Okay, here we go again (see Kabul Beauty School below). We have a (fascinating, allegedly true) story, and then the (disturbing) story about the (now accuracy-challenged) story.
Just after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, an award-winning Norwegian journalist emerges from six weeks of following Northern Alliance commandos all over Afghanistan and moves into (invited!) the home of a Kabul bookseller, Sultan Khan (not his name), for three months in order to write a book about him and his extended family. “A bookseller’s family is unusual in a country where three-quarters of the population can neither read nor write,” she explains. That Khan has survived for decades as a bookseller is near miraculous: “‘First the Communists burned my books, then the Mujahedeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burned them all over again,’” he tells Seierstad. Still, he managed to keep his family “kind of middle class, if you can use that expression in Afghanistan,” with enough money and food to never go hungry. Some were educated and could read and write in multiple languages. [Seierstad herself is fluent in five languages.]
Seierstad chose Khan for his atypical devotion to literature, learning, culture, and history, rare in a society oppressed by fundamentalist Islam and mired in post-war destruction, poverty, and chaos. But by book’s end, Khan sadly proves himself to be “‘very typical,’” Seierstad admits in an accompanying 2003 interview in the book’s reading guide. “‘He’s an Afghan patriarch like everybody else’”: he bullies and rules his family, especially the women; at 50-plus, he takes an illiterate teenaged distant relative as his second wife when he decides his first wife (a qualified Persian language teacher) is too old after bearing him three sons and a daughter; he allows his eldest son Mansur to openly berate and demean any and all of their female relatives; he refuses to support his youngest sister’s desire to continue her education or pursue a teaching career, treating her no better than he would a servant. Seierstad says she did her best to keep her opinions out of her reportage: “‘If I wanted to say, ‘That’s not how we do it in Norway,’ that this is not fair, I would suddenly not get the true story.’”
So the story about that true story, of course, begins with its international bestseller status: first comes fame, then comes controversy. Sultan Khan’s real name is Shah Muhammad Rais. So well known is he in Kabul that merely disguising his name didn’t protect his anonymity. He and his family sued Seierstad for defamation soon after the book’s global success; in July 2010, a Norway court ordered Seierstad to pay Rais’ young wife a substantial sum in damages, but that decision was overturned over a year later. In the midst of legal battles, both wives, fearing for their safety, fled Afghanistan; one lives in Canada, the other in Norway. In 2007, Rais published his own version of his story, Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul (available on Amazon!).
Once again, here is yet another case of ‘she said, he said’ … once more, the oft-repeated literary question looms: in the (countless) cases of an outsider looking into a country, culture, people not his or her own, is neutrality ever possible?
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2003 (United States)