Book: The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

Times Litterary Supplement 5 March 2004

02/04/2004 ::  

Martha Gellhorn used to say "Always distrust anyone who calls himself a war correspondent". Asne Seierstad is a young Norwe-gian journalist whose publishers call her a war correspondent, and the blurb for The Bookseller of Kabul includes China among the places where she worked as one, though in 1997, when, it seems, she worked there, as far as I know there was no war going on.

The Bookseller of Kabul is Seierstad's account of the weeks she spent living in the Afghan capital in 2001, after the fall of the Taleban. Her host runs the bookshop in the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel. She calls him Sultan Khan; not a very likely name for an Afghan. In reality, he is Mohammed Shah Rais, and the way she writes about him and his family has infuriated him to the point that he has come to Europe to sue her. "It is slander and salacious. I hate her", he has been quoted as saying.

Mohammed Shah is a brave man, who stayed in Kabul throughout the Taleban years and endured violence and imprisonment in order to safeguard his books and photographs about Afghanistan's history. The Taleban raided him again and again. I first met him in 1996, admired him as a kind of martyr to literature and remain friends with him to this day. Asne Seierstad "happened upon" him only after the Taleban had evaporated. She thought it would be interesting and instructive if she stayed in his house for a while and saw the changes in Afghanistan through his eyes, and those of his family. He, characteristically, agreed.

Her book is charming, beautifully written, and totally lacking in any serious understanding of Afghanistan and its complex people. No won-der it has been such a success in the Western world: it details how a Western woman might feel if she had to wear a burka in the street, or endure the humiliation when her husband took a second and much younger wife, or be her elder brother's slave, or have to sell sweets rather than go to school. For someone who doesn't speak Dari, Seierstad has had some wonderfully deep and revealing conversations, which she quotes in full, with the women of Mohammed Shah's household. And guess what? They don't like the way he treats them either. They are so like us, and Mohammed Shah is so unlike us, that it starts to make you wonder.

The Bookseller of Kabul takes a patronizing and scandalized view of Islam. Mohammed Shah, with the impulsive generosity of the Afghan, opened up his household to an unsym-pathetic and uncomprehending spy. I have seen Asne Seierstad at work, and admired her guts and drive; but this book represents the triumph of marketing over understanding. Of, course Mohammed Shah won't get anywhere by challenging her in the European courts: when did bad taste ever disqualify a book in western society?

John Simpson

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