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, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent
IT IS one of the literary world’s most unlikely feuds – one that pitches an aggrieved Afghan bookseller against a Norwegian journalist who turned the story of his family into an international bestseller that has arguably done more to shape perceptions of quotidian life in Afghanistan than anything else.
Shah Muhammad Rais, the real-life Bookseller of Kabul thinly disguised in the book of the same name as the domineering Sultan Khan, has long protested the accuracy of Asne Seierstad’s account of the inner workings of his household.
Last week, Rais experienced a vindication of sorts when an Oslo court ordered Seierstad to pay more than €31,000 in damages to his second wife, Suraia. Seierstad was found guilty of defamation and “negligent journalistic practices” after Suraia argued that the book cast her in a distorted and humiliating light, and left her feeling “violated”. Seven other members of the family, including Rais, his first wife and his children, are also planning to sue.
The row, which has rumbled along since the book’s publication in 2003, has prompted searching questions about the degree to which western journalists should judge the traditions and mores of societies like that of Afghanistan.
When I met Rais at his ramshackle shop in Kabul last year, he was still smarting, not just over his depiction as an intellectual who defended freedom of expression while acting the tyrannical patriarch at home, but also what he considered the book’s indelicate portrayal of the women in his family. In particular, a graphic description of his elderly mother naked in a hammam rankled.
Bookseller and journalist first met in the months that followed the ousting of the Taliban regime. Rais was something of a Kabul institution – people referred to him as “the man who saved the books”. Imprisoned twice by the communists, he was jailed again by the Taliban who forced him to watch as they set fire to some of his gargantuan collection.
When Seierstad asked if she could live with Rais and his family to write a book, Rais agreed. “There was no objection due to the traditions of Afghan hospitality,” he told me, as we sat on carpets surrounded by piles of books on everything from Sufi poetry to the ancient tribes of Afghanistan.
“I also believed she should live with a family to really gain an understanding of Afghan society from the inside. I wanted her to see that two decades of war had not diminished the morale of Afghans and hope was growing after the Taliban’s defeat. I was expecting her to write of such things but instead she misused our hospitality and our sincerity. She was not honest.” In addition to accusing Seierstad of gross misrepresentation and betrayal, Rais also argued that she misread the dynamics of Afghan family life, with its traditions of arranged marriage and polygamy, and its emphasis on obligation and duty above individual happiness. Her book, he claimed, was coloured by her own pre-existing prejudices.
“She came here with a picture of Afghanistan already in her mind and she wanted to find a frame for it. She used me and my family as that frame,” he said. “It really hurts me that so many people think I am a bad man as a result.”
The writ in last week’s court case noted inconsistences in the book. It also highlighted passages where Seierstad gave details about the sex lives and “forbidden loves” of several family members, sometimes using real names. Rais and his family have claimed these revelations have proved so damaging to their reputation in deeply conservative Afghanistan that several have been forced to emigrate. Rais says his family’s legal action is not about compensation. “The money is not important to us . . . We want this book to be discredited in a court of law for all to see because it is the honour of the Afghanistan people it has insulted.” Seierstad has indicated she intends to appeal. In the meantime, Rais directs customers at his Kabul shop to the literary riposte he self-published in 2007.
The book, a slim volume titled Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul, features a pair of Norwegian trolls who visit him to discover the truth about the debacle. Seierstad made “an innocent family’s private problems public” and “generosity and kindness [were] rewarded with slander”, Rais writes. “I was foolish enough to waste my precious time on Asne Seierstad.”