In the fall of 2001, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad spent six gruelling weeks in the Afghan desert following soldiers of the Northern Alliance–sleeping on stone floors, bumping over pitted roads in the back of trucks, tramping in the heat on foot. After the Taliban fell, she arrived with the soldiers in Kabul, where she found, to her surprise, a well-stocked bookstore managed by one Sultan Khan. He was charming and talkative, and besides coming away with stacks of books each time she visited the shop, she also came away with a trove of stories: about his struggles against censors from various regimes, including the Taliban; his love of literature and determination to save his priceless collections; and his country’s cultural history. When Sultan invited Seierstad home for a meal, she heard more stories, not only from the bookseller himself but from his several sons. "This is Afghanistan," she thought. "How interesting it would be to write a book about this family." When she proposed the project to Sultan, he agreed readily: she would come to live with the family; she would follow him in his daily routine, along with his wives, sisters, and sons. "You are welcome," he said.
But Sultan is also a committed Muslim with strict views on filial respect and the role of women. We meet his wife, Sharifa, when she learns that Sultan is taking a new bride, as his status in the community dictates. Despite custom, it is agonizing for the mother of Sultan’s children to see her place usurped. We follow their teenage son, Mansur, as he embarks on his first religious pilgrimage, which embodies all the excitement of youth’s first rebellion. And we see Sultan’s younger sisters, as one coquettishly prepares for her wedding while another seeks a job to escape her family’s tight grip.
With the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Khan left his precious book collection and three bookshops in the hands of one of his younger brothers, and, again, took his family to Pakistan. He returned two months later, able to uncover the pictures and place his books back on the shelves. He developed several lucrative projects, selling cheaply reprinted books in English and souvenir postcards to soldiers, peacekeeping and rescue forces, and other foreigners. It was then that Seierstad became acquainted with him and proposed that she learn about the real Afghan people by living with his extended family in Kabul
Many liberal minded readers of the book will perhaps find themselves fighting back frustration and anger as the lives of his family are unveiled. Despite being well educated he does not allow his children or younger sister to go to school and generally controls everything in the lives of each family member. Although there are shocking portraits of the women’s lives in particular there is nothing to suggest that Sultan is anything other than a typical head of a family and in fact a comparatively benevolent one at that considering that he was living out his life in an essentially conservative society which was already under the influence of the Taliban