The Bookseller of Kabul
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|Preceded by||With Their Backs to The World: Portraits of Serbia|
|Followed by||One Hundred And One Days: A Baghdad Journal|
The Bookseller of Kabul is a non-fiction book written by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad, about a bookseller, Shah Muhammad Rais (whose name was changed to Sultan Khan), and his family in Kabul, Afghanistan, published in Norwegian in 2002 and English in 2003. It takes a novelistic approach, focusing on characters and the daily issues that they face.
Åsne Seierstad entered Afghanistan two weeks after the September 11 attacks and followed the Northern Alliance into Kabul where she spent three months. Disguising herself by wearing a burka, she lived with a bookseller and his family in Kabul which provided her with a unique opportunity to describe life as ordinary Afghan citizens saw it.
As well as giving a historical account of events in Afghanistan as democracy is established, Seierstad focuses on the conditions of Afghan women who still live very much under the domination of men—Afghan traditions allow for polygamy and arranged marriage. She also addresses the conflict between westernization and traditional Islam, and gives an accessible account of Afghanistan's complex recent history under the rule of the USSR, the Taliban and coalition-supported democracy.
Following global critical acclaim, many of the book's descriptions have been contested by Rais, who has taken the author to court in Norway for what he says is a defamation and assault on his character, family and country. Seierstad for her part insists on the integrity of her account and asserts that Rais has no grounds for a successful challenge. Throughout the book Rais is depicted as a fairly nonpartisan intellectual who has suffered greatly under different regimes and worked hard all his life, but no different from many Afghans in his horrendous and selfish treatment of women. Rais has claimed to defend women's rights, pointing out his opposition to extremism and his assistance to the author and many other journalists over the years. As Rais is such a well-known figure in Kabul, the author's attempt to anonymize the family by changing their names has been unsuccessful.
On July 24, 2010 Seierstad was found guilty of defamation and “negligent journalistic practices and ordered to pay damages to Suraia Rais, wife of Shah Muhammad Rais”, the Irish Times reported. However, the Guardian reported that the finding was invasion of privacy. Seierstad won on appeal and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which means the appeal court ruling stands.
Rais' own book
During a trip to Scandinavia in November 2005, Rais declared he was seeking asylum in either Norway or Sweden, as a political refugee. He felt things revealed about him in Seierstad's book had made life for him and his family unsafe in Afghanistan, where bootleg versions of the book had been published in Persian.
- Fitzgerald, Mary (7 Jul 2010), "Vindication for Bookseller of Kabul as court orders author to pay damages: Shah Muhammad Rais has long protested Asne Seierstad’s account of his household", Irish Times.
- Hill, Amelia (2010-07-31), "Bookseller of Kabul author Åsne Seierstad: 'It's not possible to write a neutral story'", The Guardian (UK).