Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Åsne Seierstad is a Scandinavian journalist who was allowed to live for a few months during the spring of 2002 with an Afghan family headed by Sultan Khan, the autocratic bookseller of the title. Despite the hospitality shown by everyone to the female author, the dominant theme of the book is that Afghan women have no autonomy, and that their lives are completely dominated by men and by an extremely harsh and repressive code of Islamic and tribal conduct.
Seierstad had spent six weeks in late 2001 covering the Northern Alliance as, aided by American Special Forces and American air power, it routed the Taliban “military” and drove it from Kabul, the Afghan capital. She then moved to Kabul, where she met “an elegant gray haired man,” who happened to be the proprietor of a bookshop she frequented. When she explained she would like to write about his family, he welcomed her into his house of four rooms inhabited by 13 people, where she lived for several months. She was treated like one of the family, except that she was allowed much more freedom of movement, association, and conversation than any Afghan woman.
Through a series of vignettes regarding the various family members, we learn that women are not allowed to converse with any men except close relatives. They are not allowed in public unless accompanied by a male family member. Although no longer required to wear the burka, most women still wear it in public to limit contact with unfamiliar men and to avoid scandal. Conversing with an unrelated male no longer subjects a woman to public stoning to the death (as it did under the Taliban), but it is likely to subject her to repeated physical beating (and occasionally death) at the hands of her own family members (even the other women) because of the shame it brings on the entire family.
Since women are not allowed to associate with men, they usually do not even meet their eventual husbands until the family has arranged a marriage and holds an engagement party on the behalf of the soon to be wed. Families bargain and sell off their daughters somewhat like cattle, and the negotiations are usually conducted without consulting the bride to be. Once wed, a woman cannot even visit her blood relatives without the permission of her husband.
Women are allowed to have jobs, but most families frown on women working. And when an Afghan family “frowns” on something, the family enforces its will with beatings and severe ostracism.
The most primitive beliefs and practices of the Afghans are not shared by all Islamic countries, but the Afghans justify those beliefs and practices because they think Islam requires them. The society is permeated with an Islamic-inspired fear of being shamed. Moreover, shame redounds to an entire family (especially its alpha male) for the actions of any of its members. And yet, hormones still affect behavior, especially of the sex-deprived young who risk severe formal and informal sanctions to communicate with one another.
Things aren’t so great either for men accused of crime. Under the Taliban, the punishment for stealing was amputation of the right hand of the thief. In modern Afghanistan, a man accused of stealing 200 post cards was sentenced to three years in prison by a policeman (apparently without trial) on the hearsay allegations of the bookseller. Moreover, the accused thief was beaten severely by his own family for bringing shame on them.
Discussion: This mistitled book is more about the oppressed women of Afghanistan than about the eponymous bookseller. And what a dreadful existence they lead! As bad as conditions are, the reader is reminded that Sultan Khan is quite wealthy and liberal by Afghan standards and that most of the events described took place after the Taliban had been expelled. Imagine what life was like for Afghan women who lived in poor, more traditional families under the Taliban!
Evaluation: This is a well-written book that gives us important insights into a society far removed from our own. It provides an illuminating look at life in a country governed by religious dictates that are not only very harsh, but are quite a bit more punitive for women than for men.
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2003