Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

August Books 25) The Bookseller of Kabul, by Åsne Seierstad

The more I hear and read about Afghanistan, the more I realise I don't know. I recently attended a conference of experts where a full day was taken up with discussions of how quickly, and with how much dignity, Western troops can realistically be withdrawn; this not being one of my areas of expertise, I mostly sat and listened.

Seierstad's book rather adds to my confusion. The book purports to be her interpretation of the lives of the Afghan family she lived with in Kabul for three months, anonymised and told through their viewpoint rather than hers. She vividly depicts an intensely patriarchal society, religious in observance rather than belief, traumatised and decapitated by years of war; much along the lines of what I have read in Khaled Hosseini's novels, though restricted in time to those few months of 2002 shortly after Karzai first came to power (and reminiscences of earlier periods).

But is it accurate or fair? Her host vehemently protested the fairness of her depiction (and her utter failure to disguise his identity adequately) and the latest news is that his younger wife has won damages for what the book says about her. And the fact that the details are so intensely disputed by those in a position to know about them makes one suspicious about the extent to which Seierstad has got the big picture right.

We all bring our own baggage to our interpretation of what is going on in other people's lives, and I suspect that Western journalism - or perhaps more broadly, the instinct to tell a story which is interesting to a Norwegian or European audience - may not be the best way of letting the voices of Afghans themselves be heard where it matters. My own feeling (which of course reflects my own biases of intellectual formation and professional experience) is that anthropologists, more than other commentators, have quite a lot to offer in helping the understanding of situations like Afghanistan, certainly more than journalists who drop in (let alone the 'military experts' who tend to dominate domestic discourse in the West). I don't know of any such work on Afghanistan itself, but if I ever need to work up a more detailed knowledge of the country, I will start there, rather than with any more books like this one.
Tags: bookblog 2010, world: afghanistan
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