18 Jan 2011

Singapore, Books and Sophia

I was in Singapore last weekend - to babysit my grand daughter while Rizal and Poh ling went for a much needed break in Bali. I was too happy to oblige. Taking a bus gave me 5 hours of reading time and I managed to finish the book I had been trying to read last week - The Bookseller of Kabul. Written by Asne Sierstad, a Norwegian journalist, the book has become quite controversial. Sierstad herself was sued by the main character of her "novel" Sultan Khan or Shah Rais, the real bookseller in Kabul. Siertstad met Rais, a modern-seeming, urbane and cultured bookseller, while she was covering the Taliban war in Afghanistan. Charmed and impressed by his cultured mien, she got him to agree to let her stay with his family, while she writes about them. While with them however, she discovers another side to this seemingly modern man - he is a typical Afghan autocrat, who rules his family with an iron fist. Sierstad does not mince words when she describes the bookseller's character. Although proclaiming to be a modern man with open views about women and education, at home Sultan Khan (the character in the book) does not really practise what he preaches. His wife Sharifa is totally ignored once he marries a younger woman. His  nineteen year old sister Leila is treated like an unpaid servant and his sons are forced to work in his book shops, even  the 12 year old who only wanted to go to school and learn, like his friends.

It is an interesting book though some might say otherwise. Written as a novel, most of the incidents and even the characters are real however. I agree with Asne Sierstad and I believe that her depiction of this Afghan family and the society in which it moves is true. She may have broken some unwritten law of  hospitality by writing about a family she has stayed with but the colourful tale she has woven and its stark reality pitted against a background of a new Afghan nation just rising in the aftermath of the Taliban war is fresh and insightful. As a reader I feel sad and angry sometimes about the way women, and especially Leila, Sultan's nineteen year old sister is treated. But it is true that in many parts of the world, especially among the less educated, and where the culture is stronger than the religious knowledge, women are never treated fairly. However reading this, one should also understand that not all families  are like Sultan's and that Islam is a religion which reveres its women.

While in Singapore I had the chance to read a few books on fantasy - one by Jessica Day George entitled
Princess of Glass and another about a girl who could change into a dragon, Spitfire. Princess of Glass is a re-telling of  The Twelve Dancing Princesses and is a beautiful story of courage, romance and true love - pitted against witches and curses, with a heroine who is both beautiful and brave as well as intelligent. I'm going to find her other books to read - I enjoyed reading this one so much!

My stay in Singapore is of course not about reading at all but about Sophia.We had a wonderful visit with her and enjoyed ourselves going on the Singapore Flyer with her. Just watching her antics makes me laugh. She can be naughty at times but she is such a delight!

Having fun with Datok

Playing with her toys


naida said...

The Bookseller of Kabul sounds interesting Kat. It's really unbelieveable how women are treated in some cultures.
Princess of Glass sounds very nice.
awwww...Sophia is very cute!

Kat said...

Yes Naida... Afghan women seem to be poorly treated. This is also the picture I get from Khaled Husaini's novel, A thousand Splendid Suns.