Afghan Bookseller Disputes Book About Him

Shah Mohammed Rais in his bookstore. i i

Shah Mohammed Rais says a trip, at age 15, to Tehran and its many bookstores inspired him to begin a lifetime of reading, buying and selling books. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Shah Mohammed Rais in his bookstore.

Shah Mohammed Rais says a trip, at age 15, to Tehran and its many bookstores inspired him to begin a lifetime of reading, buying and selling books.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Book store i i

This rickety shop at one of Kabul's busiest intersections is one of the richest repositories of books in Afghanistan. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Book store

This rickety shop at one of Kabul's busiest intersections is one of the richest repositories of books in Afghanistan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR

Bookseller Shah Mohammed Rais is well known in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. For more than three decades, he's sold books, posters and maps to Afghans and foreigners living there. He's nurtured his business through war, censorship and even a Taliban book burning.

But in the West, the bookseller gained fame in another way. A tell-all book called The Bookseller of Kabul paints him as a not-so-nice patriarch with two wives. He claims the book has ruined his life and forced his family to scatter across three continents. Rais decided to get even by writing his own book.

At his rickety shop at one of Kabul's busiest intersections, Rais says he's got just about everything you might want to read, old and new. Not just in Dari or Pashto, but in English, German, French and Russian.

Rais, 53, says he even carries Western favorites, including the Harry Potter series translated into Farsi. He got those books in neighboring Iran.

It was a trip to the Iranian capital, Tehran, at age 15 that sparked his love of books. A smile spreads across his weathered face as he recalls the moment.

"I never ... dreamed to see [so] many bookstores in a town, in a different city," he says. His first purchase was Othello. Shakespeare's tragedy, mixing different ethnicities and "different colors," captivated him.

"I found it very interesting and suddenly I purchased many other books and I started to read books," he says.

And to sell them. He says he returned to Kabul with three boxes of books. That trip led to many more — back to Iran, to Pakistan and later, to Europe and South America. His business grew.

He insists it's about more than profit. He calls it a moral obligation. It's why he says he bought a large bus to use as a bookmobile on visits to far-flung cities across Afghanistan.

"Because you know the soul of the society, the soul of the city, the soul of [Afghanistan], is books. In any country," Rais says. "Without books it's impossible to reconstruct Afghanistan."

There are few books he shies away from. He says he was jailed by the communists because he carried books penned by mujahedeen fighters during the Soviet invasion.

During the Taliban era, a postcard featuring the faces of Afghan men that he created led to his store being raided and his books being burned. But he persuaded the regime to let him reopen.

In 2002, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad asked if she could live with Rais and his family to write a book. The bookseller agreed. He says he couldn't refuse a guest, even though his tiny home was crammed with 20 people at the time.

For five months he openly shared his life with Seierstad. But Rais says he was unprepared for her interpretation of what she saw. In the book, Seierstad paints an unflattering portrait of a controlling patriarch with two wives and the oppression of female relatives, among other things.

His oldest son, Iraj Mohammed Rais, says Seierstad is "like a typical Westerner, you know, no offense. She'll do anything for fame and money. That's it. This is not the West where you can just live with friends and all that. This is about the life of people."

He and his father say they fear being attacked by Afghans offended by the portrayal of Afghan family life in The Bookseller of Kabul. The elder Rais sent his first wife and several of their children to live in Canada. The second wife and several more children sought asylum — ironically, in Norway.

The bookseller says he is pursuing legal action in Norway, although Seierstad says no lawsuit has been filed. Rais turned down Seierstad's offer of $100,000 to set up a foundation in his name to benefit Afghans. He says he'll settle for nothing short of a public apology to him and his family and a declaration that the book is a lie.

But Seierstad stands by what she wrote.

So Rais tried a different tact. He wrote his own book and used his own money to publish it. The English version of Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul came out this year.

Seierstad says she read it in Norwegian.

"There are things in his book that I could say, 'No, no that's not right, that's not true,' but I just leave it to that. I wrote my book. He will have to live with my book. He wrote his book. I will have to live with his book. This is the very best way to solve literary conflicts. Write books and then it's up to the reader."

But Rais says he won't give up until he feels his honor has been restored.

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