Bookseller of Kabul extends his trade with a mobile shop

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The Independent Online

The Bookseller of Kabul has a new literary ambition: to take a bus across the rubble-strewn roads of his war-torn homeland offering a "mobile" bookshop service to those living in the most remote regions.

Shah Muhammad Rais gained fame after the Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad wrote a bestselling novel, The Bookseller of Kabul, on his life running a bookshop in the Afghan capital after the fall of the Taliban.

Mr Rais, who regards himself as a books missionary, told the BBC World Service yesterday that he is seeking to satisfy Afghans' voracious appetite for books and reading, even in the midst of conflict and poverty. He said he had recently returned from northern Afghanistan after selling almost all his books in 40 days.

He is preparing his converted, second-hand bus – the seats and toilet have been ripped out – for another journey north, and beyond, and is filling it with books. "Afghans love books, actually, but they don't have any... The war destroyed everything. Not only their houses and their irrigation systems but their soul is also damaged. Books will educate Afghans to live happily in Afghanistan and forget their sorrows and their tragedy and misfortunes.

"A new generation is thirsty for knowledge and we have a very good future, hopefully. I want to repeat my journey, to the northern part of Afghanistan with new experiences and new books which many people asked from me, and also I want to go to Tajikistan as well," he said.

Mr Rais has managed to keep his business afloat since 1972, despite Afghanistan's turbulent recent history, which has included the Soviet invasion in the Eighties and the Taliban's hardline approach to literature and learning. He has since become the country's leading bookseller with unique access to importing books from across the world.

In Afghanistan, he is respected for having risked his life to promote literature, being imprisoned twice by the Communists, then again by the Taliban who forced him to watch as some of his most precious books were burned. When he was freed, he hid the books in attics across Kabul and smuggled some to Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the world's press sought to interview Mr Rais, who became known as "the man who saved the books", but Seierstad convinced him to grant her intimate access into his world.

Her book described him as a man whose love of literature had exposed him to great risks over 30 years in the trade. But it also depicted him as a committed Muslim with uncompromising views on the role of women, with the reader being introduced to his first wife, Sharifa, after she has just learned that he is taking a new, 16-year-old bride.

When published, it was an instant worldwide success. But Mr Rais, who had invited Seierstad to live with his two wives and five children, regarded her documentation as a betrayal and a gross misrepresentation, and he began legal proceedings against her as well as writing his own book to vindicate himself.

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