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Books

Culture of shame

30 August 2003

12:00 AM

30 August 2003

12:00 AM

The Bookseller of Kabul Asne Seierstad

Little, Brown, pp.245, 12.99

I really thought I had made it when I went to give a talk at my old Oxford college. But when I got there I discovered that there had been an attempt to have me banned. I was accosted by a dusky beauty in the quad who, practically incoherent with indignation, told me that this was because I produced ‘the worst kind of neo-colonial travel writing’. In other words, I had once described an arranged Afghan marriage between a 14-year-old girl and a 38-year-old man as ‘legitimised rape’. I thought I had rather understated the horror of it.

My thought-crime was ‘Orientalism’, the depiction of eastern cultures as strange and inferior to the West, rather than portraying them as both equally bad. In future I will give any cultural relativist this book. It explains what it is like to be an Afghan woman. The answer is that it is even more ghastly than I had supposed.

This is one of the most interesting and original books on Afghanistan I have read. Asne Seierstad lived for three months as a member of an Afghan family with the access of a fly-on-the-wall documentary- maker. The book is a family saga, a catalogue of births and marriages like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It is written like a novel by an omniscient narrator who can see inside her characters’ heads. Their contents are so grotesque that there is no need for her to comment.

Seierstad is a formidable writer. She confines herself to describing what she sees, like a camera, and the detail is always completely convincing: naked in the hammam she notices the stretch marks on the bodies of girls who have had babies too young. She knows the way in which men can judge the attractiveness of a woman, despite the burqa, by looking at her hands and the way she walks.

She describes a society that systematically oppresses women and denies their desires. Love at first sight happens because there are no opportunities for boys and girls to meet, flirt and earth the electrical charge of adolescent sexuality. It is the world of Romeo and Juliet, where female love often issues in suicide.


Women are objects that can be bought and sold. I am often asked the market price of a wife in England. This book tells you what they cost in Afghanistan: $100, with a handicapped sister thrown in free. The morning after the wedding night a rag from the bed is taken to the mother-in-law. If it is not bloodstained, the wife is returned. Once married, women are seldom allowed to work. Men would feel threatened if they did.

The emotion most often invoked is ‘shame’. It is shameful for a woman to want to be in love. It is shameful for her to be in love with a man she cannot have. It is shameful for her to sit in a taxi with an unrelated male. It is shameful to be looked at in the street. Shame for a man can be expiated by a pilgrimage. The shame of a woman is often only expiable by death. Seierstad tells of three brothers who suffocate their sister with pillows for having entertained a lover at night. This shame culture institutionalises male hypocrisy —one thinks of Muslims in Pakistan decanting beer into a teapot and drinking it from china cups. There’s plenty of guilt, too, but the worst thing is being caught.

The man’s word is law. Sultan, the man of the house in this book and the eponymous bookseller, is a monster. Seierstad quotes Tolstoy that unhappy families are all unhappy after their own fashion. But this family was depressingly familiar to me. Perhaps the truth is that there is only a small repertoire of unhappy families, most of whom revolve round an authoritarian paterfamilias. When Sultan’s son suggests that a destitute thief be let off rather than go to prison for three years for stealing 500 postcards from their shop, he turns puce and yells, ‘What sort of son are you? You are to obey me in everything.’ Man hands on misery to man.

Feuerbach would have loved this book. I have never read a more convincing exposition of his thesis that all theology is anthropology. Afghan theology simply reflects male insecurities. The Taliban were a back-to-basics conservative political movement, an attempt to recreate the paradise of the Arabian peninsula in the time of the Prophet when men wielded absolute power over their families. There is nothing exclusively Islamic about cretinous attempts to reconstruct a golden age: in Uganda the Lakwenas, Protestant fundamentalists, shoot people found riding a bicycle on Sundays.

For those of us who think that religious belief is a mental illness, this book provides plenty of clinical detail. The symptoms in Afghanistan are pretty florid. ‘Anyone who prints Rushdie’s books should be put down,’ opines one publisher. Men with long hair were taken to the Ministry of Morality to have it cut. All men with shaved beards were to have their ears and noses cut off. This kind of Islam is not compatible with democracy. Islam is the truth and, if reality conflicts with Islam, it is reality that must change. Like political ideology, it is a substitute for thought. The book describes unsparingly the sort of brain-death that revelation induces. When the religious police searched people’s homes to destroy cassette- and video- players, they also tore off the heads of children’s dolls and smashed them underfoot. Civil servants spent their days with marker pens blacking out pictures of humans on bottles of shampoo.

Seierstad follows the children to school. Here is an Afghan maths problem:

Little Omar has a Kalashnikov with three magazines. There are twenty bullets in each magazine. He kills 60 infidels with two-thirds of the bullets. How many infidels does he kill with each bullet?

In other lessons children are taught that Westerners are wicked because they eat pork.

Of the 16 billion people who have been born since homo became sapiens, I doubt if more than 500 million have lived in a world free of belief in magical causation or the threat of arbitrary imprisonment and death at the hands of religious police for thought-crimes. Afghanistan is a good place to ponder one’s good fortune in being born in the modern West and not in a culture where malaria is treated by yelling, or the best cuts of meat are reserved for the dead, or it is believed that the motions of the stars are controlled from the liver of a rogue elephant, or divine honours paid to shallow depressions in the ground. We have the Enlightenment to thank for this, the moment when the West achieved intellectual maturity (or rediscovered that of the classical world) and reduced religion to a matter of opinion and turned the mullahs into comic turns like Rowan Williams. The Orientalist witch-smellers and postmodernists at Oxford have the Enlightenment in their sights. It is a sobering thought that whole cultures and educated elites can commit intellectual suicide.

Matthew Leeming’s book on Afghanistan, Altogether Elsewhere, will be published by Picador.

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