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Title: The Bookseller of Kabul
Author: Asne Seierstad

Summary: Seierstad, a female journalist from Norway lived with Sultan Khan’s family in Afghanistan for three months after the fall of the Taliban. She details Sultan’s fight to preserve the literary life of the capital during the decades of war. He hid approximately 10,000 books in attics around the capital during the hostilities. Being a Westerner, she is able to slip between the worlds of men and women. Being a veteran war reporter and skilled observer, Seierstad is able to paint a portrait of a country recovering from war, undergoing political changes and mired in misogyny and poverty. While the book is a portrait of Khan, its brutal honesty and intimacy portray life under fundamentalist Islam.

1. This narrative begins with a proposal of marriage and describes many different kinds of unions. Discuss the ways in which marriages are agreed upon and carried out in Afghan society. What are the roles of the husband and wife in The Bookseller of Kabul?

2. The Taliban instituted many restrictions on books and printer materials. How did these policies affect Sultan Khan? What impact did they have on education in Afghanistan? How were things changing during the time the author spent with the bookseller’s family?

3. How do female roles in Afghanistan differ? Discuss how a woman’s stage in life (child, adult, old age) or her position in the family (daughter, sister, mother) helps to determine her role. Which women have the most influence in family and society?

4. Clothing is significant in this account. What are some instances in which clothing is a key detail? How does fashion reflect the social changes in Afghanistan?

5. As the bookseller’s first son, Mansur has a special position within the family hierarchy. How does his interaction with various family members reflect this?

6. The author also focuses on Sultan Khan’s youngest sister, Leila. How does her position compare to her nephew’s?

7. The reader travels through Afghanistan with Mansur as he makes his pilgrimage. In what ways does the landscape reflect the social and political circumstances in the country? The author says of the Taliban that “they might have made it had September 11 not happened and the world started to care about Afghanistan” (page 138). Discuss the implications of this statement.

8. Mansur, who is extremely enthusiastic about the opportunity to make his pilgrimage, almost misses the chance to go. What does his experience tell us about the social and emotional outlets currently available to young men in Afghanistan?

9. Sultan Khan has been on both sides of the judicial system – as a prisioner and as an accuser. How, in each case, was truth pursued and justice handled? What can the reader learn from the bookseller’s experience about crime and punishment in Afghan society?

10. What kind of man is Sultan Khan? The author contrasts the bookseller’s behavior at home with his behavior at work. How do his private and professional identities differ?

11. How do Sultan Khan and his acquaintances view the changes in government in their country? Does Sultan’s perspective evolve in the course of the book?

12. Seierstad explains that she had a rare opportunity to observe Afghan family life. How did the fact that she is a woman affect her access to Sultan Khan’s relatives? How might her background as a European woman have affected her interpretation of the people and events she observed?

13. Seierstad describes how women’s access to education, work outside the home, and social freedom changed in Afghanistan immediately after the fall of the Taliban. How have the years of the Taliban rule affected women in Afghanistan today? What do you believe are the prospects for the future?

Related Information:
In the middle of Asne Seierstad's passionate book about life in modem Afghanistan, the oldest son of the family goes on a hero's journey, a pilgrimage to the tomb of Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law Ali, one of the holiest spots in Afghanistan. Through the car window he sees war's wreckage and the destroyed landscape, as well as scenes of surrealistic, treacherous beauty.

“Over the death traps the ditches are full of wild, dark red short-stemmed tulips. But the flowers must be admired at a distance. Picking them means risking blowing off an arm or leg.” (page 139)

This scene of beauty amid the twisted tanks seems emblematic of Seierstad's view of Afghan life: the hopes and dreams of each of the family members-- to practice a profession, to marry someone loved, even to go to school, both enliven and ultimately kill the spirits of each person. Almost every family member seems destined to lose his or her dreams, as the Afghan people hope and hope again only to be conquered by others with an agenda different than the good of the Afghan people. Thus the epigraph at the beginning of the book: "Migozarad!" "It will pass," a graffito on the walls of a Kabul teahouse.

The only one whose dreams become fulfilled is the family's patriarch, Sultan Khan. The action of the book begins with his wish to take a second, younger wife and ends with that wife pregnant again, fearing that she will produce another girl and that Sultan will find a third wife to bear him boys. He is a literate man, seemingly liberal, and he so attracts the author of the book that she asks if she can stay in his home and learn about Afghan life through his family. As the story unfolds, however, the Sultan we see becomes more and more tyrannical and self-centered. This man who had been imprisoned many times for selling illegal materials, is immune to the pleas of a poor carpenter and his starving family and has the fellow sent to prison for stealing postcards from him. He is patriarchal not only to the women of his family but also to his sons and his younger brother, not letting them go to school or work independently. He is selfish and dogmatic and his family suffers. Although Seierstad keeps her person and persona out of the narrative, we can see her growing disenchantment with Sultan, the so-called "enlightened" modem Afghan, as the narrative moves forward.

The technical issue of leaving herself out of the narrative and thus producing a more "objective" stance is questionable, even though the author said she would check versions of events with several members and clearly wanted the focus of the action to be on the characters and not on her "outsider" reactions. But we all know that journalists can tilt portrayals of the facts, even unconsciously, in what they choose to leave and omit and in the order in which facts are presented. Critiques of the book mention that her later book about Iraq, in which she registers her own reactions, seems to be free of the some of the hidden biases of "The Bookseller." The man in whose family she stayed actually came to her doorstep in Norway to protest her depiction of his family after the book was published in English.

Seierstad's sympathy for the plight of the women, especially Sultan's youngest sister Leila, resonates in the gorgeous details of the peregrinations of "the burkas," in their dreams, their fears, their sensual dancing at an engagement feast. Her journalist's eye and heart creates a resonant portrait of a passionate, not-quite-civilized society of mullahs and warriors in which every one's heart is bleeding.

Interview with Asne Seierstad

Interview with Shah Mohammad Rais

Discussion Questions Little, Brown, and Company. Related Information provided by Susan Oringel.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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