Friday, 13 November 2009

Review: Asne SEIERSTAD – “the Bookseller of Kabul”

Publ: 2003
My own copy
ISBN: 1-84408-047-1
Genre: Non-fiction; Afghanistan; Islam
Pages: 276pp
Found by Serendipity
Rating: ***** *****

What led you to pick up this book?
Any book that has books, library or bookseller in the title has to appeal to me! Add to that the prospect of learning more about the country of Afghanistan which is so much in the news.

Describe the book without giving anything away.
The Bookseller of Kabul is a non-fiction book written by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad, about a bookseller, Shah Muhammad Rais (whose name was changed to Sultan Khan), and his family in Kabul, Afghanistan. It takes a novelistic approach, focusing on characters and the daily issues that they face.

As well as giving a historical account of events in Afghanistan as democracy is established, Seierstad focuses on the conditions of Afghan women who still live very much under the domination of men—Afghan traditions allow for polygamy and arranged marriage. She also addresses the conflict between westernization and traditional Islam, and gives an accessible account of Afghanistan's complex recent history under the rule of the USSR, the Taliban and coalition-supported democracy.

What did you like most about the book?
I enjoy learning through fiction and the next best thing is often non-fiction written as a novel as in this case,

Was there anything you didn't like about the book?

Thoughts on the book jacket / cover.
I absolutely hate it when booksellers stick stickers on the book cover. Half the time they won’t come off without damaging the cover. Why on earth do they do that.   It is even more of a nuisance when the cover is in other ways a very good as this one by Caroline Penn is.

Would I recommend it? 
Yes.  Very much so


(Not so ) Totally irrelevant side note:
(Following global critical acclaim, many of the book's descriptions have been contested by Rais, who has taken the author to court in Norway for what he says is a defamation and assault on his character, family and country. Rais has published his own version of the story, Once upon a time there was a bookseller in Kabul. It was translated to both Norwegian and Brazilian Portuguese but has to find a British publisher.)

"You can burn my books, you can embitter my life, you can even kill me, but you cannot wipe out Afghanistan’s history.”

Six months before the Talibam fell the enormous Buddha statues in Bamiyan were blown up. They were close to twwo thousand years old and Afghanistan’s greatest cultural heritage. The dynamite was so powerful that there were no bits to gather up.

She took on the heaviest chores and little by little taught Sonya how to make Sultan’s favourite dish, showed her how he liked his clothes organised, the temperature of the water he washed in and other details that a wife should know about her husband.

One of them exclaims in a sad voice: “Do you know what is our problem? We know everything about our weapons, but we know nothing about how to use a telephone.”

Åsne SEIERSTAD (born February 10, 1970) 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 2003 and the ruined Grozny in 2006. She lives in Oslo and went on to write a second bestselling book about her time in Baghdad.


  1. It looks like you did your best to remove that annoying sticker. I hate those, too, but I think it's just a publicity method. You love and trust Richard and Judy? Buy a book they talked about! Here, it's all Oprah, Oprah, Oprah. You may have heard about the author who created a furor for saying he didn't want Oprah's sticker on his book. Good for him.

  2. I hadn't heard about that author, Bookfool, but well done to him. whatever his reasons for not wanting Oprah's endorsement he did his readers a great service.
    As for Richard and Judy - they are morning chat show hosts and I've never even seen them, let alone have any idea what their tastes are like!

  3. I too enjoyed the bookseller of Kabul and have just got Seierstad's The Angel of Grozny out from the library. Hope it's as good.

  4. The Bookseller of Kabul follows an Afghan bookseller and his family shortly after the fall of the Taliban. The story does a nice job of showing the structure of the patriarchal family and the affect war has had on the society is visible in the descriptions throughout the story. Cultural traditions are also highlighted in the text. The thing I found most striking in this book was how different women are treated in society and within the family compared to Western culture.


Hello folks - your comments are always welcome.