The Bookseller of Kabul

Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian author, has been successfully sued in Norway over her book Bookseller of Kabul.  It is a fictionalised account of her time staying with a family in Afghanistan, and much of the family’s private life is laid bare for the reader in unflattering detail.

On Comment is Free, journalist Conor Foley lays in to Seierstad, outlining the social faux pas she has committed:

Some may argue that freedom of artistic expression should be completely divorced from such political considerations. However, a writer who chooses to use a conflict as the background for their work cannot plead cultural immunity when real life intrudes on the result.

Indeed.  But being stung, criticised and discredited for failing to respect cultural norms should not be punished in a civil or criminal court.   Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, explains in the Independent why this development is a worry:

That’s not to say that Seierstad has not broken an unwritten code of hospitality, or that the Rais family has not faced problems as a result of the book’s publication. Although Rais himself continues to operate a successful business out of Kabul, his first wife has sought asylum in Canada and other members of the family are now living in Pakistan. But is this discrepancy in the fates of the male and female members of the family the fault of a Norwegian journalist – or Afghan society? Is it appropriate for a Norwegian court to punish the messenger? Is a court of law the place to determine how a book treats the “honour” of an entire society?

The example that such cases set is a very bad one.  What happens when an investigative journalist wants to deliberately abuse the hospitality of an Afghan businessman, in order to expose corruption?  What if an Afghani journalist wants to make similar, off-message commentary about his countrymen.  Seierstad should certainly suffer the reputational and social hit of her insensitivity, but dragging this sort of roman a clef into the court-room is a terrible precedent for free expression.

2 thoughts on “The Bookseller of Kabul

  1. Agreed. But it’s interesting that you view even going to court as a punishment. Officially, of course, it is no such thing. If that idea gained traction, I think we’d have to rethink our whole justice systems.

    1. On the idea of ‘punishment’, you are right on principle.

      If going to court we a cheap and relatively easy process, then it would be no punishment at all. Unfortunately, because trials, whether civil or crimminal, are usually extremely expensive and time consuming, then the threat of legal action is a huge chill. Authors who have successfully defended themselves against legal challenges still lose thousands upon thousands of pounds, and months (if not years) of their lives, in defending a case.

      However, there is a more fundamental point, which is what role should courts play in our lives? The Bookseller of Kabul case is, for me, a borderline case, because I don’t think it is the role of the justice/legal system to police opinions and manners, which is what seems to have happened here. It sets a very dangerous precedent.

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