The Big Brother of books; Asne Seierstad – The Bookseller of Kabul

This successful book is about a bookseller´s family living in Afghanistan. I took this book along to a barbeque (just in case it turned out to be boring, ho, ho) and one of the guests told me that this book had been highly controversial as  the Afghan family who Seirestad lived with for four months in 2002,  were suing her for her account of their lives.

Now this didn’t overly surprise me as the portraits of most of the family are very unflattering, and her attempts to disguise their real identities did not seem too vigorous.  The classification of it as non fiction also seemed the most problematic as Seirestad has basically fictionalised the events in her own literary style because she was not even there for the majority of them.  I am thinking that in the light of this maybe we need to invent a new genre – the reality novel???  She argues the family knew her purpose was to write a book and she has not included anything they did not agree to, however this would seem to be debatable considering the family sued her and she was  forced to pay £26,276 damages to one of the booksellers´s wives.

The first part of the book is interesting and gives some background on the history of Afghanistan and customs such as  marriage  and polygamy,  the most interesting part for me were the parts where Seierstad stopped telling a story and stuck to facts, such as the chapter on the Taliban decrees issued after their takeover of Kabul.  These decrees included:

Imprisonment for shaving beards

“Kite flying has wicked consequences such as gambling, death amongst children, and truancy”

Men with long hair will be taken to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Extermination of Sin to have their hair cut.

Prohibition against washing clothes next to river embankments

Sultan aka Shah Muhammad Rais, the real bookseller of Kabul

The book claims to tell the story of this local hero who risks his life to save books from the Taliban but as you read a very depressing picture of women emerges, they are essentially dominated by Sultan, the bookseller and have little freedom, apart from all the other views that an individual might hold on freedom of Muslim women.  He sends a poor carpenter with a starving family  to prison for theft of postcards and refuses to let his sons go to school preferring them to work long hours in his shop.

As the Guardian review points out;

“Seierstad has claimed that the book is not a criticism of the Islamic way of life – but that it “just reveals a lot about it”. This, I suggest, is disingenuous – and dangerous. Her outrage at the way women are treated in the book crackles on every page, but because she has written herself out of the narrative, her highly subjective account could be accused as masquerading as an objective report.”

It  seems highly unbelievable that a family  would agree to let themselves be portrayed like this so you are left with the feeling that they have been exploited by Seirsgard and  that it is impossible to write this kind of book in a fictional style and not take advantage of your subjects.  Is this the Big Brother equivalent of books?  I would argue that it is, the author argues that  you can not write a neutral story so maybe she would have been best leaving it alone.



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3 responses to “The Big Brother of books; Asne Seierstad – The Bookseller of Kabul

  1. Concernedreader

    I feel the need to leave a reply although this blog post was written almost a year ago. I understand that the family has sewed Seierstad and they have been successful to some degree, from what I could gather. But I disagree with some of the things you say in your post.

    The fact that Seierstad was not personally present during many of the scenes and events that she recounts does not mean they did not happen. Reconstructions are a very common journalistic practice seen in almost every single magazine feature. It’s a technique taught in journalism schools, and there are ways to do it right. It’s not something that would classify a book as fiction…

    Of course, the book is written through the lense of a 30-something Norwegian woman. Her objective view of the events she saw and was told will of course be, obviously, subjective! A brief biography, her name, and often even a picture are included with the book. There’s no need to interject the fact that Seierstad is indeed a human, and not a voice recorder, into every chapter.

    Often people have a hard time seeing a situation from someone else’s perspective. For example, in Iranian culture, the tradition of a bride’s dowry is still very much alive in certain areas. This is the price paid to the bride’s family for her! So it means that she is bought.

    However, when my older father watched a BBC documentary defining a dowry as just that, he was very offended. He claimed it was just a tradition and that this documentary was made by ignorant people painting our culture in a bad way.

    I think the real difference here, both for Seierstad’s case and my father’s, is that growing up in certain cultures would affect one’s view to include certain shades of misogyny and inequality. Misogyny and inequality as defined where democratic ideas and principles are most prevalent.

    Now, it’s never right to impose a way of life onto other people. But I think we can agree democracy is the system that has had the best track record in the world, along with ideas of gender equality. Why would Seierstad embrace the family’s worldview and abandon her own while writing the book? Wouldn’t she be tarnishing her integrity as a journalist that way, acting as a PR machine for the Afghan family who is justifying some practices others might find appalling?

    Is it really bad that one can “smell” so to say the fact that she feels uncomfortable with women being treated as second class citizens?! Should she embrace their view that it’s okay and write a jolly book about how it’s okay to marry a child once your wife gets a little old, and to limit women’s lives in so many ways?!

    Again, of course Seierstad would write this in her own perspective and I think she did a commendable job.

    The problem is… most of the time, the only sources for the stories she has are the family members. It’s not hard for them to argue she twisted the events or stories regardless of how well she kept her notes (they don;t do as well in court as a source coming out and saying the writer lied…).

    I am an Iranian who was born and lived there. And when I read the Bookseller of Kabul many years ago, NOTHING in the book struck me as out of ordinary for that part of the world… I feel that when lawsuits against good journalists are made and so easily won in this way, fewer journalists will be willing to tell stories that expose such atrocities.

    The bigger problems of inequality in many nations start in people’s homes, and we need more writer’s like Seierstad to expose the truth.

    • Yes, it was a long time ago that I read this book so my comments here might be a bit vague. I just remember feeling that it left a bad taste in the mouth that she accepted hospitality from these people and then wrote highly uncomplimentary comments about them. I agree that she cannot change her own perspective but the way she went about this seems unfair, I am sure the family was not expecting a book like this, maybe she should have made more attempts to disguise their identities. The general view of people writing from a democratic background and imposing their own values, when democracies today do not always have exemplary track records is frustrating, although this is not to say that I support the system there and attitudes towards women. I found the story telling approach meant that in my opinion, it lost its impact as a piece of good journalistic writing.

  2. Pingback: The Bookseller of Kabul · AUTIMOBILE

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