Standing across the intersection from Shah M Bookstore, the bookstore described in the book “The Bookseller of Kabul”
Before I went to Afghanistan, I made a point to read everything I could find on the country. My Afghanistan knowledge up to the point I entered the country was limited to my work as a Soviet specialist in the ’80s and early ’90s. That and Rudyard Kipling’s writing as well as the famous National Geographic article about Afghanistan.
So really, I didn’t know that much. So I dutifully read all the usual books. “Kite Runner”, everything the Duprees wrote, and the usual suspects of neo-Central Asian political “instant expert” stuff. Including the book “The Bookseller of Kabul”. While it was an entertaining book, I found the author to be incredibly naive for two reasons. First, she thought she could protect her source, not understanding what a small place Kabul is, in a social sense. Second, she was naive that a “progressive” Afghan like Shah Masood Rais would still run his household like a traditional Afghan male. While this naiveté is not completely reserved for Europeans, I’ve found it pretty dominant in some of them I’ve encountered in Afghanistan.
Now that I think about it, twice, I made a European military or diplomatic person cry. The first time, an assistant Senior Civilian Representative from a country I will not disclose suggested we eliminate ALL corruption before going through with an operation. I suggested that this was not possible, and questioned this individual’s qualifications for being an SCR in Afghanistan. We’re talking tears and sobbing here.
The second time, a member of the Italian military seriously disagreed with our team’s assessment about ethnic politics in Afghanistan, claiming that “there is no ethnic politics in Afghanistan.” I believe I used certain rough language directed toward this individual, and again questioned their qualifications to be making judgements about Afghanistan.
I was talking to friend Nawab about the books I’d read, and when I mentioned that I really enjoyed The Bookseller of Kabul, he mentioned that he knew the owner of the store described in the book. I don’t know why, but this surprised me (I no longer am surprised by Nawab’s knowledge and connections). So, the next chance we could, it was off to Shah M Bookstore.
For those who do not know, Shah M’s bookstore is located not too far from Chicken Street and the central Kabul park of Shahr-e Naw.
To get there, you need to first find a place to park. The street-side there is packed with Kabab houses, with open fires roasting meat on steel skewers. There is no parking directly in front of the store, so you need to walk past the delicious smell of burning meat and seasoning. Yum!
We arrive in front of the store, and this is what we see. We navigate through the metal door, which sticks a bit, so you have to pull on it. And here is the first book that leaps out at us.
That’s right. A complete collection of Playboy magazine from the 50s, in a boxed set. In good shape, too.
Shah M is the place to find many rare and out of print books. Unfortunately, like many things in Afghanistan, most of these (overpriced) books are fakes. Printed by Shah M in Pakistan, often in very inferior presses. I scored a copy of Dupree’s “Afghanistan” for way too much money that was almost completely readable.
Friend Rachel was enamored of the place, as you can see that it’s a book reader’s heaven. Books stacked everywhere; ersatz walls, floors and ceilings, crammed full. The store, which has been added on again and again, goes on forever.
We also got to meet AJ this trip, as the owner was absent that day. AJ is extremely well connected in Kabul, and shared lots of interesting information with us.
AJ, the owner’s son
We have since that time gone back several times, but without a camera. Despite the high prices of books there, the owner has taken great efforts to reproduce many rare and impossible to find books. One of my favorites is “The Hazaras of Afghanistan” by Dr. Sayed Askar Mousavi.
Of course, after finding this book there, and reading it, I immediately told friend Nawab how much I enjoyed it. Not surprisingly, a little while later, Nawab introduced me to Dr. Mousavi, who he knew quite well. Go figure….