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Cultures clash in a bitter literary feud

'The Bookseller of Kabul' is the focus of a harsh dispute between its Norwegian author and her Afghan subject.

October 04, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — She is a Norwegian journalist who covered the war on the Taliban and stayed to write a postscript about the Afghan people. He is an erudite Kabul bookseller who, intrigued by her curiosity, invited her into his home to live with his family for five months.

Write about us, he told her. Our lives, our culture. Tell the world. Write whatever you want.

She did. And he hated it.

The result has been a cross-cultural literary feud for our times: a bitter argument between Asne Seierstad, the journalist whose war coverage made her a media star at home, and Shah Mohammed Rais, a businessman from the impoverished Muslim country whose intimate family business she revealed. The focus of their clash is "The Bookseller of Kabul," Seierstad's poignant tale about life in the rubble of war.

"The Bookseller" has become a surprise hit in Europe, with 200,000 copies sold in Norway alone since it was published in fall 2002. That makes it the biggest-selling nonfiction book in the country's history, says Anders Heger, Seierstad's Norwegian publisher. It has been translated into 17 languages, and an American edition -- with some significant editorial changes -- will be published this month by Little Brown.

"The Bookseller of Kabul" is a searing attack on the way Afghan men treat women. Seierstad makes no effort to disguise her anger at the plight of the Afghan women she lived with and at a culture in which a woman can be killed for adultery.

It is Rais, now 59, who shoulders this cultural indictment of Afghan males. He is the bookseller at the center of Seierstad's story, portrayed as a domineering, frequently cruel patriarch who makes life miserable for his sister and first wife (though a teenage second bride gets off more lightly).

Seierstad calls the women's condition nothing less than "slavery." The book was making waves in only Scandinavia until Rais got his hands on one of the first English translations in late August. The contents so enraged him that he left his shop in Kabul in September and flew to Europe for what might be called an "anti-book tour." He has vowed to sue Seierstad and her various publishers for defamation.

"It is shameful. I am not a domestic tyrant," Rais says of his portrayal in Seierstad's book in an interview from Stockholm, where Swedes have bought 200,000 copies of "Bookseller" as well. "It is a very big insult of a whole society, a crime against a nation."

There is more than a smattering of irony that a man who loves literature and has devoted himself to publishing now finds his life scarred by a book. And it is equally troubling to see a man who risked his life to hide books from both Soviet and Islamic fundamentalist censors now demand that an offending book be banned, stripped from bookstore shelves and burned.

The prospect troubles even Rais.

"It is difficult for me," he acknowledges. "I love books very much. I have sacrificed my whole life to save books when Kabul was under heavy attack. But this is a salacious book. It is not a picture of my life.

"Maybe not burned," he says when pressed. "Recycled. Into toilet paper."

His quarrels with Seierstad's research and conclusions are numerous and diverse. They range from shock at her detailed description of women's bodies as they bathe -- including his elderly mother -- to what he says is the misrepresentation of traditional Afghan bargaining over marriage expenses as the buying and selling of women. And he accuses Seierstad of concocting events, including what he sees as an egregious reference to the "perverse sexual practices" of his wife's aunt.

Rais also complains about Seierstad's portrayal of his sister, Leila, a beautifully drawn character whose life emerges in the book as a Sisyphean series of household chores, her ambitions stunted by servitude to the men in the family.

"I saw her as the main victim," Seierstad says by phone from her home in Oslo. "She had the abilities, she had the intelligence, she had everything, but she couldn't leave the house."

Leila is not a slave, Rais counters. She had been given shelter from the "disruptions of war," and the work she does is to repay the favor.

Perhaps most provocatively, Rais accuses Seierstad of putting "the lives of innocent village girls in danger" by amplifying gossip of extramarital affairs. Such information would bring shame to the families and death to the girls, Rais says. "We have had to hide the book from many people."

Seierstad fiercely rejects suggestions that her book has imperiled lives. "He is accusing me of writing stories about sex that are not in the book," she complains. "He tells lies to the media, and it makes me angry."

The book does contain a story about his wife's aunt as well as details about adultery -- but not the many specifics that Rais has claimed.

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