Yearning for love or education on their own terms

The plight of Afghan bookseller Sultan Kahn is a good metaphor for the decades of self-destruction that his country has endured. "First the Communists burned my books, then the mujahedeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burned them all over again," he says.

To tell his family's story, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad moved into Mr. Kahn's apartment building, still peppered with bullet holes, in the spring of 2002 following the Taliban's fall.

The result, "The Bookseller of Kabul," is an intimate portrayal beneath the burkhas of Afghan women quietly yearning for love or education on their own terms.

Seierstad's sympathies clearly lie with the young women whom she writes are "above all, objects to be bartered or sold." Freedom from the Taliban has not meant freedom for Afghan women. "Men still decide," she writes. That certainly holds true in the Kahn household, where the family patriarch arranges marriages with the same business acumen he uses to plot book deals.

Not surprisingly, Seierstad's account was not well received by her host, Mr. Kahn. And some equally critical Western writers charge that she has regurgitated every stereotype about how women fare under Islam.

Still, Seierstad never claims that her portrait of a single family is representative of the country as a whole. And she credits Kahn for preserving pieces of the Afghan culture.

But his passion for rebuilding an independent Afghanistan doesn't translate into granting his own children - male or female - any measure of independence.

You can't help but sympathize with his daughter, Leila, a modern-day Cinderella, whose fate is to care for every family member's whim.

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