The Bookseller of Kabul – Asne Seierstad


‘It won’t help this country however much we bang our heads on the ground.

It’s a good sign when the bride is unwilling. That indicates a pure heart.

‘I wouldn’t print his stuff if I was offered all the tea in China.

They flap into the cool apartment, pull the burkas over their heads, hand them up on nails and heave a sigh of relief. Their faces have been restored. The faces the burkas stole.

She watches from a distance and is forbidden to either smile or dance. Happiness would hurt the mother she is leaving, sorrow irritate the future mother-in-law.

A bride must look artificial, like a doll. The word for doll and bride is the same –arus.

The silence is broken only when they urge each other to eat more. It is good manners to push the juiciest morsels over to your neighbour.

Now she is nervous about not being beautiful enough and the playful look has disappeared. A wedding is deadly serious.

The bushy eyebrows, which are so strong they have met in the middle, are plucked. This is the most important sign of her intended marriage, as unmarried women cannot pluck their eyebrows.

The dress must be green –the colour of Islam.

Shakila would rather fall over than be seen without burka.

When they stop they must each try to put one foot over the other’s. The winner is declared the boss in the marriage. Wakil wins, or Shakila lets him win, as she should. It looks bad to appropriate power which is not hers by right.

Without the blood, it would have been Shakila, not the piece of cloth, that was returned to the family.

She is the afterthought at nineteen and at the bottom of the pecking order: youngest, unmarried and a girl.

The tragic reality sometimes presents the appearance of a cartoon film, or rather a thriller.

The women are now spotlessly clean under the burkas and the clothes, but the soft soap and the pink shampoo desperately fight against heavy odds. The women’s own smell is soon restored; the burkas force it down over them. The smell of old slave, young slave.

Alone is an unknown idea for Leila. She has never, ever, anywhere, at any time, been alone.

These are stories she can relate to with all her senses. Sharifa’s stories are her soap operas.

She has been brought up to serve, and she has become a servant, ordered around by everyone. In step with every new order, respect for her diminishes. If anyone is in a bad mood, Leila suffers.

A new day which smells and tastes like every other day: of dust.

She feels she is turning her soul inside out, in front of these boys.

‘When a man has everything and does not know what more to do, he tries to teach his donkey to talk’

When the last-born plays with the mother’s shawl, the next child will be a girl, so the saying goes.

Leila is at a standstill; a standstill in the mud of society and the dust of tradition.

It felt better that his heart bled for the dead minister than for his own lost child.

The illiterate woman, who was forced to marry to provide her family with money, was going to turn into an honoured and respected mother through her son.

Suddenly there is a war inside her head she never knew existed.

‘But what about the murder?’ Leila asks. ‘Her crime came first.’

Whatever happened she would never get away; once again she would be caught within the family, like Shakila; chickens, hens and children around her skirts all day long.

Leila feels how life, her youth, hope leave her –without being able to save herself. She feels her heart, heavy and lonely like a stone, condemned to be crushed forever.


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