In November 2001, after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, freelance journalist Åsne Seierstad arrived in Kabul with the Northern Alliance (a military front that fought against the Taliban). Whilst in the city, she stumbled upon a bookshop owned by Shah Muhammad Rais, a man whose dedication to preserving Afghan culture against many oppressive regimes had resulted in a prison sentence and the contents of his shops burnt in the streets. After several meetings with Rais, including a meal at his home, Åsne decided to share their story, in particular the normally hidden lives of its women.
The Bookseller of Kabul is a fictionalised tale of the Rais family (renamed Khan in the book). Åsne spent four months staying in their home in the spring of 2002, interviewing family members and studying their way of life. Conversations and events have been translated into third person prose, obscuring Åsne as the supposedly impartial observer and revealing the inner-thoughts of the family.
I use the word “supposedly” because although Åsne is absent from the narrative, she is not impartial. Chapters about family life are juxtaposed with poems about forbidden love. Another chapter begins with a description of a stoning. Åsne anger about the treatment of Afghan women (and her disgust for her host, Shah Muhammad Rais, who seemingly cares more about his business than the happiness of his family) is apparent throughout the book.
In the Western world, The Bookseller of Kabul has been very well received, even becoming the bestselling nonfiction book in Norwegian history (Åsne’s home country). However, the Rais family went on to denounce it as inaccurate. Suraia Rais, the second wife of the bookseller, even filed a complaint against the author for invasion of privacy (Suraia initially won the case but a court later overturned the ruling when it went to appeal).
The Bookseller of Kabul is a fascinating book and one that, despite its problems, I would recommend reading. The author reveals an Afghanistan that is often absent in Western portrayals of the country – one that has a rich heritage and a resilient population. However, a conscientious reader should seek out more books about the country, particularly firsthand experiences of Afghan women, rather than trust that Anse’s novel tells the whole story.