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.