The Bookseller of Kabul

Åsne Seierstad, Norway's preeminent war corespondent, has reported from Chechnya, the Balkans, and Iraq, but it has been her portrayal of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban that has led to legal action against her for defeamation and libel.

The Bookseller of Kabul is Seierstad's eyewitness account of life after the Taliban. She spent three months living with a prosperous bookseller, Shah Muhammed Rais who appears in the book as the ficticious Sultan Khan, and his family. As a Western woman, she was able to inhabit both worlds of Afghanistanthat of the men and that of the women. The narrative is derived from both witnessed events and stories told by members of the family.

It becomes quickly apparent that Seierstad is appalled by the treatment of women in the tradition bound developing nation. The issues surrounding marriage are particularly difficult for the author, especially Rais' taking a second wife (which is, in fact common practice) much younger than himself. She also characterizes the arrangement of marriages as only a Westerner could, without nuance, as the buying of brides. Seierstad witnesses incidents of mothers and sisters answering to the whims of their much younger sons and brothers. The hierarchical, patriarchal nature of life in Afghanistan is simply incomprehensible to the Western experience.

Shah Muhammed Rais claims that not only does Seierstad tells stories out of turn, personal, private recollections that were never meant to be broadcast throughout the world, but she creates incidents to express her negative perception of him, his family, and Afghanistan. In a letter to the world announcing his legal action, he writes:
"Far from providing any profound insight into Afghan society, the tragedy of Afghanistan's modern history and its crucial role in world affairs, this is a low and salacious book, one that focuses almost exclusively on dirty aspects of life to the neglect of the challenges at hand. It is not the product of any deep study, experience or thought about the country. The author has taken advantage of a crisis in world history to pander to sensationalism, depicting things in as negative a light as possible in order to sell books and abusing the goodwill of the Scandinavian people in the process."
As with all contentious issues, the truth probably lies somewhere inbetween Seierstad and Rais. Except in those parts of the book that deal with purported sexual improprieties, Rais does not complain about the story told untrue. Instead, his concern is for Western interpretation Seierstad gives to the events she witnessed. This leads to a serious question: Can a Westerner set aside her own culture and observe that of another with fairness and without judgment?