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The Bookseller of Kabul Paperback – October 26, 2004

4.0 out of 5 stars 247 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

After living for three months with the Kabul bookseller Sultan Khan in the spring of 2002, Norwegian journalist Seierstad penned this astounding portrait of a nation recovering from war, undergoing political flux and mired in misogyny and poverty. As a Westerner, she has the privilege of traveling between the worlds of men and women, and though the book is ostensibly a portrait of Khan, its real strength is the intimacy and brutal honesty with which it portrays the lives of Afghani living under fundamentalist Islam. Seierstad also expertly outlines Sultan's fight to preserve whatever he can of the literary life of the capital during its numerous decades of warfare (he stashed some 10,000 books in attics around town). Seierstad, though only 31, is a veteran war reporter and a skilled observer; as she hides behind her burqa, the men in the Sultan's family become so comfortable with her presence that she accompanies one of Sultan's sons on a religious pilgrimage and witnesses another buy sex from a beggar girl-then offer her to his brother. This is only one of many equally shocking stories Seierstad uncovers. In another, an adulteress is suffocated by her three brothers as ordered by their mother. Seierstad's visceral account is equally seductive and repulsive and resembles the work of Martha Gellhorn. An international bestseller, it will likely stand as one of the best books of reportage of Afghan life after the fall of the Taliban.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–A female journalist from Norway moved in with the Khan family in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Disguised as she was behind the bulky, shapeless burka and escorted always by a man and even in Western dress, she was somehow anonymous and accepted readily into the bookseller's large extended family. Her account is of the tragedy, contradictions, rivalries, and daily frustrations of a middle-class Afghan family. She accompanied the women as they shopped and dressed for a wedding and was privy to the negotiations for the marriage. She tells of the death by suffocation of a young woman who met her lover in secret, the bored meanderings of a 12-year-old boy forced to work 12-hour days selling candy in a hotel lobby, and of going on a religious pilgrimage with a restless, frustrated teen. All this is recounted with journalistic objectivity in spite of her close ties to the Khans. Events that the author doesn't actually witness or participate in, she recounts from conversations with members of the family, primarily Sultan Khan's sister. There is much irony here–Sultan, who has risked his life to protect and disseminate books with diverse points of view, denies his sons the right to pursue an education and subjects his female relatives to drudgery and humiliation.–Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (October 26, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316159417
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316159418
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (247 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #50,286 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
...but Sultan Khan had his head in the clouds if he thought he was going to emerge from this journalist's immersion in his family's life looking like a benevolent god. He's suing her, as the book-reading world knows by now, for something like defamation of character. I'm sure he thought she would extol his virtues; instead, she wrote honestly of the fiercely patriarchal Afghanistan/Muslim traditional family structure that keeps his tyranny intact and subjugates all women, regardless of their educational level or social status.
The Bookseller of Kabul reads more like good New Journalism. It's not great literature; it's great reportage. But it gives a voice to the women in the extended Family (meant in the broadest sense of the word), a voice that speaks for millions of women in the Middle East, a voice that must be heard. Especially heartbreaking is the fate of Leila, sister of Sultan Khan, educated, literate, bright - but unable to speak up for herself to escape a lifetime of servitude.
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By A. Lord on December 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Sierstad has written an outstanding book---her writing is lyrical (or at least the translation is!) and the subject is fascinating. Contrary to what other reviewers have said, Sierstad never claims that her family is representative of the Afghani people (in her introduction, she notes that she picked the Khan family because she found them and their stories compelling---she says, however, that the family is by no means typical as they are literate, middle class and urban).
That said, the book does provide a penetrating look at a complex and complicated family forced to live under horrific conditions. Within the context of his society, Sultan Khan is an enlightened and liberal man. No fundamentalist, he reads widely and believes in freedom of thought and speech. But for all that Khan is a liberal man in a conservative society---he is still a product of a highly conservative society. As such, he is a polygamist and a man who forces his sons to bind to his will.
Khan is not a likeable man but his story, which the author tells in great detail, goes a long way in explaining who he is and why he acts as he does. As a bookseller, Khan was tortured first by the Soviets and then by the Taliban. Not surprisingly, he seeks, above all, to protect himself and all he owns (which for him, includes his family) from the ravages of war. This means, of course, that Khan forces the members of his family to do his bidding (his sons are taken from school and forced to work in his businesses etc.).
Khan is a despot. His actions toward his two wives, his children, his siblings and his nephews all reflect his desire to control his fate in a society which has allowed him no control over his own life. That doesn't excuse him, of course.
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Format: Paperback
In November 2001, after the fall of the Taliban, the Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad befriended a bookseller in Kabul who invited her to his home for dinner. Before long they agreed for her to live in Sultan Khan's home for three months in order to write a book about about his family. The Bookseller of Kabul, an international bestseller translated into thirty languages, and the most successful nonfiction book in Norwegian history, chronicles Seierstad's first person narrative about her experiences of Afghan gender roles, education, politics, religion, and culture.

At first Seierstad thought she had met a remarkably liberated Afghan man. Sultan was an ardent bibliophile who loved books and ideas. In a country where three-quarters of the population is illiterate, he had amassed a collection of 10,000 books, including rare manuscripts, that he had squirreled away around town. He survived the Soviet communists and the Islamic fundamentalists, and spent time in jail for anti-Islamic behavior. He despised the Taliban who burned his books. His family was wealthy by local standards, his opinions about women appeared liberal, he bought his wife western clothes in Iran, and derided the burka as a symbol of his beloved country's backwardness and oppression.

At home Seierstad discovered an altogether different Sultan, and for the most part her narrative reads like a cultural expose. She begins by telling the story of how Sultan took sixteen-year-old Sonya as his second wife, much to the grief of his first wife Sharifa. At home Sultan was an unapologetic tyrant toward everyone in his family. His two wives and daughters slaved away at cooking and cleaning. He consigned his twelve-year-old son to sell candy in a dark and dank stall that he called "the dreary room.
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Format: Hardcover
After having read this book in the original language (Norwegian) as soon as it came out, and then reread it in the English translation, the conclusion remains: this is an intriguing account of an atypical Afghan family's life presented in simplistic and a bit mundane language. The author, Asne Seierstad, is foremost a journalist who has shown a remarkable sense of bravery and an admirable disregard for her snobbish literary critics (she was quickly belittled in her native Norway by fellow writers and critics). Her book, however, is an important contribution to the contemporary literature on Afghan life, culture, women, and even Islam.

The strength of the book lies is her observations of the individual family members through her modern feminist Western eyes; however, at times this is also its weakness since it becomes quite obvious that the more "unsympathetic" (male) members of the family do not get quite the nuanced descriptions as the more symphatetic (female) members. The bookseller himself, Sultan Khan, is the most obvious example. Seierstad is not quite able (perhaps understandably so) to portray with conviction his more admirable sides - it is as if his chauvinistic and self-important characteristics cannot coexist with a more complex, idealistic and interesting personality. Sure, she tries to explain that she was grateful to him for his hospitality, and she makes some half-hearted attempts to describe his heroic efforts in his resistance to the Taliban's censorships of his beloved books; however, she is not quite able to convey the bookseller's real and heartfelt motives for doing so. In addition, when referring to his passion for literature (espcially poetry), it seems almost as if it constitutes just a sidenote in Sultan's personality.
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