Bookseller of Kabul

by Asne Seierstad
ISBN: 0316726052

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A Review of: The Bookseller Of Kabul
by Gordon Phinn

Digging up apposite quotes and learned theories on the Middle East, Islam and those brave crusaders for democracy is a less than onerous task these days. Any bookstore or library of even modest means can be relied upon to supply volume after volume of erudite geopolitical analysis. They literally fall from the bulging shelves. Stephen Schwartz will fill you in on the history and insidious significance of the Wahabist movement in Islam; Daniel Pipes will advise on the pernicious influence of militant Islam in mosques under our very noses; Jessica Stern will remind that terrorists come in all the ethnic shades, including white and Christian; Chalmers Johnson will insist it's all the result of unchecked American imperialism; Bernard Lewis will make disentangling the various manipulative rhetorics seem like child's play; and Abdelwahab Meddeb will describe the Malady of Islam as the resentment over the gradual wearing away of Islamic hegemony from the ninth century onwards-as the action, in what could be conceived as the "world capital", moved inexorably west, from Baghdad to Cairo to Venice, thence to Amsterdam, London and New York.
While scholars and intellectuals whittle away at their pet models, perfecting angles and attitudes for the ongoing and perhaps endless debate, front line reportage remains the most reliable barometer on the fates of poor humans besieged by forces beyond their control. There's nothing quite like living with the victims. Norwegian journalist, Asne Seierstad, after months in the mountains with the Northern Alliance, not only managed to spend three full months sequestered with a family in the wreckage of post-Taliban Kabul, but so successfully ingratiated herself to the clan that many, if not all, of the gossipy secrets and scandals of theirs and their neighbours lie open and bleeding for even a casual reader of The Bookseller Of Kabul.
In Seierstad's pointedly candid chronicle, we follow the daily fortunes of the extended Khan family, eavesdropping not only on the family meals and sibling squabbles but also the most anguished of personal trials. Like many western observers Seierstad is outraged by the Afghani treatment of women. Despite being personally well treated and accorded as much respect as she would have wished for, she tells us she has rarely quarreled as much and never so often had the urge to hit anyone as she did there. The provocation: "the belief in man's superiority, so ingrained it was seldom questioned."
When later family arrangements prove this comment to be deeply, uncomfortably true, I was not only saddened but quickly reminded of Eric Newby's travel classic A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush (1955), wherein, before leaving England with his wife for the fantasy mountain climb of their lives, they are informed by cable to be careful; since "The Nuristanis have only recently been converted to Islam; women are less than the dust." When a further consultation with The Imperial Gazeteer of India informs them that "Kafir women are practically slaves, being to all intents and purposes bought and sold as household commodities," wife Wanda, determined to drop the kids with her mother in Trieste and go mountaineering, insists that she is practically a slave married to him, and that the buying of Kafir girls sounded "just like the London season." Although she leaves the reader with a picture as true and uncluttered by assumption and prejudice as could be reasonably expected, Seierstad rarely feels the need to employ such cross-cultural ironies, despite drunkenness and family violence being no strangers to the social fabric of Scandinavia. One can't in her exercise of righteous outrage.
Certainly the rendering of her willing imprisonment in the burka leaves no doubt as to its radical discomfort, despite the anonymity it offered, and its being the perfect disguise for such a querulous interloper. Time and again we are given remarkably intimate details of Kabul life, exactly the sort of thing we used to think was forever veiled from our gaze, as it slowly reasserts its ancient character in the freeing atmosphere of renewed foreign aid.
We haven't heard so much Afghani chit-chat since the rash of war memoirs in the 1980s, when the Mujahedin-many of whom morphed into the Taliban once the hated Soviets were finally dispatched and the score-settling civil war was sorted out-were our brave freedom-fighting buddies and the Soviets the mightily inept Satans of the day. Sympathies, of course, have an uncanny way of shifting when the political winds of the day demand new directions, and in the next decade we were crying for the Kurds. To return to such volumes as Doris Lessing's The Wind Blows Away Our Words and Peregrine Hodson's Under A Sickle Moon is to recall tales told by firelight, tales of exotic adventures in foreign lands where evil attacks good but is finally repulsed, where suffering has meaning and heroism counts.
Seierstad thankfully avoids such simplicities, preferring instead, la Isherwood, to be as close to a camera as consciousness permits, and in the process, unearths many truths about Afghan life previously tucked away, including the fact that in those remote and unruly tribal areas where the gender roles are the traditionally prescribed, "homosexuality is widespread and tacitly accepted." Slender young men lie seductively entwined while listening to speeches. Boys adorn themselves with flowers, use kohl on their eyes. Soldiers flirt and wiggle their hips. Blood feuds are fought over young lovers who carelessly divide their affections. "On one occasion two commanders launched a tank battle in the bazaar in a feud over a young lover. The result was several dozen killed."
Such pictures remind us that, despite the slew of withering details that would doubtlessly be offered by any disputant, life in Iran and Afganistan has many unsettling similarities to our own. For instance: they don't talk about the profits from opium and we rarely mention the burgeoning trade in hydroponic pot, yet millions are made from each.

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