Saturday, 29 July 2017

#18 A book you own but haven’t read

The Bookseller of Kabul  - Asne Seierstad

Every story that is set in Kabul , or at least the ones I have read so far, have all left me shocked and speechless.

The title of the book was what had urged be to buy it in the first place. One never could connect a book-seller in war-ravaged Kabul, as a remote possibility. And so, I had quickly picked it up and bought it. But, even though the book has been with me for a long time now, I never did read it.

Asne Seierstad is an award-winning Norwegian journalist, who, in 2002, spent four months living with the Kabul bookseller, Sultan Khan and his family. What she witnesses is told to us in a the form of a fictional narrative, going into the thoughts and desires of Sultan Khan, his two wives, mother, sisters, brothers and children.    
Sultan Khan is a very interesting character himself. He has run his bookstore for the past twenty years by defying every authority in power which have come and gone in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban regime his books were burned in public.

“These men considered anyone who loved pictures or books, sculptures or music, dance, film or free thought enemies of society.”

The Taliban soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs had descended on Sultan Khan’s shop early one November morning in 1999, in order to destroy all books with pictures in them – it was forbidden to represent any living thing – animal or human. They tear down entire shelves of books and toss them into the fire. Sultan had expected this. He is arrested and sent to jail for anti-Islamic behaviour (ordered by the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Extermination of Sin a.k.a. Ministry of Morality).

Sultan Khan, though devastated and bereft of his beloved books, is happy in the knowledge that they haven’t got to the prohibited books he had stashed away behind the shelves. Later on he will continue this strategy and keep some of his most precious books stored away in different hideouts across Kabul. We realize with horror that these Taliban soldiers are illiterate – they cannot distinguish between any written texts, but images they can comprehend. So, in all probability  they wouldn’t have been able to read the Koran either.     

Sultan’s stoic reply when he is interrogated, reveals his passion to not let the history and culture of his country to fade away. 

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

The havoc and destruction meted out to the antiques, statues and monuments are tragically captured in a line – “it took them half a day to annihilate thousand years of history.”
After the Taliban regime is deposed, and schools start reopening, Sultan Khan hopes to land a deal on getting new textbooks printed since books printed by both the Mujahedeen and Taliban government would be useless. This is how their alphabet book runs:

“J is for Jihad, our aim in life, I is for Israel, our enemy, K is for Kalashnikov, we will overcome, M is for Mujahedeen, our heroes, T is for Taliban……”

Even the math problems are centered around war. Sultan Khan being a shrewd business man goes to various printers and book publishers across Pakistan in order to try and land this very lucrative deal on making new textbooks. 

Shah M. Bookstore on which the book is based
On the other hand, we also see how, despite his passion for books, his patriotic love for the cultural legacy of his country, he is a very authoritarian patriarch whose word is law in his family. Except the one chapter dedicated to his bookshop and bookselling business, the rest of the book unfolds the story of the bookseller’s family – we see him through their eyes.

His widowed and elderly mother, Bibi Gul, is the second in command at home. Married at the age of eleven, she has borne thirteen children. But of late, she has given up all work and leaves it to her daughters and daughters-in-law to carry on with the daily household chores and duties. Sultan Khan has two wives – Sharifa, a qualified Persian teacher (who is later on prohibited from working again by her eldest son, to whom she has to listen to), and his younger illiterate wife Sonya with whom he has a year old daughter. The patriarchal command over women and the manner in which they are treated admittedly has provoked the sensibilities of the writer as it will in the reader. “The belief in the superiority of men is so ingrained that it is seldom questioned”, says Seierstad.  

The bullet ridden and half-dilapidated flat that the Khans live in has four rooms and is shared by all his children, wives, and siblings and nephews. The story of his younger sister Leila is probably what will tug at our heartstrings. She is the youngest of Bibi Gul’s children, Sultan Khan’s unmarried sister. At nineteen, Leila has gone through a lifetime of drudgery and ungrateful daily routine. It is she who wakes up first and goes to bed last. And during the day, she sweeps, cleans, cooks and bears the brunt of everyone’s harsh tongue, including her nephew who is three years younger than her.
“She has been brought up to serve, and she has become a servant, ordered around by everyone.”

Though she tries to apply for a job in a nearby girls’ school, her hopes are let down when the authorities tell her that she needs to register at the Ministry. Initially faced with a lot of opposition, she eventually gets to the Ministry only to find to her dismay that the process is a tedious one. It doesn’t matter that the majority of schools in Afghanistan lacked proper teaching faculty, it was a sadistic bureaucracy that asks Leila, an aspiring English teacher, questions in Math and physics and bundles her off to fetch a missing paper before she can be registered.

Leila’s fate, as she understands all too well is in the hands of her elder brother and mother. They will decide who gets to marry her. Her desire, her hopes remain like her – invisible under the burqa.

This book will leave you with a sense of despair, but hopefully also with an awareness of the value of every opportunity before us. I am aware that Afghanistan was once a flourishing, rich country which had important trade routes to different parts of the world. But, one cannot underestimate the power of intolerance, ignorance and corrupting authority – it can lead to an absolutely devastated land, and perhaps equally devastated people.

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