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Book Club Kits: The Bookseller of Kabul

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Asne Seierstad

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Book Summary

In spring 2002, following the fall of the Taliban, Åsne Seierstad spent four months living with a bookseller and his family in Kabul.

For more than twenty years Sultan Khan defied the authorities—be they communist or Taliban—to supply books to the people of Kabul. He was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the communists, and watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. He even resorted to hiding most of his stock—almost ten thousand books—in attics all over Kabul.

But while Khan is passionate in his love of books and his hatred of censorship, he also has strict views on family life and the role of women. As an outsider, Åsne Seierstad found herself in a unique position, able to move freely between the private, restricted sphere of the women—including Khan’s two wives—and the freer, more public lives of the men.

It is an experience that Seierstad finds both fascinating and frustrating. As she steps back from the page and allows the Khans to speak for themselves, we learn of proposals and marriages, hope and fear, crime and punishment. The result is a genuinely gripping and moving portrait of a family, and a clear-eyed assessment of a country struggling to free itself from history.' to 'This mesmerizing portrait of a proud man who, through three decades and successive repressive regimes, heroically braved persecution to bring books to the people of Kabul has elicited extraordinary praise throughout the world and become a phenomenal international bestseller. The Bookseller of Kabul is startling in its intimacy and its details—a revelation of the plight of Afghan women and a window into the surprising realities of daily life in today’s Afghanistan.'

Read an excerpt from the book.

Discussion Questions

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

2. The Taliban instituted many restrictions on books and printed 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 (girlhood, adulthood, old age) or her position in the family (daughter, sister, mother) helps determine her role. Which women have the most influence in the family and in society?

4. Clothing is particularly significant in Seierstad's 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? The author also focuses on Sultan Kahn's youngest sister, Leila. How does Leila's position compare to her nephew's?

6. 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 mad it had September 11 not happened and the world started to care about Afghanistan" (p. 138). Discuss the implications of this statement.

7. 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?

8. Sultan Khan has been on both sides of the judicial system – as a prisoner 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?

9. 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?

10. 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?

11. 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?

12. 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 Taliban rule affected women in Afghanistan today? What do you believe are the prospects for the future?

About the Author

Åsne Seierstad is a Norwegian freelance journalist and writer, best known for her accounts of everyday life in war zones – most notably Kabul after 2001, Baghdad in 2002 and the ruined Grozny in 2006.

In spring 2002, following the fall of the Taliban, Asne Seierstad spent four months living with a bookseller and his family in Kabul." "For more than twenty years Sultan Khan defied the authorities - be they communist or Taliban - to supply books to the people of Kabul.  He was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the communists, and watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. He even resorted to hiding most of his stock - almost ten thousand books - in attics all over Kabul." But while Khan is passionate in his love of books and his hatred of censorship, he also has strict views on family life and the role of women.

Interview with the author

“I just hope they will not burn the school. The Taliban is back, and in recent months they have burnt down a dozen girls' schools.”

Asne Seierstad knows what she is talking about. The school she is concerned with is the one they are building in Afghanistan with the proceeds from her best-selling book, The Bookseller of Kabul.

Burning books and burning schools are powerful images. A journalist who can get behind them and communicate their effects on ordinary people is worth finding out more about.  Asne Seierstad lets us hear the voices of ordinary people caught up in tragic events; opening a window on the society they live in. She speaks simply and directly about the real effects of war and oppression. She creates that human connection which a thousand pictures of burkas and bullets fail to make.

When asked about her choice of profession – she became a war reporter at the age of 26 – she says simply “I have this great urge to find out exactly what is happening to people. I think it is important to get down to the personal level”

In her own country, Norway, Seierstad is an icon. Since going to Chechnya in 1995, she has been their main interpreter of every major conflict – Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq. She was the only Scandinavian journalist left in Baghdad as the tanks rolled in. Tall, blonde and seemingly fearless, her striking presence is matched by unique reporting. She talks about the humdrum detail of individual lives. She brings to life the young girl who can no longer go to school because of lawlessness in the streets, and the soundman risking his life to provide power for her broadcast.

Now with the success of her book The Bookseller of Kabul, it looks like Seierstad will achieve fame outside of Scandinavia.

After September 11, Seierstad went as a war reporter to Afghanistan with the Northern alliance. In Kabul, she became acquainted with the bookseller Sultan Khan. Khan had been imprisoned by the communists, and had his books burnt by the Taliban. She visited his bookshop on several occasions and enjoyed her conversations with this well-read man. He in turn invited her home to meet his family, and during that visit the idea of writing a book came about. The book would be about one unusual Afghan family. “I did not choose my family because I wanted it to represent all other families, but because it inspired me” she says in the book's introduction.

Somewhat to her surprise, the bookseller agrees to her suggestion, and Seierstad moves in. For four months, she sleeps on the floor in a room shared with six other women and children. She travels illegally to Pakistan with the bookseller, accompanies his eldest on pilgrimage, visits the police station and the prison; but spends most of her time observing the restricted lives of the women – often from the inside of her own burka.

Interview by Beritt Haugen Keyes