The top of the Serbian pop charts is an unlikely place for a Norwegian journalist. But Åsne Seierstad's brief incarnation as a Balkan songstress, with her 2001 hit Laganese, is just one indication of the lengths to which she'll go for a story. While researching her book on Serbian society, With Their Backs to the World (2000), she paid a visit to singer Rambo Amadeus, whose musical style she describes as "acid-horror-funk." Amadeus balked at being included in the book he just didn't give interviews. But a Norwegian folk song he heard her singing caught his ear. "Sing your fisherman song for my CD and I'll be in your book," he bargained. Seierstad sang for her interviews and forgot about the brief recording session until the song featuring her heavily remixed warbling rocketed up the Serbian charts.
The fearless, seize-any-opportunity attitude that launched her short-lived pop career has made Seierstad, 33, perhaps the best-known journalist in Scandinavia. She has reported from such hot spots as Chechnya, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq picking up several languages and awards along the way. She covered the war in Iraq for an assortment of newspapers and radio and television networks. Scandinavian viewers rushed to their sets each morning to see how Seierstad, holed up in Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, had fared. "With TV, people think they know you, they care for you," she says, both touched and disturbed by the concern. "They don't care about thousands of Iraqi children, but they care if I survive."
In The Bookseller of Kabul, Seierstad's account of staying with a family in Afghanistan in the months after the Taliban's fall, she accomplishes vividly in print what comes so easily on screen. Her portrait of Sultan Khan, the title subject, and the dozen or so family members who live in his home, is a compassionate and illuminating portrait of one family that makes readers care deeply about their fate. Though hardly typical as the most successful bookseller in a largely illiterate country, Khan is well-educated and prosperous their stories, told largely in their own voices, capture the daily reality of a society on the cusp of change. The book, published in the U.K. this month, was the surprise best-selling title in Norway last year and is due for release throughout Europe and in the U.S. over the next several months. With the unexpected proceeds, Seierstad recently bought an apartment in a house in Oslo that was once owned by arctic explorer Roald Amundsen so she is now plotting her next move in the place where he planned his epic journeys.
The characters in The Bookseller of Kabul reflect Afghanistan's contradictions. A man of letters who hid his books from the Taliban in attics across Kabul, Khan boasts that his eight or nine thousand volumes are the world's largest collection of books on Afghanistan. Yet he's a traditionalist who presides strictly over business and family including a teenage second wife who evicts his first wife from the marital chamber. His 12-year-old son yearns to attend school but has to tend one of Sultan's shops. "You are going to be a businessman. The best place to learn that is in the shop," Khan tells him firmly.
The book is most compelling when depicting the circumscribed lives of the women in Khan's family. Bright and vivacious Leila, 19, who has work-worn hands and a vitamin D deficiency because she rarely sees sunlight, speaks English and dreams of becoming a teacher, but her lot in life is to cook and clean for family members. Seierstad confesses that the treatment of the women challenged her goal to stay out of the story. "I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family," she writes. For Seierstad, staying silent may have taken as much resolve as the many outspoken acts that have punctuated her career.