Friday, December 22, 2006

Book report: Seierstad/The Bookseller of Kabul

My dad recommended this one; it was another book he pulled from Barnes & Noble during my time of waiting for my Amazon order to arrive.

This is a nonfiction narrative (slightly storified, although the author owns up and provides her rationale in her brief introduction) of four months in the life of an upper middle class Afghani family. Seierstad, a Norwegian woman who lived with the bookseller's family in 2002, says that her foreignness acted as a kind of masculinity and allowed her to be a rare female who could transcend the gender separations and see both sides of Afghani life.

She writes well and tells many facets of the household story. As a narrator her voice is almost inaudible and always sympathetic, but her undisguised agenda (sympathetic though she sounds toward the men in the house) is to reveal the indignities--subtle and not so subtle--that the women are subjected to from sunup to sundown, birth to death. The author's favorite story is that of Leila, the 19-year-old daughter and invisible family lynchpin. She rises before dawn to prepare eggs and tea before the men of the house can wake up and complain, and she stays up long into the night after everyone is asleep cleaning up like a slave after every other family member. She is marginalized, ridiculed, and abused verbally, psychologically, and physically. She is victim of not only of men but also of women--gossiping housewives, neighbors, cousins, etc--who, though politically and publically powerless, exercise fantastic negative social influence by viciously maligning women who do not suitably observe the strict protocol that has ruined their own lives.

This is a highly readable book (Seierstad's prose is light and pretty). I'd say this is one of the better choices among the recent glut of "revealing the Middle East!" books on similar topics.

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