Reading Kabul

Mapping The City Through Books, The Author Discovers A Kabul Made Entirely Of Words.

Shah Muhammad Rais at the Shah M Bookstore, arguably the best-stocked English bookshop in the city. TARAN N KHAN FOR THE CARAVAN
01 April, 2011

Kublai asks Marco, “When you return to the West, will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?”

“I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting... It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

A FEW MONTHS AGO in Kabul, on a bright Friday afternoon, the beginning of a leisurely weekend, I threw aside the trashy blogger-turned-novelist offering I had carried with me from Delhi, relieved to be free of its mediocre ramblings. As I gazed at its virulently yellow cover in dislike, an incredible thought slowly dawned on me. I had nothing else to read. By some strange chain of omissions and oversights, the only reading material I had brought to see me through a month in Kabul was the book that now lay behind the sofa.

I can think of few other places even in the non-English- speaking world where this simple fact would fill me with such dismay. This, in itself, was strange. Unlike most people I met from abroad who were living and working in Kabul, I had been very comfortable with the city ever since I first visited it in 2006. Since then, on assignments varying in length from a few weeks to a few months, I have felt entirely at home in the city—a fact that I suspect has much to do with growing up as a woman in a small town, and in a conservatively liberal Muslim family. The carefully cloistered routines of our lives in Aligarh, where I shared the rituals of adolescence with a range of cousins inside a sprawling ‘Civil Lines’ bungalow, corresponded almost perfectly with the rhythm of life in post-conflict Kabul, where expats banded together in sprawling guesthouses that were often old bungalows, their high walls enclosing lush lawns, creating the perfect zenana. Everything that other women found difficult about the city, I found quite natural. There’s nowhere to go out in the evenings. We never did anyway. The men stare like they’ve never seen females before. You mean there’s another way they can behave? You can’t walk on the streets. Walk on the streets?! What do you do for fun here? 

But that last one I can answer, after a fashion. Call it making a virtue of a necessity, but we filled our hours with books. The large wooden cupboards in our dimly lit rooms were lined with them, mostly old books, heirlooms inherited from our aunts and uncles; some recent finds, always something new to discover, or something familiar to return to. Books for afternoons with power cuts, by the window open just a crack, one hand turning the pages and the other swirling a fan over my grandmother’s sleeping form. Books for long winter evenings which shut out the fact that there was a world outside we were not a part of. Books were all the social life we got, and all that we ended up needing. It was this arrogance steeped in self-sufficiency that made me roll my eyes each time other women complained of going ‘crazy’ in Kabul. But I had always had books here as well. Now, my crutches had been kicked away, and the evenings loomed dark and frighteningly long unless I found myself a library quickly.

I began with the well-stocked shelves of the friends in whose house I was staying. Their books were interesting and varied, and exactly what I wanted to read, but in French. Finally, buried under tourist brochures for Dubai, I found Calvino’s Invisible Cities. (The book that Jeanette Winterson, according to the blurb, would choose as “pillow and plate, alone on a desert island”, and the book that chance cast as my raft on this strange and lonely sea.) I approached it with a miserable exuberance, conscious already of its slipping away. Turning the pages like a miser, I watched the flowering of delicate maps of prose as the author sketched the conversations between the Venetian traveller Marco Polo and his employer and emperor, Kublai Khan. The intricate descriptions of  Marco Polo’s wondrous cities, and Calvino’s lyrical musings on travel and memory kept me company, like learned companions guiding my steps, as I began reading Kabul, mapping my own encounters with the city and all the different faces it revealed as I scoured its ancient alleyways, looking for something to read.


GETTING YOUR HANDS ON BOOKS, specifically English books of a certain calibre, is an education in hierarchy in this intensely rank-conscious city. The colour of your identity card, and which organisation you can claim association with, decide how close you can get to the rows of books lined up on shelves in guesthouses. These are books of privilege, with pages to be turned over in the warmth of crackling samovars, sipping hot coffee made the European way; books to be tucked into handcrafted bags and taken along on long drives in Land Cruisers through Kabul’s traffic-choked roads, as the men and women behind the largest international reconstruction effort of our times get to office. These are not books for everyone.

In the Kabul of secure compounds and restricted access areas, there is an abundance of books in all the official UN languages, but that city has shrunk further and further into itself, retreating behind ever-rising curtains of concrete and sandbags. The closest I can get to this dazzling abundance are the bookswaps at Kabul’s chic coffee shops, where patrons are offered the pick of whatever books they like off the shelves, and requested, in turn, to leave behind whatever books they can when they depart. It is an elegant intervention in the carousel of expat life in Kabul, where imminent departure is a large part of the reality of being present.

I run my fingers over the spines of volumes in café after café, examining the debris of departed journalists and aid workers that is imprinted with the legacy of ‘understanding Afghanistan’ and the mission of ‘explaining’ it. In each place, I find a collection of names so ubiquitous as to resemble a pantheon of experts—writers, researchers, journalists, from every country in the world except Afghanistan, interpreting the country for the rest of the world. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid’s book on the Taliban is a recurring theme, as is Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, a useful introduction to how truth can be far stranger than fiction in Afghanistan. There are books by war reporters talking about how they report wars, books on war photography by war photographers, stories of sewing circles and beauty schools and women finding hope in miserable places. In an archaeology of British walkers, Eric Newby’s benevolent ramblings in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush rubs shoulders with Rory Stewart’s post-Taliban report, The Places in Between, an account of Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, as seen on foot from Herat to Kabul. There are glossy copies of Lonely Planet’s guide to Afghanistan, some hippy-era memoirs and many, many volumes of that ode to Afghan innocence, The Kite Runner.

In hushed bowers just off the ruined streets of the capital the world forgot, then came to rebuild, the shifting titles of these books are like fragile beacons of passing eras, touched by the same breeze that flutters the flags on the graves of martyrs of war after war—Raj, Soviet, American; from optimism, to realism, to retreat.

As this latest international outing nears the close of its narrative arc, the sense of departures in the air is more palpable in Kabul than ever before. But despite that, the ‘Afghanistan book’ is still being written, growing in these very cafés, tapped out diligently on the many laptops at work under the almond trees of Kabul’s homes-turned-restaurants. There is subtle irony in the quiet observation of a friend, who says only half in jest, leaning in from the crowd of journalists sipping coffee around us, “Don’t talk too loud. We are all war profiteers for stories here.”

I walk away empty-handed from these shelves, leaving behind the paperbacks with burqas, mujahideen warriors and sunlight slanting through window frames on their covers. I return to Marco Polo, obsessively recasting the image of Venice, the city he loves above all others, into the descriptions of all the cities he sees on his wanderings, as a charm against forgetting.


SOMEWHERE IN A CORNER of the Shah M Bookstore at Kabul’s Charahi Sadarat, is a series of souvenirs released by the governments of Afghanistan over the years. The chronologies show the ‘rulers’ of the country over time, and are punctuated by gaps corresponding to the political affiliations of whichever faction happened to be in power then. In some, the monarchy is blotted out, their names coated with thick black lines. In others, the communist rulers skip over years and regimes. These absences mask years of bloodshed, families splintered over the globe, endless intrigues across palaces that now lie in different degrees of ruin, a never-ending war of smoke and mirrors waged in the name of peace.

The Shah M Bookstore is arguably the best-stocked English bookshop in the city. Here, books regularly encounter their authors, ‘old’ Afghan hands of all vintages dropping by for a friendly chat with the owner, Shah Muhammad Rais. Its reputation as well as its marked-up prices raise my eyebrows and my parsimonious instincts when I walk in. But I am a sucker for idyllic corner bookstores, and the melting looks of the dog under the table, and the bubbling of the kettle on the samovar charm me into silent submission. Over tea sipped out of dainty cups, Rais tells me the story of how he started the store. As a young man, he travelled to Iran on a vacation to get his first glimpse of the sea, but ended up in a city fairly far from the coast. On his first day, instead of travelling to the beach, he wandered onto a road filled with bookstores, sat down in one and got through half of one of Shakespeare’s plays by the evening. He returned the next day to finish the story, and the next, and every day after that for the rest of his holiday, before returning to Kabul determined to sell books. His store has stayed open through the years and over the shifting eras—Mujahideen, Taliban, International Security Assistance Force or ISAF.

The one book not in his store is that written about him by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, called The Bookseller of Kabul. Seierstad lived with Rais’ family for months while working on the book, but the thinly disguised portrait she created of him was hardly flattering. The protagonist in her book, called Sultan Khan, is a tyrannical father, denying his son an education, and an inconsiderate husband whose second marriage to a much younger woman humiliates and grieves his educated first wife. Rais not only sued Seierstad in a Norwegian court, but also wrote and published a rebuttal which is proudly displayed in his shop window, titled Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul.

Before leaving, I take a tour of the upper floor of the store, where Rais stocks his Persian books. I tell him I’m looking for a large print edition of Bedil’s poetry for my grandfather, and he helps me find a copy, published in Iran, with letters large enough for my grandfather’s failing eyesight. Downstairs, as I settle the bill, he brings out a slimmer volume—a copy of tales from the Shahnama, the epic poem by Firdausi, beloved to every Persian speaker. He waves away my offers to pay, and inscribes on the flyleaf with a flourish, “For Mehdi sahib of India, from one book lover to another.”

For myself, the quirky store has yielded up the quirky comfort fare of Lilian Jackson Braun’s detective series, The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare. I spend the next two nights in thrall of Siamese cats smart enough to quote the Bard and of dark deeds afoot in small-town America.


JU-E-SHEER, or River of Milk, lies at the bottom of the Asmai mountain, whose ancient slopes have seen streams of Hindu and Buddhist cultures flow and mingle over the course of the city’s rich and diverse 3,000-year-old past. It is now the spot for Kabul’s largest book market, a frail but visible reservoir of this past.

Books gleam behind the glass fronts of stores that cling to the mountain’s craggy slopes like stubborn mushrooms. Some stalls are basic and exposed to gusts of wind that deposit dust on their stock; others are more fancily equipped with computers and heating. The splashy colours are a surprise against the adobe-coloured mud houses that rise on the mountain. A few steps in, the market is a labyrinth of narrow book-lined gullies. Shops lead into shops, and little boys run up and down the alleys or disappear up ladders leading into who knows what dimension, coming back breathless but triumphant with a book you asked for, or just one they feel you should have. The illusion of Kabul being a bookless desert is replaced with the realisation that the feeling of not having anything to read has less to do with the city and more to do with the reader.

I walk up the slope, past soldiers from the barracks just opposite the mountain, choosing pens for their children, past kids trying to thrust Indian folktales, printed in Dari at Peshawar’s Taj Mahal Press, at me, past row after row of printed sermons in Pashto and Dari by Zakir Naik, the Mumbai-based preacher who enjoys the kind of treatment reserved for rock stars elsewhere. I ask a young boy at a stall for his English stock, and he unearths a slim paperback copy of Saving Private Ryan in a specially abridged version to help Afghans learn English. I flip over to the questions at the back. “What is your opinion of the idea mentioned in the book that war makes men into brothers?” it asks.

By sheer chance, I end up in front of Arash Ahmady’s tiny stall, turning over his small, eclectic collection of ‘antique’ books. A paediatrician during the mornings at Kabul’s Ataturk Children’s Hospital, Ahmady spends his afternoons on the mountainside, selling books just because he loves them. With fingers slowly numbing and backs hunched against the chilly breeze, we go over finely embossed maps of Kabul’s tourist spots from the 1960s, a copy of Khayyam translated by Fitzgerald, opulent in soft blue leather, several biographies of Gandhi and Kemal Ataturk. “Where did you get these?” I ask, and he replies matter-of-factly, “Kabul.” Then he sees the look on my face, and adds quickly, kindly, “Of course, you won’t find them here anymore.”

Dr Ahmady’s books cost too much for me to afford, and all I leave with is a pocket English-Dari phrasebook, originally intended for British soldiers serving in this crucial outpost. I also pick up a copy of the fables of Mullah Nasruddin and his donkey, Fiddu, but the familiar, wisecracking buffoon of my childhood is lost behind the intricate latticework of the Persian printing, which evades me in a delicate deceit.


At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume. And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

A FRIEND VISITS THAT EVENING, and I tell him about my foray into Ju-e-Sheer. He is not impressed, but being Afghan, is too polite to say so. Instead, he tells me a story about how, when he returned to Kabul after studying cinema in Moscow for six years, he would spend hours at the second-hand bookstores near the river Kabul, looking at and occasionally picking up rare early editions of English and Russian works. Where were they from, I ask, and he shrugs with the fatalism that Afghans wear like a garment, and explains: It was the 1990s, the Soviets had left and the country had entered the bloody spiral of never-ending war. A lot of the books on sale by the roadside were from embassies that had shut down, from the houses of families who had fled to Pakistan, Europe, anywhere. A gift in parting, from empty homes and libraries, bleeding their contents onto the pavements of the ravaged city. “You won’t find them here anymore,” he says, his words an echo of Ahmady’s.

We are silent for a while, lost in the image of him as a young man, his dark overcoat a stain against the blue sky and blue domes of the tombs and mosques that line the river, rediscovering the city he spent his youth away from, a city he left in ruins and returned to again, like so many of his countrymen, and which he is still trying to capture in his cinema. We think of a Kabul where Khayyam and Gandhi, Bedil and Tolstoy found homes, were passed down over the years, like the books in the cupboards in my home in Aligarh, visited and revisited over long winter evenings. In the silence that flows between us, the city takes shape, a Kabul made entirely of words, twisting its shape ever so often, like the smoke drifting out of its hundreds of chimneys, like a tale fashioned solely for a faithful listener.