A Bookseller in Kabul
Image Credit: Carol Mitchell

A Bookseller in Kabul


The Shah M Book Co. sits on the corner of a dusty street in central Kabul that’s lined with stationary shops. At first glance, only a keen eye would spot this nondescript storefront, which looks as if it has remained unchanged for years. The blue paint on the door has faded, while the glass at either side of the main entrance is covered in dust, obscuring the view of what’s inside.

But as you enter the shop, you’re transported into a different world. Books are stacked high on the shelves, and straight ahead stands a tall man bespectacled in a white cap with an Afghan scarf draped around his neck. He gets up from his chair to welcome you. My hesitant steps confirm his suspicion that I’m a first time visitor and foreigner.

“Are you an Indian?” he asks.

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It’s a common question in Afghanistan. They want to be sure who they are talking to, and the response will steer the conversation in very different directions.

What appears to be a small shop from the outside is actually quite large on the inside. Everywhere except the where the owner and his young son sit is taken up by books, with the latest publications on Afghanistan dotting the front row of the shelves.

The owner, Shah Muhammad Rais, claims to have “the largest collection of books on Afghanistan, more than 3,000, not to be found anywhere in the world.”

A wooden staircase takes you to the first floor, where books in the local languages and on various subjects are spread across the shelves. A small door on the left leads you to the other side of the first
floor. Among the piles of books are some stacked in bundles to be delivered to different provinces around the country.

In the absence of a good public library, this bookstore also acts as “a research library containing over 17,000 titles of books about Afghanistan in a variety of different languages providing unparalleled information about the country,” proclaims the store’s website.

The store also contains rare manuscripts and monograms that are hard, if not impossible, to find in libraries. Afghan students are allowed to come here to study, free of charge. The shop also lends books to students studying in other parts of the province, and will send copies of books out on request, for free.

To fund such philanthropy, the owner admits to charging foreigners a little extra for their books. He complains that decades of conflict have deprived the Afghan people of the chance to develop regular reading habits.

Rais says all kinds of people come into his shop. Stanley McChrystal, the former head of the International Security Assistance Force, is said to have come here to buy books, and when Afghan President Hamid Karzai found out about the variety of books here, Rais says he sent some members of his staff to buy some.

“When I started the shop, society was calm…But unfortunately everything has changed – and all for the negative, nothing positive has happened,” Rais says.

Jailed twice during communist control, Rais also recalls having to close his shop for a month during the Taliban era.

“For one month the Taliban closed the bookstore. But my business was shut for a year during the communist time,” he says. “The communists were more rigid than the Taliban. They suspected everyone to be a Western agent, and they arrested me twice.”

For Rais, the Taliban simply represented yet another extreme of behavior. “Life came to a standstill during that time. The city became deserted, business was completely down. It was a terrible time.”

But 10 years on, and Rais is still unhappy, with the hope sparked by the fall of the Taliban having been dashed by a decade of conflict.

“We don't have a clear future in Afghanistan. I don't see any light coming to Afghanistan. The West should have won the war against terrorism and they should have stopped the war by this time. NATO is a powerful force, but they are failing in front of a tiny group of Taliban,” says Rais, who has also  penned a book, “Once Upon A Time There was a Bookseller in Kabul,” as a rejoinder to the Norwegian
journalist Asne Seierstad’s depiction of him, which mostly dealt with his personal life.

“At least when the Soviets left the country there was a system and administration in place,” he says. “The government machinery was working properly, we had a national army we could trust. Now everything is disturbed. You have mafia-style corruption in the country.”

Such skepticism is rife as Afghans mull the withdrawal of international troops scheduled for 2014.

Regardless, though, Rais says he doesn’t want such uncertainty to affect his commitment to the shop and the society it serves. Ultimately, he hopes simply that he and his shop will do what they have always done: endure.

Sanjay Kumar is reporting from Kabul.

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