The Bookseller of Kabul responds
There’s one bookstore in the world where you’ll never, ever find a copy of “The Bookseller of Kabul.”
That would be the Bookseller’s. The epic literary feud that erupted with the book’s publication more than five years ago still endures -- at least from the perspective of Shah Muhammad Rais, who hated his depiction as Sultan Khan, a liberal intellectual in public but a tyrant in his own home.
The author is Asne Seierstad, a young Norwegian journalist who had come to Afghanistan in late 2001 to cover the fall of the Taliban government. On arriving here in the capital, she encountered Rais, the erudite, English-speaking proprietor of the battered city’s best bookshop, which then had a branch in a half-ruined hotel where many journalists stayed.
Seierstad asked if she could live for a time with Rais and his family to document their domestic life as the country and its people emerged from five years of harsh Taliban rule. Without hesitation, he agreed.
The result: a memorable portrait of a man who had fought for freedom of expression in Afghanistan but oppressed and repressed the women of his own family. “The Bookseller” became a runaway bestseller, a book club favorite that was translated into more than 30 languages.
Rais says that Seierstad willfully misinterpreted almost everything she witnessed, failing to take into account deep-seated social customs and the traditional roles of men and women in Afghan society. Seierstad, for her part, has said in interviews over the years that she stands by everything she wrote, and that she could not have ignored the intimate cruelties that transpired before her eyes.
Her book opens with a searing account of the suffering of the bookseller’s wife of 16 years when he brings home a second bride, a comely teenager: “Sharifa cried for 20 days. ‘What have I done? Why are you dissatisfied with me?’ . . . Sultan told her to pull herself together.”
As “The Bookseller” became an international sensation, Rais -- a figure readily recognizable in Kabul, despite the name change in the book -- became increasingly furious. He prowled the city’s bookstalls, buying and destroying any copy he could find. He pursued Seierstad to her homeland, threatening legal action and demanding retractions and apologies.
The vehemence of his accusations so unsettled the author, now in her late 30s, that she agreed to meet him only with her own father present, on the theory that he would demonstrate more respect for a man older than himself than he would for her alone.
More recently, Rais has come out with a literary riposte: a slim English-language volume that tells his side of the story. Stacks of the book, titled “Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul,” are displayed front and center in his downtown bookshop, which is crammed to the rafters with tomes on Sufi poetry and Mughal architecture.
“It is the only way I have to reply to all the things she said about me,” said Rais, a soft-spoken, portly man who was nursing a toothache on a chilly day in January. The sound of clamorous Kabul traffic leached through the sleet-streaked windows.
Rais’ book, published in Kabul in 2007 under the imprint of his Shah M. Book Co., is unlikely to garner the accolades of the original. In his telling, a pair of Norwegian trolls with magical powers appear to him and agree to hear his pleas for redress.
Despite the awkwardness of the conceit, the author’s still-vivid anger and bewilderment give a sense of the powerful cultural dislocation that ensued when he met Seierstad.
He rails at what he considers her abuse of his hospitality, a sacred tenet in Afghan society. He insists that she misread the dynamics of Afghan family life, with its web of obligations and subsuming of individual happiness. He still chokes on a graphic description of his aged mother in a public bath -- a shaming violation of her womanhood, he said.
Seierstad has long since moved on. After leaving Afghanistan, she covered the war in Iraq and wrote another memoir, “A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal.” Though critically well-received, it did not approach the blockbuster status of “The Bookseller of Kabul.”
Rais, too, has embarked on a new chapter. His family is widely scattered now, his first wife and three children in Canada, the second wife and two other children in Oslo. Two grown sons help Rais run the business. “It’s not a happy life,” he said.
Although his demeanor is calm, the bitterness Rais feels toward Seierstad is echoed by his disillusionment with what he sees as scant progress in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban. After years of hardship that included jail, beatings and death threats during the Taliban era, the bookseller believes that the Western powers have squandered a chance to rebuild Afghan society.
“It’s like when the computer freezes up,” he said. “There is nothing to do now but reboot.”
A suicide bombing nearby had shaken the building a few days earlier, but by Afghan standards, the bookshop appeared to be flourishing. Big price tags on high-end books in English, aimed mainly at a foreign audience, help subsidize schoolbooks for hundreds of students, Rais said. He sends a bookmobile to make the rounds of the many Afghan cities and towns that have no bookstore. Customers can order books on the website, which has been up and running for more than a year.
Rais acknowledged that “The Bookseller” brought him a measure of fame he would never have otherwise achieved. People who haven’t read the book -- and occasionally, some who have -- will turn up with a copy for him to autograph. He always refuses.
“What happened was that she came to this country with a picture already in her mind, and put me and my family in the frame,” he said of Seierstad. “It’s like so much else that has happened here in Afghanistan. People from outside come here and think they understand things. But they don’t.”