Journalist Asne Seierstad went to live with an Afghani family in order to really live the life they did and to write about the experiences from the inside. Seierstad focuses on the family of a bookseller, who has two wives, and a large number of children, both daughters and sons. The Khan family are not exactly typical in that they are still fairly well-to-do and Sultan Khan, the bookseller, does his best to continue spreading knowledge. Despite this, he treats his wives and daughters like second-class citizens, putting his own interests before everyone else’s. Seierstad uses the Khan family to explore the larger story of lives in Afghanistan and to try and understand what it is to be a woman in particular in the country today.
While I didn’t always enjoy reading this book, it was definitely a worthwhile read. Seierstad’s writing is mechanical but illustrative of the wider problems in Afghanistan. She focuses on a number of aspects of the family lives of the Khans and their relatives. Sultan Khan lives with his mother, siblings, wives, and children all in one house, which leads to an understandably stifling atmosphere. No one has any privacy – and the Khans are lucky in that they have enough money and are not suffering as much as many others are. Sultan makes trips outside Afghanistan which are long and dangerous ordeals but which provide him with new books for his store and a greater background knowledge of the world around him.
For me, the most interesting stories centered around the women of the family. Sultan’s youngest sister, Leila, is little more than a slave to their mother. Despite the fact that she’s attractive and has received offers of marriage, Leila is expected to stay at home and tend her mother, even when she tries to act on her dreams after the departure of the Taliban. More than anyone Leila shows how difficult it is for women, as she genuinely tries to get forward and is constantly rebuffed and pushed aside. Meanwhile, Sultan’s first wife has been relegated to the sidelines, robbed of the only role which matters in her country, due to a younger woman with whom she must now be friends. It isn’t easy for Afghani women.
The additions of Afghani culture were also greatly appreciated. I’ve also recently finished The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, wherein the women do actually manage to help themselves, and the extra background this book provided placed both in a better context for me. Though both were at times difficult to read, I’m glad I did, and I would recommend the pair of them to anyone interested in the daily lives of Afghani women in particular.
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