Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Chronicling Catastrophes – an interview with &#197sne Seierstad, journalist and author of The Bookseller of Kabul

“It was a big surprise to me. Perhaps despite so much information being available to us, there is still a lack of information that speaks directly to people. I wanted to write the story in such a way that my friends could understand something about this family and about Afghanistan. The literary style in which the book is written also helps achieve that”.

Seierstad chose to write this factual account in a literary format. She has kept her own presence completely out of the book, and only refers to it in the introduction and the postscript. That is despite the fact that she either witnessed or was told about every incident. The book is divided in to chapters which each tell the story of a different member of the family. All of the stories are about the minutiae of day-to-day living, sometimes interwoven with history and political events. It is about dust and boredom, proposals and marriage, love and hate.

“I believe that in order to understand a conflict you have to understand the person it affects. You have to have an idea of how society is constructed. I find that most journalists write books about big things and ignore the individuals society actually consists of. To me, when I understand how difficult, impossible even it is for an Afghan girl to say “I am in love”, it tells me so much about that society.”

What really binds this book together is the oppression and hopelessness that permeates everything. Seierstad may not be part of the book but her anger at the injustice it describes is felt throughout.

“I am not a cultural relativist. People have accused me of condemning something I do not understand; they say this is their culture and we do not have a right to criticize. But to me, everyone is entitled to fundamental human rights. These people suffer. It is the most unfair society I have ever seen.”

The book brings an extra-ordinary insight in to the lives of one Afghan family. What connection did she feel she had with these women's lives, so distant from her own?

“Well, it is really like another planet. When it comes to fundamental beliefs we are just so different. These women have no access to the outside world, and they have learnt to see the world from one particular angle. I was this weird person, there to write a book. I think they told me things when they felt like it, gave me what they wanted to give. I got to know something about their lives, but I don't think I could say I understood them, or got to know them – perhaps with the exception of Leila, to a limited extent.”

Seierstad says that what amazed her most about this family was how unfair and unbalanced everything was. She thinks that although the women have no sense that they should be treated as equals, they do react to the lack of fairness in how Khan rules the family. He buys fruit but will only allow some of his family to taste it. He could send his youngest son to school, but instead he keeps him isolated and alone in the shop.

It is not just the hopelessness of the women's lives that is portrayed. In a fascinating description of the eldest son, we see how patterns are repeated and the cycle of oppression continues. Mansur is a bully, and treats his mother and sisters with contempt. But we also see how Mansur himself is stunted both by his father's tyranny and the rigid rules of society. I was amazed at the intimate detail in his story – how did Seierstad get him, a male Muslim, to open up to her?

“He had a great urge to talk and he could not really speak to anyone, I was wondering that myself, why did he tell me all those stories, but I think he just really needed to talk to someone who did not judge him.”