Sitting in the Stella Cinema in Rathmines, Asne Seirstad is watching Cate Blanchett play Veronica Guerin. Asne is also a beautiful, blonde and very brave journalist and she has stood, as Veronica did, in front of hostile men with guns, although not in crime-torn Dublin but in war-torn Baghdad, Chechnya, Kosovo and Kabul. The smell in the Stella, she says, puts her in mind of the smells you get in the Middle East. Here in the West, she says, we are so accustomed to being clean, to showering and wearing deodorant, to nice clean places that we forget that the world isn’t a clean place. That isn’t all we forget. Asne recently spent five months living in Kabul, with an Afghani family, just after the fall of the Taliban. For Afghani women, she discovered, being able to stay clean is the least of their worries.
Sharifa is the wife of a book-seller in Kabul. Her husband, Sultan was kind enough to agree to allow Asne to live with him and his family, during her time in Kabul. Sharifa and Sultan had been married for thirty years, quite happily, or so Sharifa thought. Her husband thought otherwise. One day he looked at his wife, who was fifty, the same age as he was, and decided that she was looking old. He deserved better. So he shopped around and found himself a new wife, a sixteen year old cousin of his, called Sonya and he set about negotiating her purchase. He broke the news to Sharifa over dinner, that she was being ousted from his bed and Sonya was taking her place. Sharifa cried for twenty days. ‘What’s wrong with me?” she wailed. ‘What have I done? Why does he want to replace me?” But there was nothing she could do. Her husband’s wish was her command, his word was law. She had no money, no possessions and no rights. She was being allowed to stay in the family home, and she would be expected to cook and clean for the new, younger wife and to be pleasant about it. Her husband even demanded that she be the one to put the rings on the fingers of him and his new wife, at the wedding ceremony. She was to be humiliated and disgraced in front of all her family and friends and there was nothing she could do except put up with it.
Women in Ireland don’t know how lucky we are. Afghani women who don’t put up with being treated like domestic slaves are beaten, tortured and killed. And not just by the men. A mother will hold her child while one of the men whips her until she is almost dead. Just because she has spoken to a boy. A mother will send her sons to strangle her daughter, just because she has had the audacity to meet with a boy who is not a family member. Horrifyingly, disgustingly, women enthusiastically persecute their own sex. It is a frustrating situation to comprehend.
Asne Seierstad is as unlike one of these women as it is possible to be. Independent, liberated, she’s an award-winning war-reporter, quite at home among flying bullets and marauding armies. Her upbringing could not have been more different to Sharifa’s or Sonya’s. Her mother is a feminist author and her father is a left-wing politician in her native Norway. Living with the Afghani women was a feat of endurance, seeing their lack of freedom was frustrating in the extreme. But the plight of these, our fellow human beings would never be real to us, unless someone made them real. And that’s what she had to do.
“There is so much news, there are so many stories, we don’t really relate to them as people,’ she says. “That’s my mission, as a journalist, to make these people human, to give them a name, to give them a face, to give them feelings. To give them hopes and dreams.”
And so she did. In Afghanistan, covering the fall of the Taliban regime, she had, by chance encountered a fascinating man, a bookseller who had been imprisoned for selling books which were banned under the Taliban. And over dinner, at his home, she had decided that his family would be the perfect subject for a book about real life in Afghanistan . ‘The Bookseller of Kabul” which is now an international bestseller with fabulous movie potential.
People are never entirely black or white. The bookseller seemed to be liberal and open minded and in some ways he is.
“The fact that he invited me to live with his family means that he is a generous man,” Asne says. “And he did a great job for the culture of Afghanistan.”
Sultan is passionately anti-censorship and had been arrested and imprisoned by the communists, and persecuted by the Mujahedeen and Taliban. He has saved ten thousand books from being burnt. But his views about the role of women are not liberal.
I tell Asne that I had taken my freedom for granted, even though in my own mother’s day a married woman automatically forfeited her property to her husband and it hasn’t been that long since a man could legitimately hit his wife or demand sex from her as his right. I hadn’t ever seriously thought about what it must be like for the women of Afghanistan. And if I do think about it, it infuriates me that there’s nothing I can do about it.
“That’s why the book is important,” she says. ‘Because people don’t think about it.”
A muslim man can have up to four wives, but according to the Koran, he is supposed to treat them equally, both in terms of the material goods that he gives them and in terms of the affection that he shows them. In the case of the bookseller, it was more like a divorce, except that they still lived under the same roof. In Afghanistan, you can’t get divorced. You could, but all contact with your children would be finished, you would be left with nothing. At least this way, Sharifa still has the status of the first wife.
“Most Afghani men try to share themselves with their wives equally,’ Asne explains. “But of course there is still jealousy. Maybe even more jealousy when the wives are the same age, because they are more competitive.”
Women in Afghanistan are judged like goods. What is the quality of this product? What is the age of it? Is it healthy? How well will it perform? Can it cook? Can it clean? Does Asne see any parallels with the way that women are judged in our society? How thin is she? How blonde? How young? After all, Western men who are rich are often inclined to trade in older wives for younger models.
“The two worlds seem different, but there are similarities. Except that these women don’t have a choice. In the West, you might choose to get yourself in shape and be a product. Be a sex object. But you could choose to do something else, instead.”
In the course of writing the book, Asne tried on the famous burkha. Which was uncomfortable, hot and itchy. But it served a purpose.
“It was a relief because you are anonymous. Nobody notices you and nobody sees that you are a foreigner. As a reporter, you always want to be invisible.”
The decision to move in with the bookseller paid off. It provided an opportunity to scratch the surface of pretense that was being presented by the family and to see what was really going on.
“ In the beginning, when I would ask about the situation with the two wives, they would say ‘Oh, it’s great, it’s perfect, we love each other, Sonya is like a daughter to me. Because that’s what they are supposed to say. But after a few months, I noticed the truth emerging.”
Life in Kabul was boring and uncomfortable, much of the time. In the mornings, she woke up cold, after sleeping on a mat in a shared room and there was no bath or shower. Often there was only a cup of cold water in the face to refresh with. You get used to never being properly clean, never getting the sand out of your hair and you get used to the smells. But you don’t get used to never being able to go out for a walk. The women do housework and gossip and that’s about all they do. But they were not curious about what life might be like in Europe. They didn’t read, or watch television, so they had no ideas about what they might be missing. When asked if they would prefer a Western style of life, they weren’t entirely sure. But for some women, the sexual frustration and the curbing of their romantic inclinations proves fatal. And they are willing to die for their love affairs. In the book, there are poems that were written by women in love and they are devastating to read. ‘Tomorrow morning I will be killed, because of you,’ one of them says. ‘Do not say that you did not love me.”
Why are the women willing to risk their lives for a brief fling? I ask.
“I suppose that tells you a lot about their lives. They are like animals, they cook and clean and fetch water. Some of them are in marriages with terrible people. And suddenly they meet someone and they realise how empty their lives are.”
In one heart-wrenching poem, a woman pleads with God to make her a stone in her next life, rather than a woman. Asne does not believe that her book will change the world that these women live in, she realises that the women will have to do that for themselves, they will have to rise up and demand rights, just as the suffragettes did. But the book will raise awareness and perhaps now that education for girls is a possibility in Afghanistan, some of them will begin that process. Was she not nervous about going to live with the bookseller? Did she not feel threatened, being an attractive blonde?
“No,” she says. ‘I am very much an adventurer. I was more scared before the war, to go to Afghanistan, not knowing the outcome of the war. But I have lived in so many places and by then I had already done the hard stuff, which was covering the war. The war between Iraq and Afghanistan was the most frightening situation I ever was in. It was the fighting, more than the actual bombing, which was frightening. You would sometimes be caught in the fighting, as you were driving. I stopped, one day, at a field with and the Taliban were only three hundred yards away and I suddenly thought What the hell am I doing here? We were in a trench and the bullets and rockets were flying over us and it went on for four hours. Luckily, when it stopped, our side had won.
Is it worth risking your life for these stories?
“No it’s not, but I never think I do risk my life. I am quite a fearless person and I always have done crazy things. I just somehow have a feeling that I will be alright. I say to myself that there are millions of people in the world and most people survive. So you have to be really unlucky to get killed. I have a curiosity which is always wanting to go further. As a child, I would run away and hide, just for the fun of it. If we went skiing, I would take the steepest run down, and my parents would be wondering which one did she take?”
She has a brother and a sister who are not living as dangerously, but it must be hard for her parents?
“Yes, it is. Definitely. But they are getting used to it. They did ask me to leave Iraq before the bombing started. But I just couldn’t bring myself to pack my bags and check out of the room. I postponed it until it was too late and when it was too late, I was relieved!”
There were journalists killed.
“Yes, but we didn’t know that would happen. You don’t leave a movie ten minutes before the end! We didn’t know if they would use chemical weapons, or use us as human shields or take us hostage. But they didn’t.”
Does she see herself as a hero?
“No. But I do feel that I did a good job. I think this was an important book to write. I feel it’s important for us, coming from rich countries to tell the stories of those who are not as lucky as we are. Those we are partly responsible for. And we belong to the same world, right?”
The Bookseller of Kabul is published by Little Brown 16.99 euros