Theater of Cruelty

A closed circle

Several regimes have made it difficult to sell books and impart knowledge in Kabul, but now the city is full of people who want to read.


[Afghanistan] I opened my bookstore before President Daud's Republic in the 1970s, a time when Afghanistan was flourishing. There was a general growth in the economy, and a tremendous amount of literature in all genres was printed in Kabul, the Afghan intelligentsia grew, publishers and bookstores sprang up, and the tourism industry had a record year. We imported books from Iran, with which we share the Persian language, and also Britain, to meet the demand for the seemingly endless stream of tourists.

Every day, Afghan students and intellectuals came to our shops and looked. As they not only asked for titles in our language, but also by Western literature, they expanded our horizons. As a result, we became acquainted with new books and new areas of knowledge. We expanded and opened stores in other Afghan cities, and sales went up because there were an increasing number of literacy experts in Afghanistan, both native and foreign.

This freedom of movement came to an end with the communist coup in 1978. The communist regime executed 5000 innocent Afghan intellectuals and put 15.000 in jail during the first year and a half they remained in power. This had obvious consequences. In addition, they introduced censorship that was much harder than the Taliban regime would later introduce, and appointed a censorship board to investigate all foreign releases. After the Islamist coup in Iran in February 1979, we could no longer import books from there. To top it all off, the communists allowed the market to flood Marxist literature in many languages: Urdu, Persian, Bengali, and Arabic, to allow it to be distributed throughout the region. They asked me for help in spreading this literature with the help of my business associates, and when I refused, I was imprisoned. I was imprisoned for a year from 1979 to 1980. They closed my shop and called it "the spy spy of imperialism."

Our friends and customers emigrated to neighboring countries and hoped to get to Europe or the United States. When I was released from prison and returned to my bookstore, a thick layer of dust lay over the books. It took a month to wash everything. One by one, the bookshops in Afghanistan were closed. I was able to keep my head above the water by renting a store room in the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and selling books to foreigners secretly.

After 1985, the Communists advocated reconciliation. They became milder, discontinued the censorship, and even allowed me to buy books from Iran again. In addition to fiction, books on science and sociology, I imported books on mysticism, which were in the wind in Kabul at that time. It was a form of Islam acceptable to the Communists. As the mujahedin guerrillas approached the capital, communists emigrated from the regime one by one to Russia or formed ties with the mujahedin to survive. Many communist bureaucrats had built up private libraries and left them behind when they fled. Their families burned the books or buried them in iron trunks, but enormous quantities of books were destroyed either way. Communist officials also burned the regime's documents. There was dark smoke over Kabul for a whole week.

This was just the beginning of the destruction. The victory of the Islamist guerrillas was a disaster in the world of books. Mujahedin burned all the public libraries before leaving much of the beautiful city of Kabul in ruins in internal battles. Almost all the books in the city were burned or destroyed. Again, our business operations became the wing cut, with only Islamist intellectuals, foreign aid workers and some journalists as visitors to the store at the Intercontinental Hotel.

A preliminary low was reached when the Taliban introduced their extreme form of Islam when they took power in Kabul in September 1996. Girls were banned from schools, women were not allowed to work, and books with pictures of living beings were banned. In 1999, they raided the largest of our bookstores, and burned much of the range because they were somehow offended by it. When September 11 came and the Taliban was overthrown, the ring was closed. For the first time since President Da'ud's days, Kabul is full of foreigners, there have been jobs for Afghan intellectuals, and there is a great demand for books in all genres, from Afghans and our country's guests.

Perhaps the understanding these books may awaken can help prevent a situation where books are banned and the human mind must cope without them. It is dangerous to the world.

The author is a bookstore in Kabul.

Translated by Gro Stueland Skorpen.

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