The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . . (italics supplied) –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
The East is a career. —Benjamin Disraeli
For the West, the East is inscrutable, mysterious, inferior. These notions are at the heart of Orientalism, a term coined by Edward Said in the 1970s to describe the entire discourse used by the West in (re)presenting the East to the rest of the world and also, quite ironically, to itself. Speaking from a position of power, tempered by a `benevolent’ concept of the need for la mission civilizatrice, the West has authorized a great body of works about the Eastern experience which continues to this day, albeit in a different 21st century guise.
The cataclysmic event of September 11, 2001 which shook the very foundations of the West in the belief of an orderly (read: civilized) universe was a trigger for a global offensive on the “inscrutable, mysterious, and inferior” East. The offensive was carried out by armies on the arid deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on the pages of newspapers by an army of European journalists who wanted a piece of the action, an editor’s copy pounced by Aftenposten in Norway, Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, Newsweek in the US; by Ilta-Sanomat in Finland, Der Tagesspiegel in Germany, Trouw in the Netherlands, Der Standard in Austria; by The Daily Mail in London, Le Monde in France, Tages Anzeiger in Switzerland. No longer confined to the pedantic and academic Orientalist discourses in crackly, yellowing pages of Flauberts, Stendhals and Lord Cromers of late 19th century, Orientalist ideas surface in creative non-fiction (CNF), the upstart new genre now favored by the mass media, some of whose practitioners include Åsne Seierstad.
The genre had been tweaked, but the imperialist discourse lives on.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that Åsne Seierstad (pronounced “Ossna Sairshta”), a Norwegian-born war correspondent who went to Afghanistan in 2002 would want to write a “true” account of the life of an Afghan family in the run-up to the demise of the Taliban regime, amidst a time of great social, cultural and economic upheaval. Seierstad chooses to write about Shah Muhammad Rais, on whom her award-winning book, The Bookseller of Kabul was based, now a commercial and critical success that had been translated into 41 languages.
Passionate about his books and of his heritage, the bookseller has had to defend his books, time and again, from the Communists who overran the country in the 1970s and who burned his books; by the Mujahedeen who eventually chased the Communists away but who had shared a similar desire to rid Afghanistan of lettered men and women; and by the Taliban whose fundamentalism extended to burning anything that contains pictorial representations of all living things. Described by the author as “a history book on two feet,” Shah Muhammad Rais was a hero for keeping Afghanistan’s cultural body and soul together. Afghanistan has also found a hero in him when he stepped out of the pages of The Bookseller of Kabul, flew to Norway to haul its author to court for “betraying a nation”. No longer his books, it is now himself, his family and his nation that he needed to defend.
Back in February, 2002, Åsne Seierstad, who is a war correspondent, lived for five months with the bookseller’s family to “research” about the Afghan culture through a family that has survived civil wars. Composed of Sultan Khan’s two wives, three sons, sisters, brother, and mother, the family lives in a mud hut bereft of trappings of modern conveniences, but which may be considered “middle class” in a country where half the population lives in abject poverty, and juvenile malnutrition one of the highest in the world. At the receiving end of the family’s generosity and hospitality, Seierstad was a witness to a Muslim family’s tradition of (what passes for) courtships and weddings, squabbles and dreams, the travails of book-selling and of stealing from a bookseller. Where the author was most passionate about was in “critiquing” women’s place in a Muslim society, where the repressive and debilitating use of the burqa was something the author had had first hand experience of, and the limited trajectory reserved for the advancement of women, because education, especially for women, was a rare commodity,:
I was a guest, but soon felt at home. I was incredibly well-treated; the family was generous and open. We shared many good times, but I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family, and I have rarely quarrelled so much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there. The same thing was continually provoking me: the manner in which men treated women. The belief in man’s superiority was so ingrained that it was seldom questioned. (Seierstad 5)
Sultan Khan’s decision to take a second wife in the person of Sonya, a 16-year old unschooled girl who was a close relative, a shameful blow to Sharifa, Rais’ middle-aged first wife, was only the initial salvo and around which the narrative will mostly revolve: polygamy and arranged marriages are “institutionalized” practices which are nothing short of moving women from house to house, like furniture. It is this same preoccupation that had sent Sultan Khan in a rage to Norway in 2005 to engage in a litigation that pitted two cultures together, involving the author as well as her publisher, a case that is on appeal to this day. In July, 2010, Åsne Seierstad was ordered to pay £26,000 in punitive damages to Suraia Rais, Rais’ second wife. Life in Kabul, according to the Rais, had been untenable with the publication of the book.
Other members of the Rais family have decided to sue as well, riding on the wave of Suraia Rais’ triumph, buoyed also, without a doubt, by anti-Western feeling resulting from the highly publicized lawsuit.
Shah Muhammad Rais has himself written a book, There was once a bookseller in Kabul, published also in Norway and Sweden.
Hill, Amelia. “Bookseller of Kabul author Asne Seierstad: `It’s not possible to write a neutral a story.'” The Guardian 31 July 2010. www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/jul/31/bookseller-of-kabul-interview-asne-seierstad
Judah, Tim. “The Kabul bookseller, the famous reporter, and a `defamation’ of a nation.” The Guardian 21 September 2003. www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/sep/21/books.afghanistan
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.
Seierstad, Asne. The Bookseller of Kabul. Translated by Ingrid Christophersen. London: Virago, 2002.