Author took us in, Kabul book man accuses

THERE is one book on Afghanistan that the owner of a cluttered bookshop in Kabul is proud not to stock, even though it is based on his family.

The Bookseller of Kabul was an international bestseller for Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian author and journalist, but the novel received a cold reception from Shah Muhammad Rais, the real-life bookseller, his two wives and their children.

They claim the contents, written after Seierstad spent three months living with the family in the Afghan capital after the fall of the Taliban, contained inaccuracies that left them feeling as though a trust had been betrayed.

Seierstad defended her work, which portrayed Mr Rais, a known cultural figure in Kabul, as a tyrant. “I wrote what I saw, heard and was told,” she said.

Turaj Muhammad Rais, one of the bookseller’s sons, said his opinion of the writer had greatly changed since meeting her in the spring of 2002. “We really had a good time together but the way she thanked us for our hospitality was really awful,” he said.

Mr Rais, 23, helps to run his father’s bookstore, which has become a favourite attraction for visitors to Kabul.

Most of the rest of the family has moved either to Canada or Norway because they say they felt uncomfortable at home after the book was published. “The way we behaved with her and the way we represented Afghan culture to her was totally different to what she wrote,” said Mr Rais.

Last week, a Norwegian court ordered Seierstad and Cappelen Damm, her publisher, to pay about $45,000 in damages to one of the bookseller’s wives for violation of privacy. Seierstad’s lawyer, Cato Schiotz, said his client planned to appeal against the ruling.

Mr Rais celebrated the ruling after several years of legal struggles. “We are happy because at least the reader of the book will know that this is something that was not accurate and not based on the true story,” he said.

“We would really appreciate it if Norwegian authorities could stop further publication of the book.”

He was talking behind the counter of his father’s Shah M Book shop, where Seierstad used to sit and work while she was an honorary member of the family.

Surrounded by walls stacked high with English-language novels and factual texts on Afghanistan, Mr Rais recalled that his father welcomed Seierstad into his home in the hope she would produce an account of Afghan culture similar to those of Nancy Dupree, a veteran Afghan expert, who has written a number of books on the country over the past three decades.

“She was the most respected member of the family,” he said. She was given a room to herself while the rest of the family, of more than a dozen, lived in the four other rooms of their apartment.

After she left, the family waited for word on the book, but Mr Rais said they heard nothing before publication and initially received only a Norwegian version.

Finally his father was sent an English edition. “It was a really unforgettable moment when my father opened up a copy of the book. We all wanted to hear the story and were sitting around him,” Mr Rais said.

“He started reading the first chapter and we went from being happy to being upset.”

Responding to the criticism, Seierstad said: “I had a straight agreement with Shah Muhammad Rais to write a book about the family, and everybody who wished in the family could contribute . . . I even told Shah that he might not like the book, but he insisted that this was my book and he did not want to influence my writing.

“Now I realise that he just failed to contemplate that it would not present him as a full-fledged hero. I do, by the way, believe he is a hero — saving books, printing books, preserving the Afghan culture.

“But he cannot be a hero in all worlds. He is a two-sided character, politically liberal and outspoken, and then a typical Afghan patriarch when it comes to running his family.”

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