Asne Seierstad has just returned to her native Norway from covering the war in Iraq to discover that she has written one of the topselling books in her country's history. She spoke with PW by phone about why she thinks her book, Bookseller of Kabul, appeals to so many people.
PW: As a reporter covering the war in Afghanistan, you filed stories each day. So why write a book?
Asne Seierstad: I came down at the end of September , starting with the Northern Alliance and then to meet up with the U.S. troops, then through the fall of Kabul and the fall of Kandahar. After three months, I felt I still knew nothing about Afghanistan. You interview bomb victims, or the commanders, or the child soldiers, but very rarely would you get into houses. When I met the bookseller, who at the time had a bookshop in the International Hotel and one downtown, he was the first to invite me to dinner. I got so inspired by this and asked if I could spend time with his family
PW: How is it the family of the bookseller came to trust you?
AS: Usually, as a journalist, what we lack is time; we ask a question, get an answer, and when they are tired and I am tired, we leave. In this case, I am dressed in the burqa going around with them. What journalists don't see is people sitting around, cooking rice, making tea. I sat and listened. That's what you need in all countries, but especially in this country: you have to have patience. You have to wait for the stories to come out. That's why I was feeling it [the book] is more true than you could get in an article.
PW: Yet you didn't speak the language, so everything had to be translated.
AS: I don't speak the language. Everything was relayed to me through Sultan, Mansur and Leila [the bookseller, his son and his sister] in English, which they learned in Pakistan. With everything in the book, either I was there or it was something they told me.
PW: Since the book is about just one family, how can you be confident you got an authentic experience of domestic life in Afghanistan?
AS: Having spent much time in Afghanistan, I realized that the first priority lies with the family, then the clan and then the tribe. Why we see no changes in Afghanistan is because no matter what Afghan president Hamid Karzai says, things will remain the same unless the patriarch of the family says things will change. Reading the book, you get an idea how the country functions through the family. This may be why the book has been so popular in many countries: the stories are about a family and have the same effect if you're Italian, Finnish or Latvian.
PW: How is Sultan typically Afghan? He seems fairly modern—for example, he sells books via the Internet.
AS: The fight in Afghanistan has been between tradition and modernity. This is also the fight I saw inside Sultan. On one side, he wants to be modern, but when he's around his family, he's a village boy. His parents and sisters are all illiterate. When it comes to ruling his family, he only has one model, his father. When he reads, he doesn't absorb what he reads and it doesn't change him. In theory, I thought he was much more open.
PW: The way in which the women are treated in this book seems barbaric. Is it so?
AS: These people are living in a different century. In Norway we had the Vikings. They ruled Scandinavia in the year 1000 and when it came to the politics, it was very similar to what they have in Afghanistan, with small kings making alliances, stabbing each other in the back. Sometimes you feel you're in a fairy tale—sometimes we're on horses and talking to these warlords. Even though they have Kalashnikovs and some modern clothes, it's hard to tell what century they're living in. I'm not saying that we're 1,000 years more developed. But when it comes to women's rights, not even during the Vikings do we have the same situation they have in Afghanistan.