The Bookseller of Kabul
By Åsne Seierstad. Translated by Ingrid Christophersen
Little, Brown & Co., 2003
Paper back: ISBN: 0-316-73450-0 Price: $19.95
Advertisements for the English translation of Åsne Seierstad’s “astounding international bestseller” originally titled Bokhandleren i Kabul quote reviewers who have called it, correctly, “An unblinking account of the inner workings of an Afghan family” and “A searing attack on the way Afghan men treat women.” After seeing the English translation, the titular bookseller, Shah Mohammed Rais, flew to Oslo to denounce the book’s indiscretions about his family and to have his “honor restored.”
As autocratic head of a large extended family, Rais (called “Sultan Khan” in the book) both enforces and personally exploits a social system shockingly oppressive of women. When his wife, a some-time teacher, starts to grow old (mid-50s) to her great humiliation he avails himself of the right to add to his household by an arranged marriage (purchase, in the author’s view). Khan bribes the family of his very reluctant second wife to permit him unheard-of liberties with their beautiful, fertile and illiterate 16-year-old daughter before the marriage. Yet when a neighbor’s daughter is severely beaten by her aunt and uncle for the offense of meeting a boy in a park, Khan approves. Nor are we told that he disapproves when his first wife’s sister-in-law, taken in adultery, is consequently murdered—smothered in her bed—by her brothers on their mother’s orders.
A war correspondent initially in Afghanistan to cover the U.S. war, the author lived with Khan’s family for four months (several family members speak English, as does she). She focuses primarily on the depressing position of women, which she claims has changed little for many Afghans, even in the capital, following the flight of the Taliban. She also records Khan’s oppression of his sons when he forces them to leave school and work in the family businesses.
Presumably thousands of Kabul families could provide similar stories. What makes this one especially engrossing, and justifies the title, is that as a bookseller Sultan Khan is something of a hero in a spirit that seems diametrically opposite to his role as paterfamilias. We all know booksellers with deplorable personal lives, but modern American society provides no tests of a bookseller’s courage and persistence comparable to the ones Sultan Khan has passed. Although this book supplies far less detail about Khan’s business ventures than Western booksellers or collectors might want because the author’s main interests lie elsewhere, the story that emerges is a fascinating one.
Born sometime between 1947 and 1955—documents disagree—to poor and illiterate parents, Khan was enabled to study engineering by his eldest sister’s marriage settlement, and while a student he began a business in second-hand textbooks. His first store, a market stall, sold books he purchased in Tehran. Under the Communist regime he carried both Communist and conservative Islamic books, hiding the banned ones under the counter. Caught, beaten and jailed for a year, and his books burned, he emerged from prison more cautious, but with strengthened determination to promote knowledge of Afghanistan’s culture and history. Five years later, he was jailed again; when released, he was in his mid-30s, but undeterred.
After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, civil war forced Khan to flee to Pakistan. His shop was looted, as was the national library. On his return, he was able to buy rare library books from the illiterate thieves.
When the Taliban took over, Khan’s shop was again raided, and books burned. In order to continue despite the ban on images of living beings, he pasted blank sheets over illustrations in his books. By then, he owned three shops, two of them minded by relatives. Warned by the Minister of Culture that he could no longer be protected, he obtained a Canadian visa, but couldn’t bring himself to leave—perhaps because by this time he had 10,000 books “hidden in attics all over Kabul.”
He sat out the U.S. war in Pakistan, and what we are told of his business in the war’s aftermath does not add up to a coherent picture, probably because the author didn’t know what questions to ask. He buys rare books for a pittance in the marketplace, imports books from Iran, where he has “gilt-edged contracts,” gets orders by e-mail and fax from American universities and also sells books to Western embassy libraries. He reprints many books on Afghan history and culture and undertakes a dangerous trip to Pakistan—“the piracy printers’ paradise”—to get printing quotes in the hope of winning a UNESCO contract to reprint 113 pre-Communist textbooks (later texts, even in math, are totally ideological). But Oxford University Press gets the contract, and although he is “one of the largest publishers in Kabul,” Khan’s best source of income is postcards he has reprinted. When a carpenter is caught stealing his postcards and selling them to another shop in order to feed a starving family, he treats the theft as a fundamental threat to his livelihood. His merciless prosecution sends the man to prison for three years.
His cultural patriotism is unabated, and as the book is being written, having perhaps heard rumors of Hay-on-Wye, he is “trying to buy one of the unused cinemas in Kabul to set up a center with bookshop, lecture rooms and library, a place where researchers can have access to his vast collection.”
The author seems not to have pressed Khan to explain the contradictions in his behavior and opinions. He is called a “freethinker” (probably a mistranslation), but on the following page he is described as a moderate Moslem who prays once a day rather than the prescribed five times. He is scornful of people who spend too much time praying and who undertake pilgrimages to Mecca they can’t afford. He believes they would do better to concentrate on working hard. Yet despite his own experiences with censorship and fundamentalism, he approves the fatwa on Salmon Rushdie. Post-Taliban, he forces his second wife to stop wearing the burka, “talk[s] warmly about the emancipation of women” and is willing to allow his first wife to return to work as a teacher, yet he does not interfere when his eldest son (entirely under his thumb in all other respects) forbids her to do so.
American booksellers will find little in Sultan Khan’s career to which they can easily relate, but the portrait of his 17-year-old son Mansur provides some comic relief to the grim accounts of domestic servitude and arranged marriages of girls to 50-year-old widowers with 10 children. Forced by Khan to mind one of the shops, and half-crazed by boredom and sexual frustration, Mansur tells an attractive female customer that he has the textbook she wants at home—he has, in fact, never heard of it. He then shuts the shop and on the pretext of fetching the book, drives the bemused young woman (sitting in the back seat, of course) around Kabul, desperately prolonging the time spent in her company. Surely anyone with a bookshop to mind can relate to that.
Wayne Somers is a member of the ABAA and proprietor of Hammer Mountain Book Halls in Schenectady, New York. He is most recently the editor and primary author of the 848-page Encyclopedia of Union College History.