Separating fact from fiction in Afghanistan

In Asne Seierstad's 'The Bookseller of Kabul', Shah M was portrayed as a domestic tyrant who abandoned his wife. Now he plans to set the record straight, writes Nick Meo
Click to follow

It is not easy being known to the world as the living symbol of Afghan men's hatred and maltreatment of their women, and Shah Mohammed freely admits that the last year has been a kind of purgatory. He is not a man without his faults. But the villainous reputation unexpectedly dumped on him in 2003's surprise international literary hit The Bookseller of Kabul turned him into the laughing stock of the Afghan capital and, for an international audience, into something much more sinister.

It is not easy being known to the world as the living symbol of Afghan men's hatred and maltreatment of their women, and Shah Mohammed freely admits that the last year has been a kind of purgatory. He is not a man without his faults. But the villainous reputation unexpectedly dumped on him in 2003's surprise international literary hit The Bookseller of Kabul turned him into the laughing stock of the Afghan capital and, for an international audience, into something much more sinister.

Readers across the globe learned of the Afghan patriarch's convoluted family life and dark private secrets - for tens of thousands of readers the book has become their most vivid portrait of Afghan life. It was a minor sensation, recommended by everyone from Richard and Judy to The New York Times as an account of the harsh reality of a culture virtually unknown to the outside world before 11 September.

According to the book, Shah M is a domestic tyrant who abandoned his faithful wife of 30 years to purchase a teenage bride after haggling with her greedy parents, as if buying a horse. He bullies his children into working in his shops to make money for himself instead of sending them to school.

One of his sons lures a pre-pubescent beggar girl into the back of their bookshop for sex. And the book disclosed the honour killing of a female relative, murdered because of a twisted code of revenge, had been covered up to look like an accident. Its portrait of the secret world of the Afghan family was so bleak as to provoke one reviewer to write: "If this is what life is like in the family of Afghanistan's Tim Waterstone there is clearly no hope for Afghanistan." Another traumatised reviewer called it "an emotive indictment of a horrible society."

Sixty-year-old Shah M claims that the monstrous portrait of him was not the warts-and-all truth but in fact an act of treachery by the journalist he invited into his family home in good faith. And now the bookseller is to turn writer. He plans to tell a very different story. The Bookseller of Kabul, he believes, pandered to the stereotypes of Western readerships repelled by the excesses of the Taliban and ready to believe any horrible new revelations about Afghanistan.

The writer, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, moved into Shah M's home for four months in 2002 after arriving from the battlefield with the Northern Alliance. At the time the bookseller, known to visiting journalists through years of war and repression as one of Kabul's best and most independent sources, was helping the army of reporters who had descended on the city. Shah M, as his friends know him, was invaluable to confused reporters trying to make sense of a complex culture scarred by 24 years of war. He thought Seierstad's idea of writing a book about an Afghan family was a good one. "I invited her into my house," he says. "I ordered everyone in my family to speak very openly before her and not to hide anything. I thought it would help my country if somebody wrote a book about our life and customs.

"But her book gave a false and salacious impression of Afghanistan. There were so many mistakes. The outside world just doesn't understand my country, and this book has not helped."

Seierstad's prose appears to be bravely honest. "We shared many good times," she wrote. "But I have rarely been so angry as I was with the family, and I have rarely quarrelled as much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there."

She enjoyed the kind of success that all journalists dream of, selling more than any other non-fiction book in Norway's history and getting on bestseller lists for months in Europe and America. A close reading showed some rather odd reporting quirks, however.

Seierstad made a lame attempt to disguise Shah M's identity, calling him Sultan Khan, and coyly described the book as "fictionalised" in her preface.

"She lied about me and my friends," is how Shah Mohammed puts it, quivering with anger. "Hurtful lies, and dangerous lies." The public pillorying was particularly cruel because Shah M spent three decades braving the communists, warlords and religious fundamentalists who have in turn tortured his country and stamped on its intellectual life. Nobody in Kabul has done more to keep the city's battered intelligentsia supplied with books, suffering jail and having to watch the defacing of his precious volumes at the hands of first the Marxists and later the Taliban.

For two years his shop was derelict when it was on the frontline between warlords. It was burnt out after a rocket strike. For all those years of war and chaos, before Afghanistan briefly became a massive story after 11 September, Shah M Books was a magnet for foreigners. For three decades journalists, aid workers, spooks, and soldiers - first Soviet and now US soldiers - have browsed through his shelves trying to find clues to the dangerous land that history and politics brought them to.

"The Russians were very nice and polite. They often smelled of vodka," Shah M recalls. "They bought a lot of books about the culture of my land.

"The Americans rarely come in here. They are very crude, always swearing, strutting around with guns and dark glasses."

From Shah M Books he has watched the history of Kabul unfold and now he plans to set the record straight by writing an autobiography, in which he will outline his extraordinary life at the centre of his country's turmoil.

The bookshop, in the centre of Kabul on an insanely busy traffic junction where violent arguments between armed motorists are not uncommon, holds one of the most fascinating collections on Central Asia anywhere. Memoirs of Victorian players of the "Great Game" and volumes by 1920s archaeologists sit on shelves next to Marxist essays and propaganda works on the Soviet adventure by Czech communist journalists. The shop is one of Kabul's landmarks, and a window into its history. The proprietor himself, a heavy-built man with a wispy beard and the sort of distinctive Central Asian features seen in Persian miniatures, is usually to be found sitting cross-legged on a carpet drinking green tea.

He is always ready to greet browsers and fire off the kind of barbs that have got him into trouble with numerous regimes in the past.

President Hamid Karzai is "a new pilot flying an old airline" he believes, adding that he will not vote in October's presidential elections because the candidates are "all reactionaries". He is not optimistic about the future. "We that have suffered so much are becoming a mafia state now," he says. "This is our next trial. If I had $100,000 I would be a nervous man." Surprisingly, there is one copy of the hated book on his shelves. He pulls it out with a sly expression. The central episode which he objects to was the claim that he had abandoned his first wife, the mother of his children, for an attractive younger bride. The negotiations and haggling involved are described in detail in the book's opening, with Shah M portrayed as a lecherous old man.

Taking a second, younger, wife may be shocking in the West but it is not unusual in Afghanistan, although it is seen as rather low class. Shah M insists the arrangement was discussed with his family and approved by his first wife.

He says his first wife was a refugee in Pakistan, waiting to return, but Seierstad claims mistakenly that she was abandoned. "My wife loves me very much," he says. "There is no adversity between us. Seierstad gave a salacious account." Even more humiliating was a gripping, and nauseating, account of his eldest son's supposed predatory sex life with Kabul's beggars. "This was a very dirty thing, very shameful for our family," Shah M says. "How could she write this thing? It was all a lie." But most disturbing of all to the bookseller were two family secrets disclosed by Seierstad - gossip about the love affair of a woman neighbour, and an account of an honour killing of a woman connected to Shah M's family. "These are dangerous things," he says. "Afghan families are very large and revenge is very important to us. There are cousins who did not know these things. Now she has told the world. We fear what may happen if people find out."

The book was a deep personal humiliation. He says he can still hardly hold his head up in the street - Kabul's newspapers relished the fuss.

Shah M launched his own counter-publicity offensive ,with threats to sue, and briefly met Seierstad last year in Norway. They met for two hours and he claims she regretted what she had done. "Why didn't she go to the media and say what she had written was wrong?" he says. "She has damaged herself badly in all this and she looks foolish. I feel sorry for her actually, I do not hate her. Anyway, she was never a lovely friend." Since publication, Seierstad has backed away from what she wrote, telling one newspaper "maybe I was stupid or naive" and saying that perhaps some details were too intimate. She insists she had not betrayed Shah M but had simply described her experiences in his home. "At first I thought he was a hero and this was what I said in the first few chapters," she explains to me. "Women in his family told me what he was like - his first wife was crying over the marriage to the young girl. They all said it was really shameful for the first wife.

"When I spent time with the women I learned how he treated them. I wrote what I saw. It wouldn't be an honest book otherwise." She says she has no regrets about how she wrote the book - and no plans to return to Kabul.

Shah M believes that her brief stay in his country was not long enough to grasp its problems. "She gave this distorted picture of Afghan women to the world," he says. "Our women have suffered a lot it is true, but mainly this is because the economy is so damaged and because of the war." The book he is writing will recount his extraordinary life in bookselling, which began humbly when he was a student at Kabul University. A natural wheeler and dealer, Shah M realised there was money to be made selling volumes of Persian poetry and scientific books and enjoyed making business trips to Tehran and Moscow.

In the seventies, when Afghanistan's future looked so bright, his bookshop was filled with Kabul's intellectuals, professors and the hippies on the road to India who spent hours in his shop smoking hashish and leafing through his stock. Marxism took hold. To Kabul's tiny educated class it seemed to hold the key to rapid development of their backward, semi-feudal country, and Shah M started making more trips to Moscow's book markets.

Then politics became brutal as left-wing factions fought deadly battles. "The Communists assassinated at least 5,000 educated people," Shah M said. They threw him in a jail where he was forced to watch fellow prisoners being tortured. His books were burned. By 1988 the Russian-backed regime was on its last legs. The Soviets were pulling out and intellectual tastes changed - Afghans were looking to Allah instead of Marx as it became clear CIA-backed guerrillas inspired by Islam were going to win. "Intellectuals swapped to Sufism. They liked 'soft Islam', especially Afghan mystics like Rumi who said it was OK to drink alcohol," Shah M recalled. "Most of them had been enthusiastic Communists." Then came years of civil war after the guerrilla commanders fell out. Shah M's shop was looted; he stayed in business by buying valuable volumes from looters or desperate refugees.

In 1996, the illiterate Taliban arrived in the capital. Like the Communists, the black-turbanned Taliban burnt his books or scribbled in black marker pens over pictures of people. Shah M hid his most valuable copies. Ironically, the Taliban-vandalised books have become expensive souvenirs for the foreign aid workers and peace-keepers who today make up his wealthiest customers. The Afghan book-buying public is a disappointment to him. Mostly they buy self-improvement books to teach themselves English or computing. Books about politics, philosophy and poetry sit gathering dust in his shop's remote corners.

"Life is hard in Kabul today, the economy is bad. People struggle to buy books. Prices are so high for food and just the essentials of life, there is nothing left over," Shah M said.

Seierstad's book said little about his past, so enmeshed with the city's. Perhaps she preferred the sensational, and in many ways she missed the really fascinating story.

She says she thinks legal proceedings were dropped in the spring - Shah M says legal action may still be taken later this year.