Social anthropology which reads as well as good fiction, Seierstad’s book provides a valuable glimpse into lives which could be centuries removed from contemporary US culture. Despite Sultan Khan’s love of books and hope for a freer Afghan culture, his idea of gender roles – and that of nearly everyone else we meet here – is medieval at best. Women are seen as chattel, servants and baby-makers with no rights, no autonomy; virtually no ‘selves’. This is the most heartbreaking aspect of the Khan family’s story, but far from the only one.
Poverty is another focus of Seierstad’s, as illustrated in the sub-story of a carpenter, trying to support his extended family on small wages. That he turns to theft is condemnable but not difficult to understand or sympathize with. One ends up taking small relief that he is at least not mutilated under Sharia law, but is the destitution of his family really any less-cruel a punishment? An apt reminder that economic opportunity is a bedrock freedom somewhere down there with freedom of speech and thought.
Literature often shines a light on our own lives, asking us to question them, and reading this book is such a case. Are the poor and disadvantaged of our own time and place any less confined than those of early-aughts Kabul? Are the women of that Texas religious compound, that Utah plural-marriage household, that Bronx tenement or Brooklyn Hassidic neighborhood any less limited? Well, yes, actually; though industrialized western societies have far to go, these Afghans have farther. One can only hope that exposure to some good points of a more ‘modern’ culture will gradually erode the stultifying lid which encloses their lives.
Those thoughts were put down in 2008, when it was still marginally-possible to hope that a new US administration could salvage something out of the chaos wrought by our invasion of this battleground nation. Transcribing them now, one is struck by the continuing tragedy that whatever progress any segments of Afghan society may have made in the ensuing dozen years of Western politico-military involvement there is as precarious as ever, what with the Taliban resurgent, a Faustian bargain for peace in the offing and pluralistic, liberal societies battling for survival around the world, even to the halls of the US Capitol bldg. “The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance,” runs a line widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson (though the historians at Monticello deny it). The line is true enough, but worth remembering is that the operative word there is ‘vigilance,’ not ‘war.’ And that the sentiment might even be improved by replacing that with some other intellectual posture, such as ‘objectivity’, ‘questioning’ or ‘critical thought,’ even if that would cost some of its bold, heroic ring.
(That the real-life bookseller – whose name Seierstad had obscured in hopes of protecting his family’s privacy – later rejected her portrayal and very-publicly fought the author in Norwegian court, only to lose, lends yet another layer of complexity and sadness to the entire business)
And the beat goes on.