Norway adds insult to injury for real Bookseller of Kabul

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The Independent Online

There has been another twist in the tale of The Bookseller of Kabul. And it looks like there might not be a happy ending.

Mohammed Rais, on whom Asne Seierstad based her international bestseller, has been denied a tourist visa to Norway, with the immigration authorities saying that they question the "real purpose" of his journey. He planned to visit Seierstad's home country to launch his own book, which he hopes will redress what he sees as an intrusive and damning portrayal of him.

The Bookseller of Kabul found fame as a book club favourite, was translated into 29 languages and sold tens of millions of copies, making its author a fortune. Unfortunately, the effect of the book on its subject has been less auspicious.

In 2001, Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist, spent four months living with Rais and his family in Afghanistan. Using his youngest daughter Leila as a translator, she told of Rais's women: the "old slaves, young slaves" that surround a successful Afghan man.

When Rais - named "Sultan Khan" in the book - saw what his guest had written, he was furious. Sultan Khan was depicted as a tyrant who ruled his two wives - the youngest just 16 when she married him - with an unbending will. It described the "honour killing" of a female relative, and said he turned a blind eye when his son was accused of sexually abusing child beggars.

Rais claims to object to the book for other reasons. Launching a lawsuit against the author and her publisher in June, his lawyer claimed that "what Seierstad has written is incorrect, offensive and dangerous". He said that Rais's family are now afraid to stay in Afghanistan after the book, recently translated into Farsi and Pushtu, revealed that his sisters have had boyfriends - something strictly forbidden by the Pashtuns, who still practise blood vengeance.

This fear has made the Norwegian authorities nervous. Rais was admitted in May to attend the Lillehammer Literature Festival after he insisted he did not plan to seek asylum. But this time, it seems, the authorities are less convinced: they have refused to allow him into the country to launch his own version of events, called Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul, on 27 September. It did not help when he told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten that he may consider applying for asylum.

"Rais's spouse [his younger wife] and children have sought asylum [in Sweden]. There are therefore grounds to doubt that Rais will travel out again once he has come in," said Morten Hansen, of Norway's Directorate of Immigration.

Both authors remain unapologetic. Seierstad resists Rais's calls for "redress and compensation", saying: "I am not a cultural relativist. The pain of the woman is the same in Afghanistan as it is in Norway."

For his part, Rais is bullish. His lawyers say that they are "astonished" that Seierstad has not compensated the "injured parties in this matter". His book will still be launched in Norway, and his publisher, Damm, said he would appeal the visa decision.

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