Norwegian journalist Seierstad casts light on the difficult, sometimes dreary, often (still) dangerous life of a bookseller in the Afghan capital, not neglecting the equal but very different tribulations of the women in his family.
While covering the Northern Alliance’s push south into Kabul after routing the Taliban, the author made the acquaintance of Sultan Khan, a bookseller who had been thrown into jail under both the communist and Taliban regimes. When it comes to literature, Sultan is “a freethinker . . . of the opinion that everyone had the right to be heard,” and he paid the price for his beliefs. On the home front, however, he’s an ingrained patriarch. It’s easy to both admire and to loathe this complex character. On the one hand, Sultan puts himself in harm’s way to save a few bits of Afghan heritage and to fight against Afghanistan's more obtuse traditions: “All we know is how to scream, pray and fight,” he declares. “We search blindly for a holy man, and find a lot of hot air.” But he is also hidebound by notions of honor and his repressive attitude toward women—not just repressive from a Western perspective, Seierstad points out, but stifling to the women’s own aspirations, which she portrays with a grim vividness. Taking advantage of her position as a European reporter who can spend time with both men and women, Seierstad moves uneasily between their two worlds, and this tension gives her account its air of otherworldly reality. Quail fights alternate with henna nights, the law of warlords gives way to a day at the bath house, and we see a fundamental clash in Sultan’s house between the dreams of women and those of men.
A slice of Afghanistan today, rendered with a talent for fine, sobering prose and strange, unnerving settings that recall Ryszard Kapuscinski.