Thursday, October 23, 2003

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad (translated by Ingrid Christopherson), Little, Brown, Agust 2003. ISBN: 0316726052. Price US$19.95, pages 256.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in October 2003).

When Norwegian war correspondent Asne Seierstad (pronounced Ossna Sairshta) landed in Afghanistan, the country was full of journalists there to writ e about the return of music, the rehabilitation of the Kabul soccer stadium - used by the Taliban as an execution ground - and of course the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The veteran reporter soon concluded that those stories were dead horses. And then, in a chance encounter in a bookshop, she found her subject: Sultan Khan, a bookseller who defied the edicts of the Russians and the Taliban for 20 years, risking his life and spending time in jail, to save Afghanistan's literature.

Seierstad convinced Khan to let her move in with his large family, where the 33-year-old Norwegian lived for the spring after the fall of the Taliban. This close association gave Seierstad an incredible opportunity to learn about the inner life of Afghanistan. As a foreign woman, she enjoyed a liminal status that allowed her to befriend not only the aging patriarch Sultan and his son Mansur, but also Sultan's daughter Leila, his wives Sharifa and Sonya and his ancient mother Bibi Gul. The result of her labors is a remarkably intelligent and sensitive portrait that goes beyond the simple narratives of repression and liberation and the alarmist tales of bearded, hair-trigger fanatics that filled bookshelves last year. Before picking up the Bookseller of Kabul, I would have been quite happy never to read another sentence about Afghanistan. After reading it, I feel there's much more to learn.

One of the reasons for the book's success is Seierstad's decision to write in what she calls in her foreword the "literary form". By that, she means simply that she turned her voluminous research into a novel, opting not to include herself as a character in a glorified travelogue and restricting her pronouncements on Afghan history and culture to a minimum. That choice allows her to focus on the interior lives of her subjects - their thoughts and feelings - in a way that would elude a journalist focused only on "observations".

Though it is (fortunately) no geopolitical treatise, the Bookseller of Kabul is hardly a book of small incidents. Rather, Seierstad captures the family dilemmas that any novelist would seize on - conflicts fraught with repressed emotion. The book begins with Sultan Khan's decision to take a second wife, a heartbreaking humiliation for the woman who supported him for so many years. Seierstad evokes the fear and excitement of Sultan's young bride, the resignation of Sultan's old wife and Sultan's own pride and determination with an equally deft grace.

She describes not only the pain of the second wedding, but also the first wife's gradual acceptance of the new bride. And when Sharifa and Sultan tell baudy jokes and gossip about the sex lives of their relatives, we see that a second marriage does not mark the end of love and the burka (veil)and daily prayer do not mean the end of sex.

In the context of the postwar press coverage, replete with images of faceless, voiceless women, the Norwegian author's description of life behind the veil is particularly valuable. Drawing on personal experience (she reveals in her introduction), Seierstad shows how the concealing garment can be restricting and disorienting - like the blinders worn by a horse - but yet how it remains possible to look beautiful and even to flirt while hidden beneath it. Then again, she also reveals how in a town where the sun shines nearly every day of the year, a young woman, her skin pale and gray, may be weak and dizzy, suffering from lack of vitamin D.

Seierstad's method - so unlike the self-important riffing of Mailer and Wolfe's "new journalism" - might be called anti-journalism. And though in her introduction she confesses that she chased the Northern Alliance around herself for six weeks, Seierstad has little patience for the oversimplifications of her chosen profession. It's not surprisingly, therefore, that the funniest character in the Bookseller of Kabul is a reporter named Bob who works for "an American magazine" (Time). Given to eloquent Americanisms like "wow!" and "yeah", Bob drags his interpreter Tajmir on what he doubtless described as a thrilling chase after bin Laden.

"Tajmir and Bob disagree fundamentally about what constitutes a successful trip," Seierstad writes. "Tajmir wants to return home as quickly as possible ... Bob wants violent action in print; like a few weeks ago when he and Tajmir were nearly killed by a grenade." With the same deadpan delivery the author hilariously skewers the journo's characteristic nonchalance about the culture he's observing.

As Tajmir tries to find somebody who has seen bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, or someone who "thinks they have seen someone who resembles them", he reads and hopes against hope that he and his journalist buddies find nothing at all and return home safely. Bob interrupts with typical simplicity: "What are you reading, Tajmir?" "The holy Koran," answers the interpreter. "Yes, so I see, but anything special? I mean, like a travel section or something like that?" pursues Bob, perhaps looking for "color" for his story.

That's parachute journalism in a nutshell. And in the Bookseller of Kabul, Seierstad has found the antidote.