Åsne Seierstad’s international bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul is one of those rare pieces of literature that artfully bridges the gap between storytelling and recording history. As a source, her book may not satisfy the strict requirements of empirical primary sources, but it certainly is an important source of social, cultural and women’s history in Afghanistan. Although controversy has surfaced since its publication and the real bookseller has refuted many of its details, Seierstad has written such a balanced and objective account that it is difficult to completely discount her work as fictional or untrustworthy. However, as with any author of non-fiction work, there are certain factors that must be taken into consideration when analyzing her work as an historical source, such as gender and cultural preconceptions which could influence her interpretation both negatively and positively.
The case for The Bookseller of Kabul being a piece of non-fiction literature is based in the fact that the book is an account of Seierstad’s observations and experiences in the family home of a prominent bookseller in Kabul. She begins the book by explaining that the story is comprised of the “thoughts and feelings” of those she encountered during her stay with the Khan Family. If this is true and the story is based on notes and recordings then the book is certainly an excellent source of the social and cultural aspects of a middle class, Afghan family. Seierstad went to the Khan’s home hoping to document how a normal family in Afghanistan lives and deals with its existing problems. Such details cannot always be found in common primary sources like government documents and newspapers, and are rarely dealt with in secondary sources addressing Afghan history. As a source it provides valuable insight into the contemporary history of Afghanistan and how one family has dealt with the turmoil that has gripped the country for decades.
Since its publication, the real bookseller Shah Muhammad Rais has come out publicly against Seierstad and filed a lawsuit against her in Norway for defamation, questioning the reliability of the book as a source. Rais claims that Seierstad abused her welcome in his home and “willfully misrepresented” her experiences; he adds that she did not recognize deeply ingrained social customs and roles in Afghan society. Other Afghans and supporters of Rais have also condemned the book for the same reasons and highlighted inconsistencies within the story. Indeed there is a possibility that cultural preconceptions might affect Seierstad’s ability to objectively gather and interpret information from a cultural situation that is so entirely different from her own. However, one could also argue that Rais’ own cultural preconceptions made him particularly susceptible to offense and denial of his portrayal. As a journalist Seierstad has had many cultural experiences, having lived in numerous countries such as Russia, China, Kosovo, and Chechnya; she speaks five languages fluently and another four intermediately. Thus, her cultural experiences are numerous and her background in cultural settings is extensive, making it difficult to ignore her keen observations in the book.
It could also be argued that Seierstad’s objectivity was impeded by her position as a Western woman. Gender is an important consideration when analyzing the intentions and biases of any author and this is particularly so if using the book as an historical source. In The Bookseller there is much focus on Sultan’s sister Leila and it is through this character that the frustrations, prejudices, hardships, and social restrictions of Afghan women are exhibited. We follow Leila as she obediently serves the men of the house, as she struggles to become a teacher in a post-Taliban society, and finally we feel Leila’s despair as she is promised to a man that she does not love and accepts her fate because she “has always done what her mother wanted.” Seierstad’s sympathy for Leila comes through in her writing and she does deal intimately with the women and their struggles in the family. However, she also deals with Sultan and his sons and documents their hurts and frustrations, particularly Mansur’s distaste for Afghan “customs and traditions” that keep him working and chained to his father. Both genders are addressed fairly equally and if anything, Seierstad’s position as a woman gave her unique access to both sexes in a society that limits interaction between men and women. If the account had been written by an Afghan woman, perhaps fear and ingrained prejudices would not have allowed for the objectivity that Seierstad achieved.
Objectivity should be one of the main goals in any non-fiction work, particularly in literature, where there is a danger for embellishment or sensationalism. Despite criticism, Åsne Seierstad has achieved a remarkable level of objectivity in The Bookseller of Kabul. Rais’ adamant denials do raise concerns about the validity of this source, but at the same time his position as an Afghan male with much to lose make it difficult to accept his assertions that the book is inaccurate. While it is important to keep her position as an outsider, a woman, and a journalist in mind, it is also these aspects that gave her the freedom to gather such intricate details from the Khan family and record them without fear or reservation. Seierstad has given us a window into the world of the social, cultural, and gender problems that have plagued Afghanistan for decades and how they are coping in a post-Taliban environment. She deals with the men and women, the old and young, and the traditional and more liberal in such an objective way that it is hard to discount her book as untrustworthy. Seierstad was trying to present the Afghan family with all its social customs that separate it from the Western world. However, leaving aside the burkas, dowries, and strong patriarchal customs she also reveals that the Khans are a family who love, fight, have pride, and dreams and aspirations; elements found in almost any family.