly had difficulty with some of his values, in particular his treatment of the women in his family. She wore the burka herself, when seeking anonymity, and tells us that it was only introduced to the country in the early 1900s (initially only worn by the upper classes!), and that 'Burka-women are like horses with blinkers, they can only look in one direction.'

Seierstad opens up windows for us into Afghan culture and lifestyles - the role of the matriarch; the loss of a daughter after her wedding; Afghan New Year (nauroz); the devastation of war (an area once planned for a ski center, where mines would now make an 'explosive descent'); illiterate, bloody-minded warlords for whom 'power is more important than peace'; and the sport of buzkashi (a fight by horsemen over a headless calf's carcass). There's a Dickensian account of a poor man's theft of postcards and his family's despair at his imprisonment, and a twelve-year-old who works a twelve hour day, heart bleeding for his lost childhood.

But in all these sad (somewhat disjointed) stories, the most poignant and frustrating one is that of the family Cinderella, the bookseller's nineteen-year-old sister Leila, for whom 'Alone is an unknown idea', who wants to escape the drudgery of her life, but also fears to take the first steps to do so ... 'Leila was a true child of the civil war, the mullah reign and the Taliban. A child of fear.' As the book ends, Leila's heart is crushed, but we learn that the bookshops are flourishing. Though somewhat depressing, The Bookseller of Kabul is a very worthwhile read.

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