We recently finished a fascinating but distressing book about life in Afghanistan after the fall of the fundamentalist Taliban regime. The book is Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul, originally published in 2002.
Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist, tells the story of a remarkable Afghan family headed by a man named Sultan Kahn. Kahn is, as the title suggests, a book lover. He also has two wives and a large extended family, which he rules, in traditional fashion, with an iron fist.
Kahn's power over his family may be traditional, but it's also the source of considerable family grief. As Seierstad documents in painful detail, Afghan women are second-class citizens in and out of the household. The women in Kahn's family have minimal control over their lives and almost no personal freedom, even without the Taliban's violent religious police on the streets.
The romantic lives of young Afghan men and women are particularly vexing. Courtship is nearly impossible and marriages are usually arranged by families among related families or clans. This means that many young women are often married off to widowers or older men for what amounts to political or economic reasons.
Couples who seek affection—or even a casual smile—outside of the family's arrangements risk banishment or worse—especially the women. Transgressing women are shamed and cut off from their families for activities as innocent as holding hands. In the most extreme cases, the women are killed by their own families—murdered because they "dishonored" their families. The men are sometimes shamed as well, but they usually escape any physical mistreatment.
The Bookseller of Kabul is a moving, sometimes disturbing portrait of a remarkable Afghan family. We recommend it. The stories in Seierstad's book made us proud of the equality American women and minorities have achieved over the past several decades.