Boyd Tonkin: Kabul stories of fame and blame

The week in books

The original "Bookseller of Kabul", Shah Muhammad Rais, has for the past seven years doggedly pursued his complaint against Åsne Seierstad. The Norwegian foreign correspondent and author had lived with the bookseller's family in 2002 and then published an account of their lives that sold more than two million copies worldwide. Since then, the aggrieved Rais and some of his relatives have hired lawyers, issued writs and – not least – repeatedly confronted Seierstad on her home turf in Norway.

A few days ago, an Oslo court went some way towards endorsing members of the Rais family's claim that Seierstad hijacked, distorted and exploited their experiences. After a defamation suit brought in the name of the bookseller's second wife, Suraia Rais, it ordered the author and her publisher Cappelen Damm each to pay 125,000 kroner (c.£13,000) in damages. Seierstad will appeal, with her "astonished" defence counsel Cato Schiøtz promising to push the case up to the European level if necessary. It appears that Suraia Rais's lawyer stands to gain 50 per cent of any sums awarded, and that seven further members of the family may employ him to sue Seierstad.

In some quarters – notably, the British newspaper best known for holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness – the Oslo ruling has been reported with flagrant bias as an open-and-shut case. Wicked, ruthless Nordic blonde swoops on innocent Afghan clan, wins their trust, betrays their secrets, writes a bestseller, earns a fortune. At long last, the poor victims gain a measure of redress. End of story. Need I add that this is much, much more complicated tale than that – as the next courtroom stages ought to show?

True, Seierstad's book poses in the starkest form the sort of ethical dilemma than ought to weigh heavily on any Western travel writer or broadcaster. Try to enrich your reportage via a close relationship forged with individuals and (even more) their families, and you will run into competing motives and agendas. This will always be a minefield of crossed wires and mixed messages. Witnesses and informants can easily change their mind. They may agree in principle to revelations but then, under family pressure, feel upset and misled when sensitive stories become common knowledge. Did the writer commit errors and twist the truth – or did they in fact seal embarrassing realities into cold, cruel print?

These post-publication quarrels happen in the West as well, as any good reporter or biographer will know. Whether for an overnight despatch or a lovingly-crafted book, the literary process of selection, emphasis and dramatisation can convert agreed facts into a narrative that leaves its subjects with a sense of theft or trickery. In the Islamic world – and not only there – questions of family honour and public shame may count for even more than they would in the West.

And in every context, a stranger's scrutiny of private lives will invoke the shadow of betrayal – however conscientious the author. Janet Malcolm's book The Journalist and the Murderer is the classic text here. Safer just to consort with bigwigs, bureaucrats and "community leaders". Safer, much duller - and less "responsible" as well, if your mission is to bring home the full humanity of people in the lands that the West tends to treat as pieces on a geopolitical chessboard.

I write with a degree of partisanship too. I know Åsne Seierstad a little and have seen her behave far from Europe with what struck me as exemplary courtesy and candour. It's also abundantly clear that she has enemies in Norway who have milked this alleged scandal for every ounce of harm that they can do to her and her hard-won reputation. As far as I can judge, the major charges against her remain to be proven. And it belittles elements of the "liberal" press to assume her all-round guilt because it fits their stereotypes.

Sex and the Man Booker judge

Andrew Motion has complained – at least, I assume it was a complaint – that so few entries for the Man Booker Prize this year dared to write seriously about sex. What a shame, then, that one book that did so with coruscating verve and zest failed to trouble the judges. True Things About Me (Canongate) by the Welsh writer Deborah Kay Davies (right) is also a first novel: a category absent from the 2010 long-list. Her first-person narrative of a young woman's obsessive, destructive affair has an unsettling pitch-black wit that truly makes its voice stand out from the bland MOR murmur of most "literary" fiction. Still, the Booker is not the only prize: other juries, take note.

The end of a quango's shelf-life

Few tears will be shed over the execution of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), felled this week in the quango-hunt. After all, not many people outside the closed circles of cultural bureaucracy ever knew what it did in the first place. Well, it did serve as co-ordinator-cum-champion for public-library services, although not a terribly robust one. Even from the name you can tell that MLA uneasily fused several roles. And museum advocacy looked its strongest suit. Now libraries, which always struggle to speak with a unified voice, will have one fewer defender in the corridors of power. MLA tasks will, it seems, pass into other hands. Whose? How? When? Ask Jeremy Hunt. As councils slash spending and look for relatively pain-free cuts, local closures will pick off branch after branch with, I fear, a muted outcry. The UK Film Council - also axed this week – has luvvies galore to stamp their starry feet. Why do few literary celebs stand up noisily for the libraries that bring them many new readers?

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London