We all know the phrase ‘first world problems’, this book reminded me how very first world my problems are. It was published in 2002, so sixteen years ago and a year after Taliban has been overthrown in Afghanistan. Asne Seierstad has lived with a family of a Kabul bookseller, which in her book she calls Sultan Khan. She experienced everyday life of the family, the men and the women and this experience forms the base of her book. In the preface she explains that the family she lived with is by no means a typical Afghan family and that her aim was not to show one, but to document the life of the specific family she knew and through that give us a glimpse of Afghanistan, by no means a complete picture.
Seierstad tries to describe without judging, though sometimes her opinions still show, which is unavoidable in case of so huge cultural differences and also if she wanted to keep the narrative flowing. She allows us to peek into the life and emotions of each of the family members, and it is not a small family with over ten members (the number of cohabiting family members changes).
We start the journey at a time when Sultan decides he wants to have a second wife and sets his mind on a specific girl. He is not a young man anymore and his first wife has given him children, but he still picks a young girl as his second wife. As per the tradition one of the women in his family should ask for her hand and negotiate the price, but as none of them approves of sultan’s decision he is forced to do it himself. We get to know the pain it causes to his first wife and how the women in the family show their dissatisfaction with the situation.
Later in the book we also get to know the fate of Sultan’s sisters, their late marriages, delayed by their mother reluctance to let them go and relinquish her power over them. We learn the family hierarchy and also that even though on the outside Sultan appears to be quite liberal he rules his family with a strong hand and does not accept disobedience. The fate of each of the family members is impacted by their place in the hierarchy.
Seierstad writes about the times of the Taliban and the times before that, as she find out about them from the family. Through the simple stories of broken lives she shows us the irreparable damage that has been done to the generations of Afghans. One of Sultan’s sisters has been a teacher before the Taliban, then for years she was forced to remain at home. Another dreams of becoming a teacher now that the Taliban is over, but it is not an easy endeavor, with resistance both from her family and state bureaucracy. Sultan’s sons want to pursue lives of their own, but are forced by their father to abandon school and work in the family bookshops. Each of those stories is a small tragedy, with no way out.
The book also describes the constant threat of conflict erupting again, the families being always ready to retreat to Pakistan, to safety. We read about the extremely difficult position of women, but also about men being bound by tradition. Seierstad also describes the pervading lack of hope, the lack of awareness that life can be very different, the sense of impossibility. She writes about burkas, about daily hygiene, about the extremely simple and very unhealthy food, about how difficult the everyday life is even for this family, which by Afghan standards is pretty well off.
Seierstad quotes the sixteen laws announced by Taliban as they took over the country, in the first reading they are funny in how inconsistent they are, from the big issues to tiniest ones (such as the ban on kite-flying). It very quickly stopped being funny when I remembered it is not fiction, those are not fictional rules imposed by some loony fictional dictator. People suffered and died if they disobeyed them. It was like Handsmaid’s Tale come true, in one day all order is overthrown, there is no common sense, there is no reasoning.
Another thing that moved me was a moment when one of Sultan’s sons listens to Hamid Karzai’s speech and dreams that one day he could be proud of his country (which he does not really believe is possible). This is something we take for granted in the West, we make fun of other countries, there’s plenty of stereotypes about each of them, but also each of them has at least one positive association that is widely known. Afghanistan to my knowledge has none and not much hope of getting one soon. All the subsequent wars and conflicts have completely destroyed the country and its society. Sultan’s family has also been almost imprisoned in the country, the younger generation had no hope of going abroad, there is no such thing for them as vacation abroad, it’s a non-existent concept.
So really a delayed or cancelled flight, non-organic meat, slow internet connection, annoying boss, a job that we don’t like, all this are first world problems.