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Perhaps some of you have heard about the book Bokhandleren i Kabul (The Bookseller from Kabul) written by Åsne Seierstad in 2003. Seierstad traveled to Afghanistan two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and lived with an Afghani family for three months. The head of the household, Shah Muhammad Rais, was a bookseller with many wives. Bigamy, arranged marriage, and unequal treatment of women is commonplace in Afghanistan. Seierstad disguised herself in a burka while she experienced the life of an Afghani woman and observed the lives of Afghani citizens.
Seierstad wrote a novel about her experience in Afghanistan living with the bookseller and his family. Since its publication, there has been much controversy surrounding the book. Rais actually took Seierstad to court in Norway for unfairly depicting his personality, his family, and his country. Rais claims that he supports women’s rights and opposes extremism. He points to his status as a bookseller to try to prove that he has helped to bring diverse voices to Afghanistan over the years. Seierstad stands by her accounts detailed in the book that portray Rais as an ordinary Afghani man who has endured a tough life under several different regimes. Rais’ treatment of women is not uncommon in Afghanistan. Seierstad says that she simply wrote about the lives of those she witnessed. She simply wanted to bring a personal account of life in Afghanistan today to light for the rest of the world to be aware of and think about.
Rais and his family (including many wives and children) live scattered outside of Afghanistan now, as they do not feel comfortable in their home country after being exposed by Seierstad. Some of the family members have sought refugee status in Norway and Sweden and some have ended up in the United States. Rais wrote his own account of his life in his book, ‘There once was a bookseller in Kabul.’ I have read Seierstad’s bok, but not yet Rais’.
I haven’t thought about this book for several years now, since the controversy was a hot topic of conversation (even in our newspapers). I was just perusing the Norwegian newspaper and saw a new controversy about Bokhandleren i Kabul. Students at a school in Michigan were assigned the book to read and some of their parents have argued that the contents of the book are inappropriate for high school students. Specifically, some have claimed the book is pornographic. In all of the controversy that this book has sparked, the idea of the book as pornographic had never been mentioned. Some parents are saying that the book is pornographic because one of the girls is raped and assaulted. The copies of the book are sitting in an office until the school decides what to do with them.
Seierstad heard about the controversy in Michigan and simply said that these parents must have read the book with an extremely distorted view to think that it is pornographic. I encourage you all to read the book and develop your own opinion about the importance of Seierstad’s account of reality in Afghanistan.