“…But all this world is like a tale we hear
Men’s evil, and their glory, disappear.”

This is one of the 50,000 couplets that make up 10th century poet Abul Qasem Firdausi’s Shah Nameh: The Book of Kings, a masterpiece in Persian that offers philosophical insight into almost every human dilemma. That, at least is the feeling of Afghanistan’s legendary bookseller Shah Muhammed Rais, a man whose own tumultuous biography is perhaps no less epic than Firdausi’s magnum opus.

At 66, Rais is the founder and managing director of Kabul’s iconic Shah M Book Company; for lovers of Central Asian literature, he is an affable mentor and a fountainhead of knowledge. Yet, underneath his easy-going spirit and playful chutzpah lies a steely determination – Rais is nothing if not a survivor.

I asked him how he was coping with the Covid-19 pandemic. According to figures released last summer by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health, a third of the country’s 30 million population had reportedly contracted the disease at the time. Rais chuckled, and I realised that for a man who has witnessed decades of civil war and censorship, spent time in prison, and fought a controversial legal battle, the novel coronavirus is perhaps a mere footnote in a lifetime of far greater challenges. Remarkably, what stands out most about Rais’s story is his unshakeable faith in the goodness and resilience of humanity.

Finding a calling

Shah Muhammed Rais was born in the spring of 1954 to middle-class parents in Kabul, Afghanistan’s bustling capital. He was curious and daring even as a boy. When 15-year-old Rais learnt in a geography lesson at school that three quarters of the earth’s surface was covered by sea, he resolved to travel out of landlocked Afghanistan and see the ocean for himself.

During the three-month winter holiday that year, Rais jumped on a bus and travelled solo for the first time out of Kabul. His three-week journey took him through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, across the cities of Peshawar, Multan and Lahore, and finally to coastal Karachi. It was here that Rais saw the shores of the Arabian Sea and was mesmerised.

When he returned to school, Rais was treated like a hero. “I told tales of my adventures over and over again,” he laughed. “The next year, I set off for Iran, this time to see the Black Sea.” But when Rais arrived in the vibrant, cosmopolitan Tehran of the late 1960s, he forgot all about going to the beach. “The city was buzzing with art, fashion and literature,” he recalled.

Rais spent his days at Tehran’s many bookstores, discovering the Persian-Farsi poetry of Firdausi, Khwaja Muhammed Hafez and Jalal-ad-Din Rumi. He was also captivated by Shakespeare’s Othello and Macbeth, and enlisted the help of a relative in Tehran to help him read these classics in English. When Rais returned to Kabul, it was with three giant crates of books – the start of what would become his personal library. “Books are like seas, you have to dive in to get the pearl of knowledge,” he said.

In due course, Rais earned a degree in civil engineering from Kabul University. “I was employed by the Ministry of Power and Energy at a salary equivalent to 50 US dollars a month. I could not have quit fast enough. My uncle suggested I join the family’s construction business, a job that involved greasing the palms of government officials. I didn’t want any of that.”

What Rais did want, more than anything, was to open his own bookstore in Kabul.

Learning to be a bookseller

By now, the young man had a collection of almost 1,000 books in Farsi, Dari and Pashto, along with a few in English – some purchased while travelling, a few donated by friends in the Ministry of Culture and Education. Most of Rais’s books were faded copies of old Afghan novels, short stories and religious verse, books he had unearthed whilst browsing Kabul’s crowded bazaars. At these places, Rais used his sense of enterprise and bought up unsold stocks from local booksellers at a throwaway price.

Soon after, Rais made a trip to India – the first of many to come – and was enchanted by the book-filled lanes around Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid. “I found so many rare books in Urdu and Persian at prices as low as 50 or 100 rupees. I bought as many as I could carry back to Kabul, including all the works of Mirza Ghalib.”

In 1974, Rais hired shop space in downtown Kabul’s commercial district of Charahi Sadarat, a stone’s throw from the city’s administrative and diplomatic enclaves. It was the perfect location for the Shah M Book Company. On opening day, two large trucks pulled up carrying every single book that Rais owned; soon, these filled up each shelf, nook and corner of the store. Amongst the eclectic range of reading material was a (now) out-of-print Farsi-English dictionary and a multi-volume tome of The Anglo-Afghan Wars.

The exterior of the bookshop in Kabul.

Rais was especially creative at assessing the value of his product. New and second-hand books were displayed with inflated price tags, with some titles marked at five or ten times their original rates. At first, customers were few. But word spread of the city’s first independent bookstore and Kabul’s elite soon appeared in droves. Rais’s success was swift and somewhat ironical, considering the former engineer described himself as “more of a scientist than a businessman.”

Once established, Rais opened a second outlet in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, a move that attracted a regular stream of foreign tourists and expats. The Shah M Book Company was becoming a hotspot of Kabul’s literary and cultural landscape; however, it was the political climate of the country that was approaching boiling point.

Managing political turmoil

In April 1978, a left wing military coup overthrew the centrist Afghan government and sparked what would become decades of conflict in the country. The new communist regime, one with close ties to the Soviet Union, was despised by the majority of Afghans.

Rais himself was charged with “distributing imperialist books and newspapers that were anti-regime.” Ever self-assured, Rais glibly passed off his bookstore as a place not for the distribution of material, but for the “collection and preservation of books for future generations.” Despite his claims, Rais found himself incarcerated in a Kabul jail doing time that amounted to two years.

Today, Rais doesn’t like talking about that phase of his life. With defiance and a touch of humour, he remarks, “When I got out, I reopened my bookstore and it was business as usual. You won’t believe, some of my enemies from that era are now my friends and well-wishers.”

With the onset of the 1980s, Afghanistan saw the steady rise of the country’s pro-Islamic Mujahideen and alongside, that of its radical splinter group, the Taliban. In the early 1990s, Soviet troops withdrew from the country; by 1996, the Taliban had taken control of Kabul and much of the land.

For ordinary peace-loving citizens, these were brutal years of insurgency and violence. Education was disrupted for the youth, unemployment was at an all-time high and women were excluded from public life. Many Afghans left the country, never to return. Harsh punishments came to those who breached Islamic law and the Shah M Book Company wasn’t spared.

In the late 1990s, members of the Taliban attacked the bookstore and burnt almost 2,000 books for their depictions of Islamic art and imagery. “Luckily, I had made multiple copies of all these titles which were safely stored in secret warehouses all over Kabul,” says Rais, whose pragmatism had rescued him yet again.

What hit the bookseller hard was the fact that fundamentalism, tyranny and illiteracy had shredded the fabric of Afghan society. Rais felt a moral obligation to help rebuild his shattered country, and began to donate 3,000 US dollars each year (a tenth of his annual personal income) in the form of textbooks and stationery to 60 schools in Kabul.

In the wake of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, US troops invaded Afghanistan, driving the Taliban out of the country and starting a fierce and persistent war. But even as the new millennium seethed with geo-political tension, it saw Rais embroiled in a different kind of battle – a deeply personal one.

A bittersweet interlude

In 2002, Rais was informally introduced to Norwegian journalist Asne Seiersgaard at his bookstore. When told that she was writing a book “about Afghan culture and a family’s experience of surviving the tragedy of Civil War,” Rais invited Seiersgaard to live in his family home for the duration of her research. Seiersgaard moved in for six months, getting to know Rais’s two wives, nine children and an assortment of relatives – all of whom lived under the same roof.

The following year, Seiersgaard published The Bookseller of Kabul – a compelling narrative that combined story-telling with reportage, and characters modelled on Rais and his family. The book was published in 30 languages, sold over a million copies and thrust Rais into the international literary spotlight. The Scandinavian author believed she had written an intimate, authentic account of life in present-day Afghanistan, but Rais felt only shock, betrayal and violation.

In a 2003 statement to the press titled “A Matter of Honour and Truth”, Rais said The Bookseller of Kabul was a “worthless collection of invented incidents”. Soon afterwards, Rais, his second wife Suriya and several other members of his family brought charges of defamation against Seiersgaard in an Oslo court. The author was initially found guilty and ordered to pay damages, but the ruling was overturned in 2012 by a higher court.

Today, Rais swears he is no longer bitter. “I believe in god. I acted in good faith and out of my genuine respect for women. So why should I carry the burden of hurt when I did nothing wrong? Anyway, one has to let the past go and accept that life is a gamble.”

Branching out

At the height of his litigation against Seiersgaard, Rias took a risk of another kind. This was his ambitious Book Mobile project, which involved a road trip across Afghanistan’s rural provinces to sell school books and other educational texts in Pashto and English. The Book Mobile was a mammoth Mercedes Benz omnibus, which Rais bought with his own money and described as “2.8 metres wide, 14 metres long and capable of holding 20,000 books.”

In March 2007, Rais and a staff of five travelled north to the small towns of Mazer Sharif, Kunduz and Takhar. In each of these places, they laid out stacks of books on folding tables, and enticed people – through energetic announcements via loudspeaker – to browse and buy.

Unfortunately for Rais, the Book Mobile project proved unsustainable. A blast in Kunduz soon after Rais’s visit was a reminder of how unsafe and insecure the country was. Other disadvantages included the lack of government and NGO backing; Kabul’s Goethe Institute had been sceptical all along of supporting a private bookseller.

Rais countered this by saying, “We didn’t make a profit. I lost 10,000 US dollars of my own money; we sold only a fraction of our stock. But I didn’t care! We gifted hundreds of books to schools, sometimes straight into the hands of poor children. That made me happy.”

A more lasting satisfaction came to Rais when he made his debut as an author. Perceived initially as a sharp rebuttal to The Bookseller of Kabul, Rais’s 96-page memoir had nothing in common with Seiersgaard’s story. Written and self-published in English, Once Upon A Time There Was A Bookseller In Kabul was a metaphysical fantasy involving djinns and trolls, melding what its fans described as “the horrors of war, the misunderstandings between cultures and the tragedy of modern Afghanistan.” Rais, whose bookstore sold the popular Harry Potter series in Farsi, was far more inspired by his own culture’s qissah – tales of miracles and magic, stories of flying carpets, the 1,001 plots of Arabian Nights.

Joining a renaissance

By 2015, Rais had become one of Afghanistan’s largest dealer of books and publications, maybe even the biggest. The 40-year-old Shah M Book Company displayed over 20,000 titles in Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Persian, English, German, French and Russian, with one million copies secured in a specially-built research library. The store was home to a staff of 24, and included every genre of Central Asian literature – novels and verse, religion and Sufism, history and culture, art and architecture, children’s books and a range of rare Afghan maps, postcards and stamps.

Indian author Taran N Khan spent time in Afghanistan’s capital between 2006 and 2013, chronicling her nuanced experiences in Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul. Raised near Delhi in the northern university town of Aligarh, Khan felt a strong affinity for the people of Kabul and for the complexities of daily life that hummed through their stories. While visiting the Shah M Book Company, Khan was delighted to find a collection of verse by the 17th century sufi poet Abdul Qadir Bedil; a familiar name that reminded her of her grandfather and his lifelong love for Persian literature.

As Afghanistan struggled to rebuild its broken education system, Rais took the opportunity to serve its fledgling student community. A quarter of the store’s books comprised medical, engineering and social science academic texts in Farsi and Pashto, imports from Iran and Pakistan. English titles were sourced from affordable Indian imprints such as S Chand, Viva Books, JayPee and Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Rais buying books in Istanbul.

Rais – a dedicated Indophile with a love for the country’s classical arts and Bollywood movies – now travelled annually to India, a familiar figure at the book hubs of Delhi’s Daryaganj, Lucknow’s Hazratganj and Kolkata’s Asiatic Society. He also appreciated the subcontinent’s literary writers – one of the Shah M Book Company’s top-selling books to date is Afghan Diary, an account of the 1970s Saur revolution as witnessed by Marathi novelist Pratibha Ranade.

What heartened Rais during this time was Afghanistan’s own artistic renaissance. Many of the country’s prolific scholars, writers and poets had left the country during its years of war, oppression and censorship. Now, these voices-in-exile were bringing to life their experiences for global readers – among them, Khalid Hosseini (known for his bestselling novel The Kite Runner), Franco-Afghan filmmaker Atiq Rahimi, and Sweden-based Azizollah Nahofteh, who wrote on religion and women in contemporary Afghan society.

The Shah M Book Company actively promoted this resurgence of home-grown literature, which in turn attracted eminent visitors such as diplomat Huseyin Avni Botsali, Afghan-American historian Nancy Hatch Dupree and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll.

With journalist Steve Coll.

Locked down but thriving

But as the decade ended, another crisis was looming. When the pandemic hit the world in the spring of 2020, Afghanistan was already weakened by four decades of war, a less-than-optimal healthcare system and poor infrastructure. Moreover, the government lacked resources to contain the spread of the virus, especially after 200,000 Afghans re-entered the country from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan in early March.

Kabul, with its densely-packed population of 4.2 million, locked down completely – a situation which led to a 17 per cent drop in national economic output over the year. And so, for the first time in its history, the doors of the Shah M Book Company in Charahi Sadarat were shut to the public for three whole months.

Strangely, Rais had envisioned a fully digital future for the world as early as 2008, at a time when e-commerce was still in a nascent stage. That same year, he closed down his Intercontinental Hotel branch and switched focus to international trade. This involved launching the company’s official website and offering a list of 12,000 titles, a credit card facility and shipments to 190 countries. By 2020, unlike most other independent bookstores and enterprises, he had a 12-year headstart in online operations and traffic of 80-100 customers a day.

Local orders for books – mostly from Kabul’s ministries, embassies and private homes – were steady during the lockdown period. The unforeseen pandemic had not only disrupted daily life, it had derailed a long-awaited transition to peace – and reading tastes reflected this mood of the nation. The Shah M Book Company saw a fresh demand for subjects such as Afghanistan’s internal politics and history, socio-cultural issues and spirituality.

With the launch of 300 e-books – a new category – readers had access to titles like James Dobbins’ After The Taliban, David McDonald’s exploration of the country’s heroin and opium addiction Drugs In Afghanistan, Anis Ahmed’s Gender, Law and Society In Islam and Fariduddin Attar’s Memoirs of Saints. Online sales in 2020 registered a jump of 20 per cent over the previous year.

Enthused, Rais decided to strengthen what had always been close to his heart – the spread of education amongst the Afghan youth. “Even though the book mobile project had failed to take off, I wanted to serve students, especially those outside Kabul who had no access to physical bookstores and who could not travel during the pandemic,” he said. Rais’s system was simple. Students could order online, choosing from a list of heavily subsidised academic and reference books; individual orders were then packed and loaded as cargo on buses that plied each morning from Kabul to a host of rural towns and districts.

For a nominal fee of 100 afghanis, the bus drivers faithfully transported up to five packages per trip. Customers could collect packages from their local bus depots and pay for them in cash. The system worked well all through last year, given that lockdowns were less stringent in the colder, less-populated areas outside the capital.

At present, the Rais family is scattered across three continents. A proud patriarch and grandfather of four, Rais divides his time between homes in Canada, Norway and Kabul. Two adult sons have joined the business; one daughter is a psychology major at the University of Oslo. But even as the pandemic arrested his travel schedule over the last ten months, Rais was far from idle.

In collaboration with several partners, Rais developed BookPorium – a mega digital venture that he hopes will become “the amazon.com of Asia.” The platform has already listed 5,000 titles; it aims to launch in early 2022 with 30 online stations across multiple countries. Rais has a logo in mind, chuckling as he describes, “an animated character called kitabwala who runs through the streets with a basket of books on his head.” It’s an apt image that befits the gutsy bookseller of Kabul.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.