Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad parachuted into Afghanistan and told the West exactly what it wanted to hear about that nation's women. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.
There’s only one country foreigners write more self-righteous, intellectually assured rubbish about than Afghanistan: ours. To any American who’s been asked overseas whether we all — depending on gender — wear miniskirts or carry guns, the lurid colors and broad brushstrokes of most journalism about Afghanistan should look familiar. Afghan men, we’ve been reminded over and over, are savage warriors, jealous of their honor, harsh to their long-suffering women, fanatically religious. And Afghan women — forced to wear the burqa and be virtual slaves to their husbands — deserve our pity.
The reality, when I made two trips to Afghanistan in 2002 to teach English and buy supplies for schools, was otherwise. From schoolboys at play to university students, Cabinet ministers to legendary commanders, Afghans were quieter, gentler and more self-contained than Americans. One young man confided that to him and his friends in northern Afghanistan, Americans’ body language and loud voices seemed exaggerated, like the gestures of stage actors.
It was hard to pity the women when I lived with an extended Uzbek Afghan family in Mazar-i-Sharif and Maimana for a couple of weeks. A withered 80-year-old widow sat bala, or at the head of the room, and she was the only person who smoked. The family’s resources were lavished on a bright teenage daughter, who had her own room and computer and was preparing for her university entrance exam. And the men were tender with their children and treated their wives, sisters and mothers with dignity. I felt at home more quickly than I ever have in an American household, and the fondness and respect I saw between young and old and men and women gave me new yardsticks for my own life.
Still, I often found myself unable to leave my American ways behind. When I asked my English students what they would buy their mothers if they were given $20, burqas (more properly called chadoris) were the gift of choice; when I asked what improvements the girls sought at Balkh University, they mentioned a changing room to put on their chadoris at the end of the school day. I was surprised at my own vehemence when I suggested that they throw the chadoris out instead. Later, then-deputy women’s minister Tajwar Kakar complained to me that the only topic female journalists wanted to discuss was the veil — not education, not job-training, just the veil. If I’ve finally gotten beyond this fixation it’s because I’ve started to suspect that it’s about projection, and that our deeply divided feelings about our own sexual culture makes Westerners so eager to attack other ways.
Whatever a Westerner writes about Afghanistan is going to be gravely wrong in some respects. But as long as we write with the awareness that we are probably projecting as much as we are describing, we might as well go ahead. After all, the goal of psychoanalysis is learning to recognize the transference and countertransference, not to stop us from ever falling in love again. Or in less specialized vocabulary, we’re not OK, they’re not OK and that’s OK too.
But for the way she nails the physical details, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad’s account of a large, unhappy Afghan family in “The Bookseller of Kabul” would seem to describe another country entirely. Seierstad has an eye for what looms large when you’re in a bad mood: the slipshod construction of Afghan houses, with gaping holes in windows and ill-fitting doors, the dubious sanitary arrangements, the grease in some of the food. She’s good at details, though either she or her translator never met a cliché they didn’t like. But of the many Westerners I know who’ve lived in Afghanistan, Seierstad seems among the least sympathetic to the country and culture.
In the spring after the defeat of the Taliban, the 33-year-old war correspondent lived for several months in the household of a 50-ish bookstore owner she calls Sultan Khan. She says at the start, “I was incredibly well treated; the family was generous and open,” but continues:
“I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family, and I have rarely quarreled as much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there. The same thing was continually provoking me: the manner in which men treated women.”
Seierstad doubtless expects her readers to be nodding in agreement — we already know the truth about Afghan women, don’t we? — and, sure enough, “The Bookseller of Kabul” has broken all records for Scandinavian book sales, with a half million copies sold. This is a concrete demonstration that Orientalism is by no means out of style, even when handled by hands as crude as Seierstad’s.
Her choice to narrate from a God’s eye viewpoint — she does not appear in the story — allows Seierstad to cloak speculation and condescension with a veneer of journalistic veracity. Seierstad delivers the sensationalism she knows Westerners will lap up, describing Khan’s courtship of the 16-year-old who became his second wife, together with an obligatory Taliban book-burning, within the first nine pages. Seierstad has used omniscient narration to make it appear that these events, which she did not witness, are as objectively reported as the family’s cuisine.
“Seems like things are pretty bad over there,” a smart writer friend said to me with a grave look after finishing “The Bookseller of Kabul,” and doubtless many Western readers will assume that Seierstad is revealing the (single) “truth” about Afghan marriages and families.
Yes, like most Westerners, I find some of the bare facts Seierstad presents — notably how Sultan Khan takes a 16-year-old bride, Sonya, without consulting his middle-aged first wife, Sharifa — appallingly cruel. But isn’t it reasonable to think that the first marriage might have had some problems? The middle-aged Afghan men I met had grown old with their wives; polygamy is uncommon. And since Seierstad herself portrays the marriage between Khan and Sonya as relatively happy both in bed and out, Khan might have some good qualities Seierstad misses. Would we let a reporter get away with these sloppy tactics in America?
Perhaps because she deep-down believes that the people she is among are unfathomable savages, Seierstad never tries to find out why they do the things she describes. Sultan Khan himself remains an enigma, a man who endured two prison terms for selling books by immersing himself in Persian poetry, yet pulled his sons out of school to mind his shops. But Seierstad was too busy restraining her desire to hit Khan to find out who he is, or to try to explain his contradictions.
As the owner of the fabulously well-stocked and ridiculously pricey bookstore in the Kabul Intercontinental, Sultan Khan is easily identifiable in Kabul as a real man named Mohammed Shah Rais, and unsurprisingly, Rais isn’t happy. He insists that “The Bookseller of Kabul” defames his family and especially the honor of its women, and, most unusually, he’s seeking to sue Seierstad in Norway. News reports aren’t clear on the details of the case, or on what constitutes defamation under Norwegian law, but it seems that while Seierstad has dedicated $300,000 of her royalties to the Norwegian Afghan Committee, she paid the family nothing.
There aren’t any hard and fast rules about the ethics of these situations, but if Seierstad were truly concerned about the women and children of the “Khan” family, giving each of the adult women $10,000 or $20,000 would release them from dependence on the man Seierstad is eager to convince us is a monster. But this would imply that Seierstad cared for these particular human beings, as opposed to using them as props to demonstrate her preexisting opinions of Afghan society. In the plump publicity pack accompanying my copy of her book, one of several photos of Seierstad shows her with a group of Afghan women in a courtyard. Presumably they’re the women of the family, yet they’re not identified, as befits anonymous “victims.”
Of course, Seierstad’s experience isn’t invalid just because it was very different from mine. But even if Rais is a monster, that doesn’t entitle Seierstad to make sweeping generalizations about Afghan marriage. “In Afghanistan, a woman’s longing for love is taboo,” she writes. For love outside of marriage, yes. But surely not for a loving marriage. What would Seierstad make of the old Uzbek saying, meant to come from one aged spouse to another: “I hope we meet in the afterlife, because 50 years together was not enough”? The people who passed that down for generations cannot have thought of women as simply “objects to be bartered or sold,” even though the marriages they had in mind were arranged. And if body language, eye contact and tone of voice mean anything, the marriages I saw compared favorably with American marriages in terms of affection and, especially, respect.
Because Seierstad devotes so much space to sneering accounts of marriage negotiations, it’s worth adding a thought or two. In the Khan family, she notes, marrying one’s relatives is preferable. Here’s one place Seierstad didn’t generalize enough: In Afghanistan as a whole, most people marry their relatives when they can, and the marriage with a paternal first cousin is the most sought after. But in many ways this system protects women more than, say, Indian practices. Usually the spouses have known each other all their lives, and the new house the bride moves into contains relatives who are much less likely to abuse her than if she were marrying a stranger.
However alien the tradition of cousin-marriage may seem to Americans, for centuries it was the norm, and not only in the Arab world where it persists. As Germaine Tillion points out in her brilliant “The Republic of Cousins,” cousin marriage was the norm in the entire Mediterranean basin, including southern France and Italy, and among Jews. (Two of my mother’s older cousins married their first cousins, just 70 years ago). It’s even prevalent in Jane Austen’s novels.
Seierstad also stumbles in her account of the family’s social level. It’s misleading to give them the surname “Khan”, which in Afghanistan denotes old landed families who need not work for a living. Rais (which means “leader” in Farsi, and was probably a name taken during his ascent) is an upwardly mobile peasant from an illiterate village family — not a “good” family by Afghan standards, where genealogies may arch back a thousand years or more.
It’s true that the lives of the women of the Khan family don’t compare favorably with their best-case Western counterparts, educated, financially independent women with loving husbands and stable children. But the lives of the women of the Khan family don’t compare favorably with those of the Mazar household I visited either. Seierstad commits the major sin of writing about Afghanistan while failing to take into account her biases as an observer. Most Afghan women, I suspect, would find the lives of privileged, young professional women in chick-lit novels — working painfully long hours at jobs of questionable meaning and worth, living alone in a tiny apartment, dating boorish men, estranged from their family — lonely and pointless.
Additionally, Seierstad never considers that the family’s strained tempers or her own simmering rage might have something to do with the crowded conditions of the Khan family, whose three-room apartment in a once upscale but now decrepit Russian-built housing block housed as many as a dozen people. Would an Afghan journalist who lived with a Norwegian family in similar conditions report that all was sweetness and light? (My similar-sized Uzbek host family, by contrast, lived in a spacious house of more than a dozen rooms in an uncrowded area outlying Mazar-i-Sharif.)
This sort of parochialism and unwillingness to challenge one’s assumptions — together with a language barrier nearly all journalists are too lazy to cross — helps explain the uselessness of most writing about Afghanistan by outsiders. More interesting insights into Afghans, especially Afghan women, tend to come from anthropologists with good language skills (Benedicte Grima’s excellent “The Performance of Emotion Among Pashto Women,” which studies Afghan refugee women in Pakistan, or Charles Lindholm’s somewhat heavy-handed “Generosity and Jealousy,” about Swat Pashtuns) or those who went to Afghanistan to do a job rather than prove an ideological point, and spoke at least a little Farsi (Rosanne Klass’ elegant memoir of 1950s Kabul, “Land of the High Flags,” or Mary Smith’s artless, moving account of the women of the Hazara Jat in “Before the Taliban”).
But the best epigram I’ve ever seen about Afghans comes from the first Afghan-American novelist, San Francisco physician Khaled Hosseini. “Afghans cherish customs but abhor rules,” says a character in his moving debut, “The Kite Runner.” When you consider that Westerners are nearly the opposite, the inevitable collision of cultural styles becomes clearer.
Hosseini’s epigram can be unpacked to explain what I came to see as the Afghans’ tragic national flaw: risk-aversion. Coasting on the familiar tide of custom, insulated from the need for organized institutions by their hundred cousins, Afghans have been motivated to develop only the merest skeleton of a civil society. A tendency toward consensual decision-making and risk-aversion means stasis. Especially for those born into higher-status families, there’s more to be lost by trying and failing than there is to be gained by trying and succeeding.
Oddly enough, this propensity for risk-aversion, rather than a propensity to violence, may be the best explanation for Afghanistan’s often-decried “warlordism”: When thinking big is outlawed, only outlaws will think big. Most “warlords” in Afghan society are strivers from poorly connected, low-status families. Meanwhile, Afghan’s khan class — the landed gentry — collect advanced degrees and impressive job titles like ornaments, and treat government posts with tremendous casualness.
Precisely because few people want to rock the boat, it’s easily tipped over when someone does. Bad geopolitical luck, combined with the lack of strong civil institutions, leave custom and the gun as the two easy alternatives. Afghans can’t seem to stop killing each other because, like a couple in a bad marriage, they’ve never tried the scary venture of learning how to have survivable fights.
We Americans, on the other hand, don’t leave much to the realm of habit; we interrogate and debate everything; we are never satisfied. While we have created an immensely rich culture and a civil society that makes good on many of the utopian promises of 5,000 years of dreamers — religious freedom! Legal equality of the sexes! Universal education! — all too often we have the taste of ashes in our mouths. Cherishing rules over customs does not do much for the heart, and Afghans seem to understand this.
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