‘I wanted to end my life’: ‘Bookseller of Kabul’ rebuilds destroyed business

Shah Muhammad Rais first opened his bookshop in the Afghan capital in 1974. By 2003, when his story was made famous by the bestselling novel The Bookseller of Kabul, the business had collected about 100,000 books, in different languages, about literature, history and politics. The collection included works of fiction and nonfiction, with everything from richly illustrated children’s tales to dense academic tomes.

After the Taliban stormed Kabul in 2021, Rais fled to the UK, telling the Guardian last year that he feared the group would destroy his cherished business. His fears came true.

Last December, the Taliban turned up at the bookshop, locked the doors and ordered the employees to hand over all the passwords for Rais’s website and catalogue, before destroying the archive he had been building since he first opened the shop.

“When I heard what had happened I couldn’t talk, I was frozen. My mind was not working,” said Rais, who is now almost blind. He was so grief-stricken that he considered taking his own life.

“For two weeks after this happened I wanted to end my life. But suddenly I got my energy back,” he said. He resolved to rebuild his unique collection from scratch. Because his online business was global, he already had many contacts in countries such as Iran and Pakistan and across central Asia. Rais, who speaks six languages, signed a deal with an Indian IT company to create a new website – Indo Aryana Book Co.

Now new books are being printed in India from pdfs and mailed into Afghanistan. Recently an online order was placed by someone in Mexico to deliver a copy of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to an address in Kabul. The book is banned in Afghanistan, but the order was placed in the morning and had been delivered to the Kabul address by the afternoon.

Rais is especially keen to help give girls and women in Afghanistan access to books despite the Taliban ban on their education. He is using his contacts to get free or subsidised books to them in their homes or hidden schools. Even bus drivers help: secreting in their vehicles packages of books needing to be delivered discreetly, while driving across Afghanistan.

He says that whatever book-banning edicts the Taliban issues, a population thirsty for books are finding ways around them. He describes himself as a “proud Muslim” but says he abhors all forms of extremism and believes that people from all faiths and cultures can live together in harmony. “Books are a good, cheap weapon to fight against extremism,” he said.

His love affair with books began at the age of 17 when he read a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello for the first time. He has reread it more than 10 times. Selling books has repeatedly got him into trouble, with two stints in jail after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and forced closure of his shop in the mid-1990s by the Taliban.

“When I was released from jail by the Soviets I wiped the dust off the bookshelves in my shop and started again,” he said. Like Ray Bradbury’s dystopian 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, which stands against censorship and in defence of literature, and is a book previously stocked in his shop, Rais says his resolve to keep books alive will not falter. His message to the Taliban is a defiant one.

“If you destroy my bookstore a hundred times I will rebuild it.”

The Guardian