Bookseller of Kabul: She said, he said

I have yet to read The Bookseller of Kabul, although I have a copy and it is on the “To Read” list, but there appears to be a controversy surounding this hot selling book (it sold 220,000 copies in Norway alone). The book is the account of Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad’s experiences living with a bookseller in Afghanistan after the US defeat of the Taliban. Seierstad covered wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq prior to taking on this project. The compelling story and the books success made the author, already a bit of a celebrity in Norway, the toast of the Scandinavian publishing world.

Then in August things heated up, according to the New York Times:

Then in August, shortly before the book’s publication in Britain, a set of the English-language galleys reached the bookseller, Shah Mohammed Rais. Outraged by what he said were lies, distortions and dangerous indiscretions, he flew to Oslo last month to denounce Ms. Seierstad and to prepare a lawsuit against her and her publisher, Cappelen. (The book will be published in the United States on Wednesday by Little, Brown.) Since then, the public confrontation over “The Bookseller of Kabul” has become the talk of Norway, with televised debates galore, some newspapers jumping at the chance to run photographs of the striking blond author and more serious newspapers arguing the political correctness of first world journalists judging third world cultural traditions.

It certainly sets up an interesting debate. On the one hand you have the journalist who claims to have done her best to be accurate and honest, and vet the material to protect the family. On the other hand you have the subject of the story outraged over how he is portrayed. What is clear is that both underwent culture shock. Seirestad in Afghanistan:

Yet, while welcomed, Ms. Seierstad suffered intense culture shock. In the book’s foreword, she writes: “I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family, and I have rarely quarreled as much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there. The same thing was continually provoking me: the manner in which men treated women. The belief in man’s superiority was so ingrained that it was seldom questioned.”

Mr. Rais upon reading the book:

Mr. Rais said that when he read “The Bookseller of Kabul” he was “terribly, terribly” shocked. “There were lots of misrepresentations of me, my family and my country,” he said from Frankfurt. “She did not understand who I am. The host for her, I very kindly accepted her, I gave my hospitality to her, without any contract, without any financial expectation, without anything. She doesn’t understand how shameful it is to write such things on paper.”

It looks to be a riveting book and a fascinating exploration of a different culture. The culture shock involved has spilled out of the book and into the wider world. Saddly, it appears to be headed to an ugly court battle over money:

Mr. Meling [Mr. Rais’ lawyer] said he would visit Kabul to see if other family members wish to join the action. He said he would then file a lawsuit for libel in Oslo in which he will ask the court to rule that elements in the book are untrue and to order that damages be paid to Mr. Rais. But he also plans to seek a share of the profits from the book, he said.

I plan to read the book soon and promise to offer a report.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Mr. Rais is obviously a gold digger. The book doesn’t even use his name, and yet he wants to sue for libel? Please. Surely he knew it was possible her understanding of the family and the country would be different from his – even likely. Her book has raised public awareness of Afghanistan tremendously – and shown things westerners will find both great and sad. If Rais cared as much about his country as he claims, he’d be happy more people care now than ever before her book, and he’d stop trying to get money out of her for himself.

  2. I think Seierstad does an admirable job of telling the stories without interjecting her own view. Judgment is left to the reader. I would think that if one from a different cultural background (e.g, a fundamentalist Islamic one) read the book, they would have an entirely different reaction to it than I did.

    However, trying to look at this from the point of view of Rais/”Khan”, I can see that he didn’t expect Seierstad to write what she did! That just isn’t the way he would expect a woman to behave – it would be unheard of.

    I thought this was a great book.

  3. I read the book, by mere coincidence when i simply bumped into it on a Teheran street bookseller.

    I personally loved it, especially because it was biased! I am a Muslim boy, from a similarily conservative familly background, and have lived -and relate- to much of what Asne mentioned throughout her account of the Khan familly, who turned out to be the Rais one.

    Im sure the book will only add to the misunderstanding of Islam and Muslim culture in the west, but it sure helped me rethink a dozen things/practices/beliefs over and over.

    The book is a success if it falls in the hands of an “easterner,” and a further curse on tolerance in the hands of a “westerner”

    however, the question was: where does the journalists’ job stop? Was she meant to merely “report” the lives of the typical Afghan familly. or was she meant to add her personal touch, which in some cases is a very valid human prespective, in others a clash-of-cultures and a clear-cut bias.

    I was wondering if anyone had, by any chance, a means of communicating with either Asne Seierstad, the Rais familly, or their Leila’s lover “KARIM” who is supposidly studying only streets away from my house at Al-Azhar.

    I would be very grateful if you could at all pass any of these contacts on.

    PS: does anyone know wether Rais’ book is on the market by now or not? please tell me if it is anytime soon

Comments are closed.