Asne Seierstad: Behind the front lines

Asne Seierstad, who topped the charts with The Bookseller of Kabul, now reports from the chaos of Iraq. Julie Wheelwright meets an accidental witness to war
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The Independent Culture

Asne Seierstad flicks her long blonde hair from her face, flings out an arm and gives a deep groan of mock-horror. "Oh no, not that again." Then she laughs, before launching into her description of how Shah Mohammed Rais, the fictionalised patriarch from her bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul, flew business class halfway across the world and threatened to sue her.

Asne Seierstad flicks her long blonde hair from her face, flings out an arm and gives a deep groan of mock-horror. "Oh no, not that again." Then she laughs, before launching into her description of how Shah Mohammed Rais, the fictionalised patriarch from her bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul, flew business class halfway across the world and threatened to sue her.

Rais (Sultan Khan in her book) objected to Seierstad's portrait of him as an irascible domestic tyrant who took a 16-year-old second wife, refused to allow his sons to attend school, and turned a blind eye to his eldest son's sexual exploitation of street beggars. Before their argument had reached the media, Rais had spoken from Afghanistan to Seierstad, who spent four months living with his family in Kabul in 2001. "He said, 'Asne, I don't like this book so I'll come to Norway and we'll sit down for two weeks and we'll rewrite it,'" says Seierstad. "He wanted me to tell the world I was sorry for the first book. I said this was not possible."

Lawyers exchanged words and a press conference was held in Oslo, but Seierstad's book remains unchanged. Now Rais, a well-known bookseller famed in Afghanistan for opposing the Taliban's censorship laws, is writing his own version of events. There will be a chapter on Asne and she has already been warned that it will be unflattering.

Seierstad seems remarkably phlegmatic about the affair now, acknowledging that Rais's revenge made for a "great story" that breaks the imperial tradition of a European author speaking for the Third World. But in all the coverage about the controversy, the women whose stories made The Bookseller of Kabul such a profoundly eye-opening narrative remain silent. Seierstad lived among the anonymised burkhas, using Rais's youngest daughter Leila as a translator to describe in sensuous, intimate detail, the poignant drudgery of the "old slaves, young slaves" in Rais's household.

While Seierstad remained invisible in her Kabul story, in A Hundred and One Days: a Baghdad Journal (Virago, £7.99) she throws off the burkha to narrate her experience of covering the second Gulf War. In January 2003, she bribed Iraqi officials in Jordan to get a visa for Baghdad, where she stayed until the spring, covering the war for Norwegian, Swedish and Danish television and several international newspapers. Despite the dismissive attitude of veteran broadcasters towards the television news correspondents, as "dish monkeys" who rarely left the safety of their hotel rooftops, Seierstad describes doing on-camera reports under fire and the several colleagues who lost their lives. "Nobody talked about the fear during the war," she says. "When I decided to stay in Iraq, I decided to take the fear out of my body and put it into a freezer."

Her attitude of "mind over matter" ensured that she never panicked. It was only when the American troops rolled into Baghdad on 9 April that Seierstad realised how frightened she had been. "We rushed down the stairs and I screamed at the Americans, 'Thank you for coming.' How could I say that? It was like ice melting in my body, it felt like it was over."

Despite her welcome to the troops, Seierstad is a staunch critic of the coalition's reasons for entering into the war. She reports with brutal honesty on the destruction that they have wrought in Iraq. She interviews Abu Saif, a member of the Ba'ath party, just before the fall of Baghdad. He sums up many Iraqis' attitude towards the US troops. "If we turned the picture around, how would you react if Iraqi forces attacked your country? If we tried to kill your president, to install our leaders and our system? How would you react if we cut off your electricity, water and killed your neighbours?" Moreover, Seierstad met many Iraqis for whom the Americans failed to provide the protection they had promised.

Her book focuses far less on the big, dramatic events than on the war's impact on ordinary Iraqis. A Hundred and One Days lacks the emotional intensity and rich detail of The Bookseller of Kabul, but it does capture the gut-wrenching tragedy of thousands who were - quite literally - caught in the crossfire.

She reports on the civilian massacre at the al-Nasser market, where a man who had lost his grandchild demanded to know, "Where is your democracy? Where is your humanity?" She tours a hospital treating the casualties and then a morgue, where her editors decide the pictures are too gruesome for consumption. "I cannot move, I cannot walk away," she writes. "If I leave, reality will devour me. Then they will all really be dead."

Seierstad says that after the fall of Baghdad, the city felt more dangerous than ever. She began, for the first time, to use her flak jacket. Now, in the vacuum of power, disputes between the Shia and Sunni Muslims and various political factions could suddenly be set alight. "I just see a big fire and I don't see how they can put it out; there have been so many mistakes," she says. The Americans "rushed into war and they had no plan."

Her hard-working translator, Aliya, a thirtysomething single woman who has never known any other government than Saddam Hussein's, longs for his return. "After the war, Aliya just goes into this coma where she doesn't talk, she doesn't give an opinion," says Seierstad, who once goaded her with questions about her feelings towards the deposed regime. Aliya finally snapped back, "I don't want to feel." To Seierstad, Aliya is like an alter ego, the eternal woman in every war who is left to cope - to look after the children, to scavenge for food, to keep a home alive.

Seierstad describes her own mother, Froydis Guldahl, the author of The Girls are Uprising - a Norwegian feminist classic for adolescents - as an enduring influence. Her father, Dag Seierstad, is a political scientist and "the wisest man I know". He travelled throughout Africa and Russia with Guldahl before they married and had their three children. Asne grew up in Lillehammer in the 1970s believing that she could do anything that a boy could: "That was in my blood."

Seierstad became a journalist "by accident" when studying Russian political science at Moscow University in 1993 - when every book written on the subject had suddenly become redundant. A university professor sent her off to interview politicians and, when an assistant advised her that if she pretended to be a journalist she could speak with the president of the Russian parliament, she agreed.

"This politician was in a huge office with a view of the river, he was sitting on a red velvet sofa, smoking a pipe," she remembers. "I thought during the interview that I should become a journalist because then you can open every door and ask anyone anything." As a fluent Russian speaker, Seierstad began freelancing for Scandinavian newspapers and, when the Chechen war broke out, appealed to the Defence Ministry for help.

A troop plane was leaving at 5am and she arrived, armed with a huge bag of food from her Russian landlady. "As the only woman, I was able to sit with the officers in front, with a glass of vodka in one hand and a cucumber in the other," she says, playing with that long, blonde hair. "That's how I went to my first war."

She arrived in Grozny at night to discover that there were no hotels and lots of snipers. She asked a young woman where she could stay and the woman took her home. "I got introduced to the people of the house and it was only women." She learnt "that the husband was killed in an air raid and the daughters had come back to live with the mother because their husbands were all in the mountains fighting the Russians." The second night, the youngest daughter, aged 17, gave birth to a son. "It's kind of symbolic of my later journalism," she says. "I was totally unprepared and I ended up getting a very true story about the war."

So has she had enough of war now? Seierstad says she sees herself as a writer rather than a war correspondent. Her next project will be based in America, where she covered this year's election. "The most important thing now is to understand the Americans; not to judge but to find out what they think." Midwestern patriarchs, beware.

Biography: ASNE SEIERSTAD

The Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad's second book, The Bookseller of Kabul, has now been translated into a total of 29 languages. Thanks in part to its selection by Richard & Judy's book club on Channel 4, it topped the non-fiction charts in Britain. Seierstad was born in 1970 in Lillehammer to Froydis Guldahl, author of a bestselling feminist book for girls, and Dag Seierstad, a political scientist. She left home to study Russian and philosophy in Oslo. Before becoming Norwegian television's best-known war correspondent and a bestselling author, Seierstad learnt Chinese and worked as a Russian translator. She covered conflicts in Chechnya, Serbia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, where she lived in Kabul with the family who inspired her book. She has received numerous awards in Norway and abroad for her journalism. Her first book was With their Backs to the Wall: Portraits from Serbia, and this week Virago publishes A Hundred and One Days: a Baghdad Journal.

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