March 2, 2009

Who betrayed the bookseller of Kabul?


The real-life Bookseller of Kabul, Shah Rais, pictured in his bookstore in Kabul

Shah Muhammad Rais, pictured in his bookstore in Kabul

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad was one of the most successful books of recent years, translated into 30 languages and beloved by all — well, except for this one guy in Kabul, Shah Muhammad Rais. He’s the bookseller it was based upon. A Los Angeles Times story by Laura King notes that, five years after its publication, Rais still feels betrayed by the journalist he let live with his family.

In fact, Rais was so furious that “He prowled the city’s bookstalls, buying and destroying any copy he could find. He pursued Seierstad to her homeland, threatening legal action and demanding retractions and apologies.” The situation had a shattering effect on his family, which “is widely scattered now, his first wife and three children in Canada, the second wife and two other children in Oslo.” He tells King, “It’s not a happy life.” For her part, Seierstad says “she stands by everything she wrote, and that she could not have ignored the intimate cruelties that transpired before her eyes” between Rais and his family — such as the time he brought home a second, much younger wife, devastating his first, long-time wife.

Now, he has published his own book, in English: Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul. It is, says King, “unlikely to garner the accolades of the original. In his telling, a pair of Norwegian trolls with magical powers appear to him and agree to hear his pleas for redress.” And Rais seems to know this, even though he’s placed stacks of it front and center in his shop. “It’s like so much else that has happened here in Afghanistan,” he tells King. People from outside come here and think they understand things. But they don’t.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives