To find a book today that is interesting, topical, and readable is a rare feat. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad is just such a gem. After 9/11, and with the ongoing War on Terrorism, so much of the focus is on far away countries with unfamiliar cultures and unfathomable lives. Attempts to learn more about these issues can often be thwarted by angry rhetoric, long academic tomes, politically correct pandering, or turgid prose. Asne Seierstad, in contrast, has produced a fascinating, educational, and enjoyable book that will leave you feeling like you know the people of Afghanistan better for having read it. No wonder it has become the best-selling book in the history of Norway and has been creating buzz all over Europe. That buzz has now come to America.
The Bookseller of Kabul was the result of a simple yet courageous idea. After having spent six weeks in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance, Seierstad made for Kabul. While in Kabul she met the intriguing owner of a bookshop and soon found herself spending hours listening to his stories of life under the various regimes: communist, Mujahedeen, and Taliban. Each was destructive and tyrannical in its own unique way and each forced the bookseller to defend his beloved books, often without success:
First the communists burned my books, then the Mujahedeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burned them all over again.
As part of their growing friendship, the Norwegian journalist was even invited over to his house for dinner. Her interaction with this unique man and his family presented an opportunity: the chance to write a book about a real family in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. She raised the idea with the bookseller, given the pseudonym Sultan Khan in the book, and he graciously agreed to allow the author full access to his life and his family. Besides living with the family, the author had unique access. As a western woman she had access not only to the women of the family but also the men. She could participate in both the intimate day-to-day activities of the mothers, wives, and daughters but she could also interact with the Sultan and his sons as they moved in the larger world. This access is a big part of what this book so fascinating and educational. It is also what gives it such an emotional punch. The author has the access sociologists dream of.