A brutally honest Western eye on private life in Afghanistan

Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist and author, appears to have everything. She is her country’s best-known foreign correspondent and the author of an international best seller. Her account of an Afghan family in «The Bookseller of Kabul» has been translated into many languages and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies – and it was well received by critics. But the criticism that she has received from some quarters – and from its protagonist – for what was perceived as her lack of sensitivity to the people she was presenting has clearly got to her. And that is why she was delighted recently when she received a coveted cross-cultural award, the British Ethnic Multicultural Media Award (EMMA) for the book, seeing this as vindication of her eyewitness portrayal of the family in Kabul as Afghanistan begins to stir among the ashes of decades of war. The prize is awarded after a public vote of nominees selected by a jury from a list contributed by 20,000 people working in the media. Seierstad has also had to contend with the protests of the man who is at the center of her story, the bookseller Shah Mohammed Rais, who said he would take her to court for allegedly dishonoring him and his family with her unsparing tale of three months spent living with them. Now she has learned that the bookseller has dropped the case. The controversy has underlined one of the most important aspects of the book. It is not only a brutally honest look at the private life of a family in Afghanistan at a specific point in time, it is also a reflection of two worlds: that of the Western journalist who prizes honesty above all else and that of a traditional culture that holds privacy in the highest esteem. The Greek translation has sold about 15,000 copies since it was published last October – a great success for a non-fiction work. Seierstad was in Athens for the launch of the Greek edition and also at the end of May for an international journalists’ conference. Kathimerini English Edition spoke with her about the book, Afghanistan, her current work and her future plans. How do you see your book today, seven months after the appearance of its English translation? The great thing now is that I won this EMMA award, which is a huge award – Michael Moore won it last year for «Stupid White Men,» John Pilger won it – before that it was Zadie Smith. What’s special with the EMMA award is that it’s not the elitistic Brits who vote, but it’s several ethnic communities, women’s groups, black communities. It’s televised on the BBC, the whole show. For me it was so great to get it because I have been criticized – maybe mainly in Norway but also around the world – for having a very Western view of things, of seeing things through blue eyes, of coming from a rich country, looking down on the others. This prize is really from people who are from different cultures. There are Muslims on the jury. I was so happy to get that prize because it kind of shows that this book is not looking down on people, but, on the contrary, it’s a view from «down.» It’s me sitting on the floor talking to people. And those people who say it’s me looking down – it says more about them, I think. Six months later, I’m really amazed at the growing success of the book. Because I thought I’d publish the book and it would sell for a few weeks or months. But then it carried on growing and it carried on being reborn. In Britain, for example, it was going well, it was going slowly. It was published in August last year and until February this year I think they sold about 30,000 books. And then I was nominated for the British Book Award, which is a major British prize. In my category, which is Best Read, there are 10 books. And each of those 10 books got a whole program dedicated to them on the television. So they came to Norway and they filmed and there was also cooperation with the bookstores, and those books were put on extra display. And suddenly the book was selling a quarter of a million copies, from February to (May). And from August to February it sold 30,000 and in a few months a quarter of a million. For 10 weeks it has been number 2 or 3 on the Sunday Times’ list of best-selling non-fiction paperbacks. So that’s really a country where it’s being reborn. In some countries it appeared and is finished. The thing is that when I wrote the book I was thinking we had to publish it very quickly because – I told my publisher – it will be out of date very soon. Because I thought things will change. I thought this is the post-Taleban book. I was sure it was going to be out of date because I was sure things in Afghanistan would change. When it was bought by other countries I was thinking they really should hurry up with the translation because it will be out of date. Now I realize it’s totally accurate to the situation today and it will be in five years and in 10 years. It’s really depressing but it’s true. We all had this naive thought that things would improve after the Taleban had gone. Development needs time. Think of how democracy has been developed in the West, or women’s rights – the right to vote. Neither in Norway nor Greece did it just happen. In Norway we had the right to vote since 1913 – but over 90 years ago, women in Norway had much more rights than Afghan women have today. Generations of mothers and women have fought for me to have the rights I have today. And then we expect in such a traditional, archaic society for things to change quickly. It needs generations. If I get a daughter and she reads this in – I don’t know – 20 years, maybe her life will be very different from mine, but I don’t think the life of the girl who is being born in Afghanistan today will be so changed from that of her mother. Maybe this book will be actual in 20 years. But even if it is not the same reality it is the historical photograph that you present which is of value. If you had such a photograph of the Afghans from, say 1840, you would still read it today if you trusted that the picture was accurate. That’s what I hope – that the book is authentic from this period, that it is a print of history. It is a piece of history and it is a part of history in which that time will never come back though it will be similar. And I think that’s the reason for the prizes I got and the praise I got – of Afghan women calling me and saying they love the book – it has some authenticity. When something is authentic it has a value through time, because it is not – I hope it is not – opinionated. Because opinionated things are not of such value to me because then it’s too much about the author himself. Now if I can turn to the issue of the bookseller himself… He’s dropped the case. Why is that? Well, I just heard it through the media, because I hadn’t been in communication with him, really, and I just read that the bookseller told television and newspapers: «I’m dropping the case because I can’t afford to carry on. But if someone wants to help me to carry on the case I’m willing to accept the help.» He was kind of asking people to pay his way. It wasn’t that he was dropping it because… you know. You haven’t been in touch with him? I’ve been in touch with him through a middleman, because whatever I said to him he would twist it and say that I’ve said something else. But I hope one day we can do something together. I was thinking maybe build something for him that he wanted. But I’m building schools and things in Afghanistan. There are three projects. There is one school, for 450 girls, and then education of midwives – because it’s the country with the most deaths of mothers and babies in the world – and school libraries. The midwife project has been going on for many months and they have started to construct the school. The interesting thing is that the organization to which I gave the money were looking at different spots for the school – 12 different places and then they came down to four. The first three towns and villages they asked declined the offer. They said, «We don’t want the girls school.» And only the fourth place said, «Thank you, we’d love to have a school in our village, for free.» Teachers are being paid, and maintenance for 20 years. It just shows the Taleban spirit is still in their mind. Because there’s a council of village elders, and then my organization, the Afghan-Norwegian Committee, comes and says, «We have a donor here who will build you a school for free for 450 girls, do you want it?» «No, thank you.» They can get it for free but still they don’t want it because they don’t want the girls to be educated… That’s under construction, in the Shomali plain and I think it will be finished quite soon. Actually I wanted to build a mixed school but that doesn’t exist. So when I had the choice, of course, I chose the girls’ school. But then there is the problem because let’s say there is a little town and there is a school, a shack for boys, and then the girls get this tremendous, this beautiful, white-painted school, it will be an imbalance to them. So it would be a great thing to have a girls’ school and then a boys’ school. But let’s see.