Review of “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Åsne Seierstad

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.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2003

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20 Responses to Review of “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Åsne Seierstad

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I’m drawn to books like this, even though they tend to make me angry. I think my friends and relatives must hate it when I read them though, because I tend to prattle on about them as I read them.

  2. enniewidhia says:

    genius!, you can explain the matter properly. While this topic I was looking for and have been met here. very helpful and thank you
    Best Regard : power of mind

  3. Jenny says:

    It sounds in incredibly interesting…. I don’t know how people like this author can be so brave and voluntarily stay there for any length if time! I think I would become extremely angry while reading this though!!

  4. JoAnn says:

    This sounds so interesting! I bought the book last summer (thinking it might lead to a good book club discussion) and loaned it to a friend shortly afterwards. Hopefully, I’ll get it back soon…

  5. Kailana says:

    I have wanted to read this book for a while but never got around to it. It sounds good, though!

  6. really, what hope is there for a culture like that in the future. half their population..or more….who can not contribute or even be part of society. sad..

  7. Julie P. says:

    I read this one years ago and had a similar reaction. I remember finding it heartbreaking and I learned a great deal. It also made me feel very fortunate to be born here!

  8. zibilee says:

    I think you would enjoy the book Muslim Women Reformers, which seeks to break apart each Muslim region and explain what life is like for the women who live there. Most of the book is broken into sections that deal with different countries and their laws and restrictions for women, with the end sections talking a little about the women who are trying (both successfully and not so successfully) to eradicate this type of behavior. I immediately thought of that book when I was reading this review, which was, by the way, very enlightening and excellent.

  9. Darlene says:

    Great review. I read this years ago with my book club and I remember all of us being horrified by the way women were treated.

  10. sandynawrot says:

    I’m morbidly fascinated with this culture. I feel horrible for these women, and know that if I were over there, I’d last about a week. Just reading about it makes me want to throw something. A Thousand Splendid Suns was one such book that entranced me and made me want to run over there and save as many of the women as I could.

  11. Barbara says:

    I seem to remember reading after this book was published that when the bookseller saw a copy of it, he was quite angry. Since it is mostly about the treatment of women, rather than being about him alone, I’m sure he was upset. It amazes me that a western woman could stand living with this family for so long without losing her cool. Really good review, Jim.

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    You review makes me sad, angry and a little perplexed thinking about the women who are living this way. What a terrible thing to live your whole life with so little self worth.

  13. Jenners says:

    It makes me thankful not to be a woman in that society.

  14. This book has sat on my shelves unread. I have to tell you that your take on this one was an eye opener for me. I should try it for myseld sometime.

  15. This book has been on my list for quite some time now. I love books about other cultures, especially those involving women and culture. Very nice review. Very thorough. It helps keep this book on my list.

  16. Lisa says:

    Sounds like a good book to remind us of how very fortunate we are here.

  17. Alyce says:

    I own this one but haven’t read it yet. I was wondering where it fell in the timeline of the Taliban occupation.

  18. Athira says:

    Love the sound of this book. I read Dressmaker of Khair Khana early this year and I remember some of these themes were resonated in that book too.

  19. Esme says:

    I read this book when it first came out. I quite like the author’s book. The situation for women in Afghanistan is rather tragic.

  20. Pingback: The Bookseller of Kabul | Care's Online Book Club

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