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The Bookseller of Kabul

The librarian has been pushign this book into my hands for months and I’ve been resisting. This is a really serious reading week so I relented. I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a story -- a non-fiction account but written in a literary style -- of what it’s like to be a middle class family in post-War Afghanistan, specifically Kabul. And you know what it’s like? It’s sucks. It’s lousy. It’s pretty easy to be sort of value-relative about all this and discuss the ideas that you can’t really compare cultures. However, the woman who wrote this book, who lived with the bookseller’s family for some time, doesn’t say “this is good” or “this is bad” she just describes.

She describes how women are basically the property of their fathers and then, once they’re married off, the property of their husbands who they have barely met before their wedding night. She describes the culture of illiteracy, how many people can’t read and this means that they are less likely to be able to critically approach the ideas foisted on them from the religious fundamentalists like the Taliban. She describes how even the middle class families live in dirt houses with no furniture and often no electricity or running water in a city that has been largely destroyed through a combination of Taliban repression combined with the destruction wrought by American forces post-9/11. She talks abotu how Afghanistan was not always such a beaten down country and explains a little bit about the political upheavals that signalled a return to extremely traditional cultural practices that were unusual even for Afghanistan.

It’s a hard book to read. The women are simply wretched in many cases, beaten down by lifetimes of doing other people’s laundry, cooking and domestic work and husbands who take multiple wives. The outlook for everyone is bleak. It’s so hard to raise enough money to change your status that even the future looks grim. Even given this, Seierstad manages to find some high points, some stories of almost-romance, or strong-willled women, or something that worked, for once. However these are the exceptions in the overarching culture that has been destroyed by poverty and fundamentalism and what has been essentially a total infrastructure collapse.