The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

9838Fiction — print. Translated from the Norwegian by Ingrid Christphersen. Back Bay Books, 2004. Originally published 2002. 320 pgs. Purchased.

In spring 2002, following the fall of the Taliban, Asne Seierstad spent four months living with a bookseller named Sultan Khan and his family in Kabul, Afghanistan. This book is the fictionalized account of the time she spends with a man whose job defies the image the Western world has formed about Afghanistan. Khan hides his impressive stockpile of ten thousand books in attics around Kabul and in Pakistan and has brutal interactions with communists and illiterate Taliban soldiers.

In her introduction, Seierstad says that Khan’s family is unique as most of the family is literate, several family members speak English, and the normally do not lake for money. She also claims to be an “invisible” companion of the family and impartial to the things that occur in their lives. However, even from page one of the novel, she immediately inserts herself and her biases, thoughts, and feelings into the story of this family. No other points of view are presented this book. Seierstad seems determined to distant herself from the Khan family’s customs but continues to remind her readers that all of their problems are caused by their culture. The book ultimately exists in a land of limbo where it’s neither fictional nor nonfictional.

Her sources of information are also slanted. Though Seierstad is fluent in five languages, she does not speak the language most of the family speaks and instead relies upon three family members to do all her translating and collect her information from. This further slants and biases an already biased book.

Sultan Kahn, whose real name is Shah Muhammad Rais (and incidentally shares the same birthday as me), declared in November 2005 that he was seeking political refugee status in either Norway or Sweden as a result of this book. He claims that Seierstad’s book has made life for him and his family unsafe after the book appeared in Persian.

Anonymity was not afforded to him despite the change in names; another reason why this book seems neither nonfictional nor fictional to me. He has also published his own version of the story entitled There Once Was a Bookseller in Kabul, which is available in Norwegian and Portuguese. Interestingly, The Irish Times has also reported that on July 24 2010, Seierstad was found guilty of defamation and ordered to pay damages to Rais. An appeal is underway.

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