Kabul book trade turns page on darker days

Mujib Mashal is a journalist with Al Jazeera. Follow him on twitter.

Mujib Mashal

“How can you care for books when you lose friends?” explained Wasim, a bookseller in Kabul’s largest book market as he spoke of the impact that four decades of violence and turmoil has left on readership in the Afghan capital.

He and his young son, who looked no older than eight, were surrounded by stacks of books covered in dust: textbooks, thick collections of poetry and volumes of English stories with translations in local languages, a commodity in high demand for the thousands of Afghans trying to learn English – a language that can take you far in the job market.

Wasim’s family has been selling books for generations.

“During the Taliban, perhaps we sold more books than ever. But it was a particular kind of books,” he said, explaining that Taliban fighters would stop by to buy a volume or two of religious books before heading to battle.

“But their era was also the biggest blow to production of creative literature – their focus was only on one field [religion].”

Initially, the claim that he had sold more books during the Taliban than any other period seemed a bit strange to me. But later, as I thought about what he said, it made perfect sense.

Books, religious or secular, remained one of the few ways Afghans could pass time during the six years of Taliban rule – as every other form of entertainment had been choked off.

Sultan Mohamed has sold books for over two decades

Music, television and visual arts were prohibited by the government. One was reminded of this fact upon seeing the broken instruments hanging from a tree at the Torkham border with Pakistan, one of the main gateways to Afghanistan.

There was an underground market for movies and music – grocery stores doubled as movie rental centres and some people even dared to buy satellite televisions.

In general, though, people played it safe – avoiding the wrath of the Taliban’s Vice and Virtue Police, a force that drove around in white vans and shiny pickup trucks, armed with leather lashes.

Books, once confined to religious schools and mosques, became mainstream. Mass-produced in trademark crispy-yellow paper, they were distributed in public schools. Specialized instructors were added to the staff to teach these complex books, parachuted into the curriculum without the required systematic build up.

In 2001, as the US’ B-52 fighter planes bombed Kabul and the surrounding areas, I, like many teenagers at the time, had discovered a form of entertainment that had become addictive: Iranian detective novels.

We rented these books, often thick and written in many volumes, from small stationary stores for the equivalent of $0.05 a night – a sum that became a burden on our families at the end of the month, considering that we went through one volume per night.

In great detail, these books gave us what we missed: action, romance, and a world of fantasy that we otherwise did not have access to.

Considering Wasim’s statement, the reliance on Iranian novels during the Taliban years is also indicative of another fact: that Afghanistan lacked creative production at home.

Government energy was channeled towards producing religious textbooks, and the field for creative expression had been minimized by law and, in some cases, by chance.

A decade after the fall of the Taliban, books seem to be finding their place – though very slowly – back into society. The feat is particularly impressive, considering that books have to compete with dozens of television channels, over 100 radio channels and the growing availability of internet access. What’s more, authors face challenges as copyright is never respected—almost everything that you find in the market is bootlegged, printed in Pakistan’s infamous Qisa-Khwani Bazaar.

But an increase in demand, as more people enroll in schools and universities, has brought an increase in production.

“We commissioned a new volume of history and the university students swallowed the first batch within a day,” Wasim said. “We had to go back and print a second batch. It’s wonderful to see the interest again.”

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