BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Bookseller of Kabul is the best-selling non-fiction book in the history of Norway, where it was first published last fall. Since translated into 17 languages, it's selling briskly everywhere. It's a compellingly intimate peek into the household of a bookseller, a man who saw his books censored or burned under the Communists, the Mujahadeen and the Taliban, who was jailed and yet continued to rebuild for love of books and the freedom of thought they represent. When journalist Asne Seierstad approached the bookseller with her idea for a book, he let her into his home to sleep on mats with his family, share their meals and chronicle their every move for four months. The book just came out in English, and the bookseller has read it. He hates it, and he's suing. Shah Mohammad Rais.
SHAH MOHAMMAD RAIS: When I read the book, I was shocked. I was terribly shocked. She did not understand the situation -- what is going on in Afghanistan. The way she explains the life of our family, it's very insulting way. For instance, she writes that my mother eats too much, because she suffered from poverty and starvation, which is not true. It's an-- defamation of my family, you know, and the way she explains the life of my youngest sister, it's not true. She is very happy. She attended a very proper education. She speaks excellent English. She enjoys life. This book is not true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Asne Seierstad's book is less a chronicle of a hero and more a tale of a stern patriarch and his family, particularly his wives and daughters who live under harsh house rules that break their spirit. She joins me now. Welcome to the show.
ASNE SEIERSTAD: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you know, there's a controversy surrounding the book. It broke when the bookseller finally got to read it, when it was translated into English this summer, and he claims that it was a terrifically inaccurate portrait of him, his family and Afghan culture.
ASNE SEIERSTAD: When I wrote the book, I realized after a time (because I was so shocked to see all the things that happened in the family), I realized after some time that he might not like the book when he read it. But he still gave me freedom or liberty to write whatever I like or to see whatever I like. When he finally got to read it, I thought that he would maybe reflect upon it and think well, in the end, that's how a Western woman sees me after all. But he did not reflect upon it. He just became crazy, and now when he says this is inaccurate, well, I think he says that because it's maybe too direct when he reads it, exactly how it is. For instance, one of the things he criticized me of saying -- at some point I, I say that his sister is like a slave. I used that word only once, but like a slave, and he is saying well how can you say she's a slave? I protected her during the civil war; now she repays my favors. Well for us, that is slavery, isn't it? Now she's 20 years old. She was 19 when I was there. And she's sweeping the floor, she's washing, she's cleaning. She's not allowed to go to school; she's not allowed to work. She's repaying the favors of her older brother in giving her shelter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And as you say, for us that is slavery. But a lot of critics have said that it is simply incorrect for First World writers to descend on Third World countries and write what amounts to a critique of culture.
ASNE SEIERSTAD: What should I do then? Should I adopt some Third World eyes? I have my eyes. I'm from Norway. Of course I'm colored by having grown up in the '70s in Norway. My mother is a famous feminist in Norway. My father is a political scientist. I've grown up in these very liberal surroundings. And of course, for me, there is some essential values that's holy for me. Every person has the same value. Every person should have the same rights to get education, to work, to speak up. Even they can't leave their own house without having permission. For me, I'm describing this. I'm not actually in the book -- those who, who read the book, they say I'm never judging. I'm never criticizing. I'm just writing whatever I see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:On the other hand, it isn't as if the language is entirely free of judgmental words, for instance you said that his sister was treated "like a slave."
ASNE SEIERSTAD: Yeah, that's true. Mm-hm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And those kinds of words describe various characters in the book, especially the submissive females. There's victimization in the language. I'm not saying this is right or wrong. I'm simply saying that your judgment is clear throughout the book.
ASNE SEIERSTAD: That's right. But I've been criticized of -oh, you're victimizing these women. But they are victims. To my opinion, they are victims. And I think this -- it's important to write about their lives, and, and what underlines this is that I got so many phone call from African women in Norway calling me, saying that this is my life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You said you think there should be values for all people. I guess that flies into the face of people who say that there are different values for different cultures that are equally valid. You just don't feel that way.
ASNE SEIERSTAD: No. I'm not a cultural relativist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's clear from your introduction, though, that you held the bookseller in far higher esteem at the beginning of the project than you did at the end. Obviously your perspective changed with the increased intimacy with his family and his way of life. Right?
ASNE SEIERSTAD: Actually that's what also proves that my intention were not to -- oh, I want to pick out an Afghan family and write how cruel they are. No. When I met the bookseller, because he's, he is still doing, and he did a great job for the culture, for the books, and for saving. He was in jail during the Communists, he was in jail during the Talibans. He was really doing a great favor to his nation and to the language and to the literature of Afghanistan. So when I met him the first time, I was so happy -- what a great man, and when you speak to him, he could even sound like liberal, I don't know, European, American saying oh, we should have equal rights. We need a government with ministers of both women and men. Quite liberal political ideas. And then I moved in, and then I see slowly by slowly how he's just a typical Afghan patriarch, how he treats his family, how he now marries two wives, and they have no rights to speak up, to say whatever they like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But do you feel that you may have misled your principal subject, however unintentionally, about the project? Wasn't he likely to expect a, a far more positive family portrait than you ended up writing?
ASNE SEIERSTAD: Well, I think definitely expected something more of him being a hero, as he is, and as the project started as.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I mean does he have some justification for feeling betrayed, misled?
ASNE SEIERSTAD: Well-- I think that the alternative is no book. I think it's not possible in a society where the repression of women is so terrible -it's not possible to write, I think, a book of a typical male and he will be pleased with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think a journalist author owes her subject?
ASNE SEIERSTAD:If you want to write the truth about harsh regimes, either - whether it's inside a family or whether it's on a political national level, your subjects will not be pleased with it, and he is not pleased with it, and I don't feel I owe him anything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:This is an international best-seller, and it's been released here in the United States, and it will certainly spark, I think, a renewed dialogue about the treatment of women in Afghanistan and other places in the world. Was this your intention?
ASNE SEIERSTAD: The intention was actually just to find out, because I'd been in Afghanistan for three months as a war correspondent. I went there right after September 11th. And my days were war, bullets, victims, commanders, all sorts of things, like connected to the war, and, and after three months I realized, yeah, but I know nothing about the country. I know nothing about the culture, because the-- it's so closed, and it's so secret. And that's when I met the bookseller in the bookstore, and I was so fascinated by him and his family. And I said well this is the real Afghanistan. That's what happens inside the families. But my intention was actually just to try to understand the Afghanistan society. It's-- one thing is to know, yes, this is a brutal society, but to feel it and to live it, and to live on the floor with these women, to see them crying, to crying with them, to live their so limited life, my conscience tells me that I cannot not write about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Asne Seierstad is the author of The Bookseller of Kabul. Asne, thank you very much.
ASNE SEIERSTAD: You're welcome. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, zombies and the ghouls who love them.