Tuesday, August 9

The ‘bookseller from Kabul’ is now an asylum seeker in London

He became famous with the international best-selling book The Kabul Booksellerand survived several repressive regimes in Afghanistan. Now, two decades later, Shah Muhammad Rais lives in a London hotel hosted by the British Foreign Office, having fled the Taliban to seek asylum in the UK.

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Rais, 69, arrived in the UK on September 26 and applied for asylum at the airport. He is waiting for his case to be processed and lives together with other asylum seekers from various conflict zones. “The UK was my only open door to protect myself from the Taliban,” he says. Her family members, including her nine children and four grandchildren, are scattered across various countries. But his bookstore in Kabul is still open after the Taliban’s return to power, along with his online bookstore. He proudly hands over his business card: “Shah M Book Co, Printers, Publishers, Booksellers. Shah Muhammad Rais, CEO.”

But these are tough times for independent bookstores, and Rais isn’t sure his bookstore, founded in 1974 and which has endured nearly five turbulent decades, can withstand the current challenges of the Taliban regime. “Few people buy books now,” he says sadly. One of the consequences of the Taliban’s return has been a mass exodus of intellectuals and others who were part of the book-buying population when UK and US forces were still in Afghanistan. “I’m going to keep the bookstore open as long as I can, maybe the Taliban will ban or destroy it,” he says with a shrug.

Since 1979

Rais lived under different regimes in Afghanistan and was imprisoned twice in Soviet times, first in 1979 for a year, and again a year and a half after his release. He says he suffered torture and ill-treatment in prison, including sleep deprivation and being subjected to extremely cold conditions.

Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad traveled to Afghanistan shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and returned the following spring to write an account of life in the country through an intimate portrait of the lives of an Afghan family: the bookseller Rais, his two wives and his family. The journalist’s book was based on the bookseller’s account of her after he invited her to move in with her family, with whom she lived for five months.

Thus, Rais became famous after the publication in 2002 of the book, which topped the international bestseller lists and was translated into dozens of languages. However, together with members of her family, he initiated legal action against the author, arguing that the book was inaccurate and invasive. After a lengthy legal battle, an appeal court in Norway determined that the author had not invaded the family’s privacy and concluded that the facts reported in the book were accurate.

The bookstore

Rais’s bookstore is believed to have the largest collection of books on Afghanistan, expressing a variety of views on historical events, all under one roof. Along with texts for students in areas such as medicine, engineering, and languages ​​are many unique books that Rais hid in case his shop was raided. “I have stashes in Iran and Pakistan for some of the books,” she says.

Rais speaks six languages ​​and says, with regret, that he has forgotten a seventh that he could speak before: Russian. After earning a master’s degree in civil engineering from Kabul University, he thought it would not be possible to make a living from engineering and decided to try to transform his love of books, which he had developed since his teens, into a business. . Along with the huge and diverse collection of Afghan books, he loves the classics like Tolstoy, Balzac, and Hemingway, as well as his favorite Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet. “I loved reading Othellofrom Shakespeare, in Persian,” he says.

“Between 2002 and 2020 I sold more than 15,000 copies of European and American literature,” says Rais. He says that his goal was always to reflect a plurality of points of view on the significant events of history and not to take sides. “I’m on the side of sincerity,” he says. “The Soviets jailed me for collecting decrees from Mullah Omar and other jihadi newspapers that I got from Pakistan. I told the judge: ‘Tomorrow we will need these newspapers to study the Afghan jihad, to understand their enemies’”.

In better days, his bookstore was a hub where intellectuals from various backgrounds gathered, sat on mattresses listening to international news on a good radio, and then debated the political and philosophical issues of the day.

Now Rais’s future is uncertain as he anxiously awaits the outcome of his asylum application. Also, particularly unsettling for a book lover, he now suffers from vision problems. But his energy and his enthusiasm are intact. “If I get permission to work in the UK I would love to open an Afghan reading room in the British Library. I am writing a book about the land, culture and history of Afghanistan, and I would like to open a multi-cultural, multi-lingual bookstore for people from the region who are here, people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran. That is my dream”.

Translation by Patricio Orellana.