A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, published by Virago
December 12, 2004
Reportage: A Hundred and One Days
REVIEWED BY CHRISTINA LAMB
HUNDRED AND ONE DAYS: A Baghdad Journal
by Asne Seierstad
Virago £7.99 pp321
I must admit that I started A Hundred and One Days with certain preconceptions. Unless they have some particular expertise or tale to tell, I don’t like foreign correspondents writing books about places just because they have been there. Secondly, The Bookseller of Kabul, the previous book by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, is an intimate portrayal of an Afghan family I know. The book sold more than a million copies but left its subjects feeling horribly betrayed: Seierstad was described as “the Backstabber of Kabul”.
But from the moment we join her waking up in room 707 of the al-Fanar hotel in Baghdad, opening the curtains to look out over the Tigris, it is hard not to be drawn into the world of this likeable thirtysomething Scandinavian. A Hundred and One Days refers to the three and a half months she spent in Baghdad before, during and after the war, and is divided into three corresponding sections. Although the book does not have the novelty value of The Bookseller of Kabul, and is more about her than the people, the writing has the same compelling honesty.
Seierstad’s initial enchantment with the city, where so many of the stories from The Thousand and One Nights are set and where so many names are familiar from her childhood Bible, quickly dissipates amid a society drained of soul by three decades of the iron rule of Saddam Hussein. Her search for the old spirit of Baghdad is endlessly thwarted by Comical Ali and his cohorts at the Ministry of Information who refuse all her requests for permissions to explore with: “What do you want to do there? It’s just like every other place.”
She vividly describes the frustration of being in a country waiting for something to happen, and the meaningless nature of interviews in a dictatorship where you already know the answers before asking the question. Yet somehow one feels compelled to go through the motions in the vain hope that someone will suddenly show a chink in their armour, knowing that even if they did you could not write it without endangering them.
At a time of much criticism of the war in Iraq, Seierstad’s book serves as a reminder of just how appalling conditions were under Saddam. “Iraq is a kingdom of fear,” explains a literary critic she meets in a teahouse. “For one single disastrous word you can go to prison for 20 years; for a disastrous word spoken to a foreigner you can disappear altogether.”
As UN weapons inspections wind up and it becomes clear that Bush’s and Blair’s patience is running out, Seierstad writes of her “gnawing knot of fear”. A recent American Journal of Psychiatry report on war correspondents concluded that no rational person would keep willingly returning to conflict zones. Seierstad perfectly captures the war correspondent’s internal struggle between endless curiosity, the desire to witness history first-hand, and utter fear.When her visa expires and she cannot charm or bribe her way into any more extensions, she is forced to leave for Amman. There, she spends all her waking hours trying to return to a city she knows will soon be bombed. First she tries to get in as a human shield, then as a tourist; finally, a $5,000 bribe secures her the coveted visa.
Going back to Baghdad on the eve of war just as most journalists were fleeing, she admits that she was terrified. It is easy to forget now that WMD were still considered a reality, and nobody knew that the collapse of the regime would be so quick. The hundred or so brave souls who stayed in the city had no idea if they would be bombed, come under chemical-weapon attack or be taken hostage. But when a friend back home asks, “Do you dare risk not going?”, her fate is sealed. Through it all, she never loses her humour. She writes of the room-boy bringing her pot plants, then a red, yellow and black mat, and wonders, “How would I furnish the room of someone who had come to report on the destruction of my city.”
Finally, at 5.30 one morning, she is woken by a loud bang. The shock and awe campaign has begun. For the next three weeks — as the American forces draw closer and the hotel runs out of water and becomes a recruitment centre for suicide bombers — she lives on adrenaline, “restless, sleepless, waiting . . .”. Many correspondents will identify with her comments on the absurdity of receiving e-mails from the office about spelling when trying to stay alive and sane.
While we get a lot of insight into working conditions, the book gives no real insight into Iraq. But that is no fault of Seierstad, simply a reality of the situation. When Baghdad falls, and people can finally talk freely, she finds herself sitting in her hotel room, biting her nails, frightened to go out. Only when she sees the first American tanks roll into Paradise Square does she run outside.
There, she studies the differing reaction of two Iraqi drivers as they watch the statue of Saddam pulled down by Marines. Both men have cheeks wet with tears — those of the Sunni driver, Amir, tears of anger because his country has been invaded and, without a strong leader, it will descend into madness; those of the other driver, Abbas, a Shia, tears of happiness, because his country has been liberated, and ahead lies a future of adventure and dreams.
Which one was right is of course still to be seen. But Seierstad’s great talents are that she is nonjudgmental and very human. To me, these qualities make this a much better book than any of the other journalistic efforts so far published on the Iraq war.
Christina Lamb covered the war in Iraq for The Sunday Times. A Hundred and One Days is available at the Books First price of £6.79 plus 99p p&p on 0870 165 8585
A Hundred and One Days: a Baghdad Journal
Åsne Seierstad tr by Ingrid Christophersen
321pp, Virago, £7.99 (pbk)
A reporter's thirst for authenticity
Patrick Bishop reviews A Hundred and One Days: a Baghdad Journal by Åsne Seierstad
Women reporters are a common sight in war zones and have been for some years. A notion persists that because they are women they are somehow nicer than the men they work alongside. They feel victims' pain more acutely, sympathise more thoroughly with the underdog and so on. Anyone who has met the female hack-pack who traipse the Via Dolorosa of international conflict will tell you this is rubbish. In the group, virtue and vice are scattered as evenly among the girls as they are among the boys.
What is different is that the girls often seem to work harder. They interview more thoroughly, striving to understand what is going on with a persistence that makes the men look lazy. Some of them emit a faint glow of righteousness born of the belief, never quite extinguished by experience, that writing about something bad can help to make it better.
Åsne Seierstad falls into the first category, though not necessarily the second. Her reporting is sustained by a cool intelligence that is sympathetic but never sentimental. Far from distancing readers from the subject, this detachment creates intimacy and comprehension. She is a Norwegian who made her name reporting in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and achieved fame and some notoriety with her account of life with an Afghan family, The Bookseller of Kabul. A Hundred and One Days is a journal of her time in Baghdad in 2003.
It comes in three parts, Before, During and After. Reporting anything worth saying under Saddam was almost impossible, given the tightness of the regime's media controls and the terrified dumbness of the population. Journalists were stalked by Ministry of Information praise-singers whose job it was to laud the leader and crush any display of initiative. Seierstad sums up her relationship with one of them thus: "He knows he is lying, he knows I know he is lying, he knows I am lying, he knows that I know that he knows that I am lying." These odious creeps none the less had to be kept on side. Once in Baghdad, the important thing was to stay there until the war began. The shaming business of sucking up to the authorities in order to win visa extensions is amusingly and unsparingly described.
Seierstad succeeded. She was part of the courageous band who tried not to think about Baathist revenge attacks, mob lynchings or stray American missiles and remained in the capital. It was worth it. Despite restrictions, she saw a lot. Her account, excellently translated, of the aftermath of the mistaken American blitzing of a market in north Baghdad is powerful and thought-provoking. She stayed on long enough after the arrival of the Americans to understand that the feelings of Iraqis towards Saddam were complicated and often contradictory and in her reportage the outlines of the trouble ahead are clearly visible.
Seierstad is honest enough to put her own character and motivations under the same scrutiny she applies to Iraqis. She is, she says, the "merciless intruder", demanding thoughts and opinions from people even when they don't want to impart them. She does, however, spare her fellow hacks. Perhaps after the experience of The Bookseller of Kabul, when her host and subject accused her of treachery, she feels sensitive about revealing too many details about those sharing her daily life. There is a half-hearted attempt to grant some of the colleagues semi-anonymity by giving only their first names and organisations, though they are easily recognisable to anyone who works in the field, or indeed reads newspapers or watches television.
Our understanding of modern conflicts is greatly distorted by the fact that the story is overwhelmingly told from the Western perspective. From Bosnia, Rwanda and Afghanistan, we have heard very little from indigenous writers who experienced much more of the reality than any visitor. The imbalance is partly corrected by the work of writers such as Seierstad, with her thirst for authenticity and 360-degree vision. But as she admits, "the truth about the war in Iraq does not exist". Or at least it will not until Iraqi voices begin to be heard. On present form that is likely to take a long time.
Asne Seierstad: Behind the front lines
Asne Seierstad, who topped the charts with The Bookseller of Kabul, now reports from the chaos of Iraq. Julie Wheelwright meets an accidental witness to war
10 December 2004
Asne Seierstad flicks her long blonde hair from her face, flings out an arm and gives a deep groan of mock-horror. "Oh no, not that again." Then she laughs, before launching into her description of how Shah Mohammed Rais, the fictionalised patriarch from her bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul, flew business class halfway across the world and threatened to sue her.
Rais (Sultan Khan in her book) objected to Seierstad's portrait of him as an irascible domestic tyrant who took a 16-year-old second wife, refused to allow his sons to attend school, and turned a blind eye to his eldest son's sexual exploitation of street beggars. Before their argument had reached the media, Rais had spoken from Afghanistan to Seierstad, who spent four months living with his family in Kabul in 2001. "He said, 'Asne, I don't like this book so I'll come to Norway and we'll sit down for two weeks and we'll rewrite it,'" says Seierstad. "He wanted me to tell the world I was sorry for the first book. I said this was not possible."
Lawyers exchanged words and a press conference was held in Oslo, but Seierstad's book remains unchanged. Now Rais, a well-known bookseller famed in Afghanistan for opposing the Taliban's censorship laws, is writing his own version of events. There will be a chapter on Asne and she has already been warned that it will be unflattering.
Seierstad seems remarkably phlegmatic about the affair now, acknowledging that Rais's revenge made for a "great story" that breaks the imperial tradition of a European author speaking for the Third World. But in all the coverage about the controversy, the women whose stories made The Bookseller of Kabul such a profoundly eye-opening narrative remain silent. Seierstad lived among the anonymised burkhas, using Rais's youngest daughter Leila as a translator to describe in sensuous, intimate detail, the poignant drudgery of the "old slaves, young slaves" in Rais's household.
While Seierstad remained invisible in her Kabul story, in A Hundred and One Days: a Baghdad Journal (Virago, £7.99) she throws off the burkha to narrate her experience of covering the second Gulf War. In January 2003, she bribed Iraqi officials in Jordan to get a visa for Baghdad, where she stayed until the spring, covering the war for Norwegian, Swedish and Danish television and several international newspapers. Despite the dismissive attitude of veteran broadcasters towards the television news correspondents, as "dish monkeys" who rarely left the safety of their hotel rooftops, Seierstad describes doing on-camera reports under fire and the several colleagues who lost their lives. "Nobody talked about the fear during the war," she says. "When I decided to stay in Iraq, I decided to take the fear out of my body and put it into a freezer."
Her attitude of "mind over matter" ensured that she never panicked. It was only when the American troops rolled into Baghdad on 9 April that Seierstad realised how frightened she had been. "We rushed down the stairs and I screamed at the Americans, 'Thank you for coming.' How could I say that? It was like ice melting in my body, it felt like it was over."
Despite her welcome to the troops, Seierstad is a staunch critic of the coalition's reasons for entering into the war. She reports with brutal honesty on the destruction that they have wrought in Iraq. She interviews Abu Saif, a member of the Ba'ath party, just before the fall of Baghdad. He sums up many Iraqis' attitude towards the US troops. "If we turned the picture around, how would you react if Iraqi forces attacked your country? If we tried to kill your president, to install our leaders and our system? How would you react if we cut off your electricity, water and killed your neighbours?" Moreover, Seierstad met many Iraqis for whom the Americans failed to provide the protection they had promised.
Her book focuses far less on the big, dramatic events than on the war's impact on ordinary Iraqis. A Hundred and One Days lacks the emotional intensity and rich detail of The Bookseller of Kabul, but it does capture the gut-wrenching tragedy of thousands who were - quite literally - caught in the crossfire.
She reports on the civilian massacre at the al-Nasser market, where a man who had lost his grandchild demanded to know, "Where is your democracy? Where is your humanity?" She tours a hospital treating the casualties and then a morgue, where her editors decide the pictures are too gruesome for consumption. "I cannot move, I cannot walk away," she writes. "If I leave, reality will devour me. Then they will all really be dead."
Seierstad says that after the fall of Baghdad, the city felt more dangerous than ever. She began, for the first time, to use her flak jacket. Now, in the vacuum of power, disputes between the Shia and Sunni Muslims and various political factions could suddenly be set alight. "I just see a big fire and I don't see how they can put it out; there have been so many mistakes," she says. The Americans "rushed into war and they had no plan."
Her hard-working translator, Aliya, a thirtysomething single woman who has never known any other government than Saddam Hussein's, longs for his return. "After the war, Aliya just goes into this coma where she doesn't talk, she doesn't give an opinion," says Seierstad, who once goaded her with questions about her feelings towards the deposed regime. Aliya finally snapped back, "I don't want to feel." To Seierstad, Aliya is like an alter ego, the eternal woman in every war who is left to cope - to look after the children, to scavenge for food, to keep a home alive.
Seierstad describes her own mother, Froydis Guldahl, the author of The Girls are Uprising - a Norwegian feminist classic for adolescents - as an enduring influence. Her father, Dag Seierstad, is a political scientist and "the wisest man I know". He travelled throughout Africa and Russia with Guldahl before they married and had their three children. Asne grew up in Lillehammer in the 1970s believing that she could do anything that a boy could: "That was in my blood."
Seierstad became a journalist "by accident" when studying Russian political science at Moscow University in 1993 - when every book written on the subject had suddenly become redundant. A university professor sent her off to interview politicians and, when an assistant advised her that if she pretended to be a journalist she could speak with the president of the Russian parliament, she agreed.
"This politician was in a huge office with a view of the river, he was sitting on a red velvet sofa, smoking a pipe," she remembers. "I thought during the interview that I should become a journalist because then you can open every door and ask anyone anything." As a fluent Russian speaker, Seierstad began freelancing for Scandinavian newspapers and, when the Chechen war broke out, appealed to the Defence Ministry for help.
A troop plane was leaving at 5am and she arrived, armed with a huge bag of food from her Russian landlady. "As the only woman, I was able to sit with the officers in front, with a glass of vodka in one hand and a cucumber in the other," she says, playing with that long, blonde hair. "That's how I went to my first war."
She arrived in Grozny at night to discover that there were no hotels and lots of snipers. She asked a young woman where she could stay and the woman took her home. "I got introduced to the people of the house and it was only women." She learnt "that the husband was killed in an air raid and the daughters had come back to live with the mother because their husbands were all in the mountains fighting the Russians." The second night, the youngest daughter, aged 17, gave birth to a son. "It's kind of symbolic of my later journalism," she says. "I was totally unprepared and I ended up getting a very true story about the war."
So has she had enough of war now? Seierstad says she sees herself as a writer rather than a war correspondent. Her next project will be based in America, where she covered this year's election. "The most important thing now is to understand the Americans; not to judge but to find out what they think." Midwestern patriarchs, beware.
Åsne Seierstad's new book tells the human story of the US bombing of Baghdad. But what people really want to talk to her about, says Aida Edemariam, is her bruising fallout with the bookseller of Kabul
Thursday December 9, 2004
Scandinavia's best-known war correspondent, and the best-selling Norwegian author ever, walks into the hotel bar looking healthy, rested and tanned, and thus quite unlike anyone else in wintry central London. Åsne Seierstad is riding a whirlwind of promotional interviews, ostensibly for A Hundred and One Days, her journal about being one of the few western reporters still in Baghdad when it was introduced to the concept of Shock and Awe. What everyone really wants to talk about, however, is a book she wrote at the beginning of the war on terror, The Bookseller of Kabul.
Seierstad entered Kabul with the Northern Alliance in November 2001. Like other western reporters exhausted by the privations and dust of battle, she was relieved to meet Shah Mohammad Rais, a bookseller who regaled her with stories of book-burnings under the communists, the mujahideen, the Taliban, of the thousands of volumes he had hidden, of his hopes for a liberal, democratic Afghanistan. He invited her to dinner, and she was struck by a simple idea: could she come and live with him for a few months, so she could see what Afghanistan was really like, and write a book about it? He told her she was welcome.
The result was not quite what either of them had expected: she was shocked by the treatment his female relatives received, and by the cruel lengths to which Rais went to protect his business. When Rais - thinly disguised as the character Sultan Khan - read it, he felt so furiously betrayed that he flew to Norway, engaged a high-profile lawyer, and threatened to sue for "defamation of me, my family and my nation".
None of this did Seierstad much harm: the book was already doing well, and the controversy simply aided its climb of the bestseller charts. It has been sold in 20 countries; there are a million copies in print. But Rais's reaction, so unusual in the history of western interpretations of the third world, prompts uncomfortable questions. To what extent is the book's success due to the fact that it plays on preconceived ideas of Afghanistan? Does a western woman, privileged, glamorous, have the right to hold a third world family up to her own values and find it wanting? Is it realistically possible to do anything else - there is, some argue, a kind of racism in simply saying, "Well, that's how they live, and who are we to judge?" If a thoughtful, essentially objective observer comes to these conclusions, what licence does it give to those less sympathetic and more powerful; those for whom the war on terror is also a war on values of which they disapprove?
It was the conflict in Chechnya that made Seierstad a war correspondent in the first place. After a degree in Russian and the history of philosophy (she speaks five languages fluently and has a working knowledge of another four), she moved to Russia, where she studied their great writers: Pushkin, Lemontov, Dostoevsky. "I was looking for the Russian soul," she says, without irony. "I loved Russia." She started to write features for a Norwegian paper, and when the war in Chechnya began in 1994 she decided to go and see what was happening for herself. Twenty-four years old, and "totally unprepared", she went to live with the guerrillas in the mountains, returning many times, against the wishes of her editor, and of her mother, who would call the newspaper, begging it to ground her. "I became anti-Russian - I thought, they're brutal, and they're drunk, and they're racist. Now I'm somewhere in between. But it hurts me still, the tragedy of the Chechen people."
She saw lots of fighting, lots of the "worst thing", killed and injured children; there are a couple of scenes in A Hundred and One Days, after the first American airstrikes on Baghdad, which are hard to read and she cried while writing. In one a young boy lies in the mortuary; his father and brother enter "and you can see the way they're walking, they don't know yet" - Seierstad has an expressive face, both girlish and steely, and even more expressive hands; "and then they see" - her hands sweep across her own torso - "half his body is away." The waiter chooses this moment to serve a bowl of soup, and a tuna niçoise - but her eyes are turned inward, looking somewhere else altogether, remembering "just their expressions when they see". But even that was not as bad as the hospitals, full of those who wouldn't survive: "They have their children's eyes, asking, 'What's happened to me?'"
Although in some ways none of this is news, Seierstad's book is valuable for its focus on the ordinary Iraqis she encountered, their very personal humiliation. Two men, friends all their lives, stop speaking to each other because one, a Shia, welcomes the Americans, while the other, a Sunni, feels the invasion as if it were a personal insult: her translator, a middle-class woman who has grown up believing in Saddam's benevolence and power, knowing nothing of his cruelties, retreats into hurt and bewildered silence. Here Seierstad is a mostly unjudgmental witness to complex realities.
The question is, why did she not take this approach to The Bookseller of Kabul? One of the most worrying things about that book is that she removed herself completely; it reads like a novel, entering impertinently into the thoughts and feelings of the family; she acquires, by default, the authority of the omnipotent narrator - an omnipotent narrator, that is, with the unsettling problem of an appalled tone.
Everything that appears as thoughts, or conversation, Seierstad insists she was told: she doesn't speak Dari, but Khan, his eldest son Mansur, and his youngest sister Leila, spoke English. "The pity," says Seierstad, "is that I happened to come across a really dysfunctional family. There was so much quarrelling. But I didn't know that when I started. It had nothing to do with me. And he also betrayed me!" she adds fiercely. "He presented himself as this great liberal - and I was even thinking, 'Oh, this family is too liberal, but maybe they have some relatives in the country who are more traditional?' The question is, should I just write what he tells me, or should I write what I observe and what the other people tell me? He [Khan] wants to be a hero in the west, and he wants to be a hero in his own country - a patriarch following all the traditions. You can't have it all."
The answer to this, perhaps, is that it's not that calculated - both things can coexist. "What I learnt," she admits, "is maybe it's not possible for a western woman to write an honest account of an Afghan patriarch, one that he would like. Maybe our worlds are too far apart."
Seierstad does not duck any awkward questions; rather, she tackles them head-on. She is just getting going on this when her PR appears to drag her away; she has to be on air at the BBC in five minutes. She rises accommodatingly, but can't quite let the thought go. "We can't get rid of ourselves as journalists. I think it was important to write A Hundred and One Days because it shows how I work: these are my shortcomings, this is what I'm trying to do. So yeah," she laughs. "It's more honest."
A Hundred and One Days is published by Virago, price £7.99.
Was I cruel and arrogant? Perhaps
Seconds after I push the buzzer marked Seierstad and announce myself, a sleepy voice yawns through the intercom: "Sorry, I'm not dressed yet. I wasn't up." It is only 11.15am, I am 15 minutes early and Åsne Seierstad, not long off a plane from America, is jet-lagged. As I shiver on the icy doorstep of her Oslo home, I feign a cheery "not to worry, take your time" and grimace. It is -5°C and snowing heavily.
My affected cheer does not go unnoticed. Later, as I examine the screen linked to Seierstad's front-door intercom, I realise my dismay has been caught on camera. "Ah, the posh videophone," says Åsne, a tall blonde with the kind of cheerful good looks that defy fatigue. Then she blushes. "Courtesy of my downstairs neighbours. They are lovely people and we get on well, but, when the book came out and there was such a furore, they said, 'Oh my God, we are all going to be murdered by Muslims who are offended by what you have written." So, they insisted we install one of these so that we could see who was on the doorstep. In fact, there wasn't a single threat, after all the book doesn't criticise the Islamic way of life, it just reveals a lot about it."
It's a fine distinction. Her book, The Bookseller of Kabul, is an intimate warts-and-all description of daily life in a prosperous Kabul household just after the fall of the Taliban, an event that Seierstad was covering as a war correspondent in 2001. She wrote it after befriending one of the city's best-known businessmen, Shah Mohammad Rais, the bookseller of the title, and moving into his house to live as an invited observer, alongside his two wives, his sister, his mother and his children.
The casual cruelty inflicted on the household by its head, an educated, apparently liberal man, shocked her - and made her fortune. The book transformed Seierstad, 34, from just another jobbing journalist into a highly controversial international figure. It has sold more than a million copies worldwide, been translated into 27 languages and, thanks in part to a rave review on the Richard and Judy show, is entering its 39th week on the British bestseller charts. On the back of its extraordinary success, her publishers have just persuaded her to bring out another book, a collection of newspaper pieces written from Baghdad in 2003.
We don't talk about this much, although it is the reason for our meeting: as Seierstad concedes, nothing can compete with the still-spreading shock waves created by The Bookseller, or more precisely, by the bookseller's reaction to The Bookseller. Shah Mohammad Rais was so angry on reading the English translation, last year, that he flew to Oslo, denounced his former guest as a liar who had abused his family's hospitality, and demanded that every copy be shredded. "It is slander, it is salacious. I hate her," he declared. "It insults Afghan culture and Islam." Then he hired an expensive lawyer and launched a lawsuit.
"Yes, it would have been a lot easier if he had never read the book at all," sighs Seierstad, as she deftly rolls up one of the newspapers that litter her sitting-room floor and fans the flames of her log fire. "But, then, he had that right."
Sitting back on her heels, she stokes the fire and says thoughtfully, "That's the thing about the modern world. From the days of Stanley and Livingstone, travellers like me have written about the natives of Third World countries and it never comes back to us. Suddenly, here is this man from the Third World taking centre stage and saying, 'I don't like how I have been depicted.'
Her acknowledgment of the smallness of the modern world is telling, for she has moved between cultures, languages and continents all her life. Born in Norway in 1970, she studied Russian, Spanish and the history of philosophy at Oslo university. After graduating, she spent a year in Russia, where her father was working as a political scientist. In 1993, she moved to Moscow full time to study politics. Keen to speak to senior Russian government officials, she came up with the idea of posing as a journalist to gain access. "It worked, and I realised reporting, with all the access it gave, was what I wanted to do."
Although she became a successful reporter, filing stories for Scandinavian newspapers from China, Russia and the Balkans, nothing in Seierstad's career had prepared her for the access she was given by Shah Mohammad Rais, who was celebrated in Kabul as the man who risked his life to save his country's books during the reign of the Taliban. As he told journalists, "First the Communists burned my books, then the Mujahideen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burned them all over again." Three times he was imprisoned for hiding banned books and supplying the city's underground intelligentsia with Western literature. He became known as a cultured, liberal man who embraced progressive ideas, and Seierstad decided he would be a good subject for a book.
The bookseller agreed that she could live with him and his extended family for four months. "You are welcome," he told her. "It is your book, you write it as you see it." What she wrote was not what she had thought she would write.
As she says now, "I thought there would be authors, poets, literary figures visiting the shop. None came. Instead, it became clear that he was more interested in making money." In the book, Seierstad reveals the bookseller to be a domestic tyrant who breaks his wife's heart when he buys a 16-year-old girl to become his second wife. He demeans his 19-year-old sister, using her as a slave, and bullies his sons into working 12 hours a day selling sweets to make money for him while they yearn to go to school instead. Seierstad - who changes all the names in the book - also reveals the honour killing of a young woman from his extended family who has an affair.
What is ironic, says Seierstad, is that initially she thought the whole project doomed, since Shah Mohammad seemed too liberal. "I would spend 12 hours each day in the shop and he talked of how Afghanistan needed to follow a European ideal, how women should be involved in government. So I asked if I could stay at home to talk to the women."
Initially, the women were wary. But as they got used to Seierstad - who has a warm manner which inspires trust - they opened up. One day Leila, the bookseller's sister, came to Seierstad's room and said, "You don't know what is really happening in this house. And I have decided I am not protecting my brother any more."
Slowly the stories emerged. Leila, like her brother, spoke English and she was the sole translator among the women. Initially, Shah Mohammad had told Seierstad how Sharifa, his wife, no longer able to bear children, had urged him to take a second wife. Sharifa, he claimed, had chosen Sonya, the 16-year-old daughter of a neighbour.
"You don't really believe that," Leila told her. The truth was that Shah Mohammad did not consult his family, he simply horse-traded with his neighbour and then suddenly announced he had a new wife. At first Sharifa denied this. She repeatedly told Seierstad that she, Sharifa, had chosen Sonya. Repeatedly, Seierstad told her she did not believe her. Eventually, Sharifa broke down. She admitted how hurt and ashamed she had felt. "I cried for 20 days when he brought Sonya home," she told Seierstad. "Sometimes I hate him for shaming me and ruining my life."
"Was I cruel, arrogant to push her to tell so much?" Seierstad ponders. "Perhaps I was, but she did say it."
As we talk of the drudgery that characterised the women's lives, Seierstad relaxes in the sitting-room of her flat in the middle storey of a log-built house in a quiet suburb of Oslo. It's the home of someone who is never home. Books and papers are piled against a wall. A television teeters on a stack of books, candles litter the tables. Though she talks of her neighbours in the flats above and below, they are, in truth, her tenants. The money she made from her book has meant that she can afford to take a year off and buy the two flats.
"I haven't decided what I want to do next. I am totally single at the moment. But I do want a more settled life now. One that would include children. I no longer want to live out of suitcases."
It is nice, she agrees, to have done so well financially from the book, which owes at least some of its success to the publicity surrounding the bookseller's denunciations. And yes, money, in part, is what prompted the bookseller to threaten a court case: "He would have liked to have made some money from it. And there are those who would say, and why not? But it is more than that. It is about honour, too. He is furious that I have revealed so much about his domineering manner and the lives of the women.
"That is why I believe he betrayed me, not the other way round. He sold himself as this big liberal, then revealed his true colours. Did I abuse his hospitality? Was I disloyal? Well, maybe you could say that. But what was I to do? I am a journalist, I couldn't ignore what was staring me in the face. People say I couldn't possibly know what was going on in the minds of some of the women, I couldn't communicate with them. But I got Leila to talk to many of them, I relied on detail to decide who was telling the truth."
And therein lies the criticism. There are those who would say Seierstad was wrong to write in what she calls "literary form", as an omniscient narrator, entering her characters' heads on the strength of hearsay alone. "No, I don't regret writing it as I did," she says. "But, let's say I could have been more cautious with the detail. Perhaps I didn't show enough respect for his culture when I described his mother, naked, in the bathhouse.
"He says I put at risk the lives of the women about whom I repeated stories of adultery. Surely it is the Afghan culture that puts these young women at risk?"
After the English translation appeared in 2003, Shah Mohammad began emailing Seierstad. When his rage was leaked to the media, academics queued up to question Seierstad's ethics: was she applying Western standards to Eastern culture? How could she read the hearts and minds of women with whom she could not converse? The barbs hurt, she says.
Then Shah Mohammad turned up in Oslo with Brynjar Meling, a well-known local lawyer who, somewhat tellingly, told anyone who would listen: "She has made herself rich... he has got nothing and she has brought him into dishonour."
Seierstad invited the bookseller to her home. She made a sumptuous meal, invited her father and waited for the showdown. Instead of coming, the bookseller telephoned saying he was tired and would she come to his hotel. Round one to the bookseller. When father and daughter arrived, they had a strategy. Seierstad's father would make only two comments. He would say they had come to listen. And then, when they had listened, he would say, now we will go away and think about what the bookseller has said.
"It was all very convivial but, the next day, there he was, telling the media that my own father was angry with me and saying I had offered him money to drop his lawsuit. I didn't offer him a penny. What really amused me was that he had Sonya with him. He had bought her a pair of jeans for the trip. He was in Western clothes too. It was all to give the impression of being a modern, liberal man. Then, he spoiled it all for himself by going on television and talking of how tiring it was to have to see to the needs of two wives. Not very progressive."
The bookseller, as Seierstad points out, won fame - and a lot of custom - for his bookshop, through the case. "He was invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair, he's been on all the big television channels, he enjoys pontificating," she says. "Mostly he just invents things."
A few months ago, Shah Mohammad dropped his lawsuit, and although occasionally he emails to say he might reactivate it, Seierstad doubts that he will.
For now, she says she just wants to rest and change the way she lives. Seierstad's latest book, A Hundred and One Days, has been out in Norway for some time, but sales are nowhere near those of the Kabul book, and no one expects the newly published English translation to be a great hit.
She didn't even want to write it. "I got pushed into it by my publisher," she says. "I said there was no book, then he insisted he would publish the articles I filed from there. Then he pushed for me to write a bit around each one. After a boozy lunch in Copenhagen, I agreed. It is hard to follow a big success. I don't expect plaudits for this one. And there is no bookseller to pop up and start a storm."
Livreiro de Cabul
de Asne Seierstad
Tradução de Manuela Madureira
Editorial Presença, Lisboa, 2003, 242 pág., ISBN: 9722331183
The Serbs are much written about, certainly more so than most of their neighbours. Sadly, the results are rarely worth the effort. Think of Rebecca West's interminable rhapsodising in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: hundreds of pages that, when it came down to it, were all about herself. So when I turned to Asne Seierstad's collection of Serb portraits, I fully expected to meet another set of implausible figures delivering speeches I did not recognise. Happily, I was wrong.
Maybe Seierstad (the Norwegian journalist who wrote the bestselling The Bookseller of Kabul) just had a better translator, because I've rarely read a book that so faithfully renders the distinctive rhythm and feel of Serbian. But there is more to it than that. Partly it's because there is no agenda here, and because these Serbs are not actors in someone else's ideological drama. Partly it's down to Seierstad's warts-and-all approach to portraiture.
Her Serbs are garrulous and hospitable, doling out plum and apricot brandy to all comers. But Seierstad gives free rein to their loony side, without which you can't understand the mess that Serbia has got itself into. She is well aware of the flip side: the catastrophic longing for a fatherly dictator, the obsessive hatred for Albanians and Islam in general, the (often rather winning) self-delusions.
Readers of The Bookseller of Kabul will not be surprised to see Seierstad applying the same eye for revealing detail here, whether that's the lipgloss that accompanies the democracy activist to her rallies, the icons winking in the darkness of the stuffy refuge of an exiled family of Kosovo Serbs, or the picture of Milosevic hanging on the wall of an elderly farmer.
This character, whom we encounter first, is perhaps the finest-drawn of the lot. It's not hard to write entertainingly of Serbian "good guys" - all those bright-eyed students whom I well remember, with their neat haircuts and brave, noble thoughts. It's harder to worm yourself into the affections of the other side - the ranks of flint-faced peasants with cross-looking, headscarved wives who, when reporters tried to get near them, would start hollering: "I'm not talking to foreign spies!"
But Seierstad has done just that. Her portrait of the shock-haired, Milosevic-worshipping farmer is, perhaps, the most moving, although it is only one of many gems in this funny and affecting account of life among the stubborn, infuriating and - sometimes - delightful Serbs.
November 13, 2005
Foreign: With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia by Asne Seierstad
REVIEWED BY BRENDAN SIMMS
No pain, no gain
WITH THEIR BACKS TO THE WORLD: Portraits from Serbia
by Asne Seierstad
trans Sindre Kartvedt
Virago £7.99 pp340
Some years ago a distinguished American was challenged to reflect on the large number of countries the United States had bombed since 1945. “All to their immense benefit,” he replied evenly. I was reminded of this exchange when reading Asne Seierstad’s book. After the success of her debut, The Bookseller of Kabul, and her account of the Iraq war and its aftermath, A Hundred and One Days, she has now turned her attention to explaining the Serbs, the people “with their backs to the world”. The story is made up of 14 vignettes, based on interviews and encounters with a cross-section of the population: villagers, politicians, housewives, priests, artists.
It is a book of great compassion and frequent comedy. There are the wizened, baffled peasants who believe “Serbia is not ready for democracy”: the author dubs them “hunchbacks for Milosevic”. Then there is the black-market trader Michel, who veers between the criminal and entrepreneurial. My favourite is the slightly foppish Serbian Orthodox deacon Sveta, who argues that “As a young priest my job is to convert young people, and I should look youthful and hip. You know, Jesus is forever young.” After a diatribe against the soulless West, he loudly refuses alcohol on Good Friday. When everyone else accepts, he relents: “All right then.”
Seierstad has been praised for her humane and “non-judgmental” approach. In one sense this is true: her subjects are never caricatured. But there is no sense of relativism or detachment: there is a strong moral and political spine to the author. Her questioning is unrelenting without being hectoring. She interviews the wife of the notorious camp guard Dusan Tadic, and memorably captures her blend of forced dignity and denial. Asked why her jailed husband and she do not correspond, Mrs Tadic rounds on the author: “Is this where you want me to say that I read his letters five times a day, and that my tears fall on them and dissolve the words? That I’ve read them to pieces? Would that work for your book?” Faced with paranoia, obfuscation and self-pity, Seierstad repeatedly reminds her interlocutors of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica and the expulsion of the Kosovar Albanians. She never allows the reader to come away with the impression that the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia was anything other than the consequence of a decade of nationalist hysteria, ethnic cleansing and aggression.
The book, which opens with empathetic sketches of everyday life, slowly works its way towards the head of the snake: the legacy of torture, expulsion and mass murder with which Milosevic’s Serbia became synonymous. It is no accident that the final chapter takes us from Belgrade to Bosnia, the main victim of the Greater Serb project, to which many of Seierstad’s subjects subscribed. And it was only the intervention of Nato that brought that horror to an end and paved the way for the removal of Milosevic, the man who blighted the lives of Serbs for so long. The book’s most clear-sighted character, Milos, whose factory was flattened by American jets, comments: “They shouldn’t have stopped with the car plant — they should have bombed Milosevic’s house, his wife and his corrupt kids.” Milos certainly believed that the 1999 Nato campaign against Yugoslavia, which cost so many lives, had been to his immense benefit in the long run.
This Norwegian would
Seierstad's timely The Bookseller of Kabul was an international bestseller.
Following that with a dissection of modern Serbia is bound to lose her readers.
But she doesn't mind
Sunday October 23, 2005
What the reading public finds interesting about the world is as subject to fashion as hemlines on the Paris catwalk. Had Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul been written at any time before 11 September 2001, for example, the chances are it would never have been published in English. But overnight, the previously obscure workings of Afghan culture, where hemlines remained strictly earthbound, became a matter of global significance.
Seierstad had the right idea in the right place at the right time and produced a piece of imaginative reportage that became an international bestseller translated into 29 languages. Actually, it was her second book.
Her first was completed just before September 2001 and was called With Their Backs to the World (Virago £7.99, pp352). It examined the plight of Serbians immediately before and after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. Now, after the success of The Bookseller of Kabul, it has been updated and translated into English. It would be hard to think of a less timely piece of publishing. To put it bluntly, Serbia is so last season.
Not that Seierstad is too concerned with the fickleness of geopolitical sentiment. A tall, striking Norwegian, she doesn't give the impression that she's much taken by trends. She returned to Serbia because she was curious to see what had happened.
The answer appears to be not a lot. Essentially a series of interviews with various Serbs, this is not a book that's likely to endear itself to Seierstad's fans. 'One thing that is always hard for the writer,' she concedes, 'is to know where is the reader. I don't only have academics who really follow what's going on in the Balkans but also general readers in book clubs. Then you have to make a choice about how much you explain. I made the decision to not have everybody with me. I'd rather lose some readers who are not knowledgeable of the situation than annoy the really good readers.'
Seierstad, who speaks five languages and is no doubt as straightforward in all of them, has a way of talking that on the page might seem rather bold or even arrogant. But in person, it's clear that she is simply being open.
She came in for a certain amount of criticism after The Bookseller of Kabul, not least from the bookseller himself, Shah Mohammed Rais. The accusation was that she had misrepresented Afghan culture, judged it by Western standards, and betrayed confidences and hospitality.
Shah Mohammed has threatened to write his own book in which he would expose Seierstad. 'I never saw him write anything,' she notes with a hint of irony, when I ask her about the proposed book, 'but why not? I wouldn't be surprised - but I wouldn't be surprised if it was just words.'
She is unapologetic about revealing such incidents as Shah Mohammed's son's sexual abuse of child beggars and the 'honour killing' of a female relative. 'I realised after The Bookseller that I'm not a cultural relativist. In Norway, if a husband beats up his wife he's going to go to prison. Not so in Afghanistan. But the pain of the woman is the same in Afghanistan as it is in Norway. How can we say it doesn't hurt so much because it's part of her culture? Also, you have Afghan people here who are happy to have their opinion about the West, so why should I not have my opinion about Afghanistan?'
Nor can she be accused of exploiting Afghanistan's misfortune, insofar as she has built a girls' school (now in its first year with 600 students) and set up a fund to train midwives.
Seierstad describes herself as a product of a classic Seventies liberal upbringing. Her father is a political scientist and her mother, Froydis Guldahl, is a well-known feminist author in Norway. She came of age in Lillehammer believing that she could rival boys in any field of endeavour. 'That was in my blood,' she once said. As such, she is the walking antithesis of the domestic slaves, imprisoned in burkas, she got to know in Kabul. What, I wondered, did they make of her?
'They saw me as a weirdo travelling around the world like an outcast. One girl said, "It seems your parents don't love you because you are allowed to travel without protection."'
Seierstad studied Russian, Spanish and philosophy in Oslo and political science at Moscow University, before becoming a freelance journalist in Russia. When the Chechen war broke out, she hitched a ride on a Russian troop carrier and was taken in by a Chechen family of women whose husbands were either killed or away fighting.
It's tempting to see her as a grown-up Pippi Longstocking with a satellite phone, but there is far more to her than an intrepid spirit. Her hero is the great Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski.
'He is always respectful of other people, no matter who he is describing. That's what I try to do so I'm really sorry that I've been criticised for the opposite.'
Sometimes you can imagine that Seierstad is almost literally biting her tongue. In With Their Backs to the World, she hovers around the edge of the action, making the occasional barbed comment. It's almost as if she's not sure when to come in and when to stay out, an uncertainty that must have been increased by the fact that she started writing the book as an unknown hack and finished it as a star of the international literary circuit.
The one book she has written in its entirety post-The Bookseller is A Hundred and One Days, her account of the invasion of Baghdad. She was one of the very few journalists who remained in Baghdad during the bombing and, as such, it's a perfectly admirable, not to mention brave, example of war reporting, which also examines the business of reporting a war. But it lacks the shape and elegance of The Bookseller. At the end of the book there is a quote from Stendhal: 'I'm profoundly convinced that the only antidote that can make the reader forget the perpetual I's the author will be writing, is a perfect sincerity.'
It reads like an apology for her presence in the foreground of an international conflict. Indeed she is more comfortable in the background picking up the smaller human stories, yet one can sense an author sifting a little too desperately through the wreckage in search of her subject.
I asked her if she felt the pressure of having written a bestseller. 'No, I honestly don't,' she replied without hesitation. 'I can say maybe that was my book. I realise this is once in a lifetime.'
She denies that she has become addicted to war zones, though she admits that she would like to write a book about Chechnya. 'The Russian army is so brutal and there is no focus on it. The Western leaders are so "Oh hello, Putin" as long as he's signed up to the war on terror.'
Does she have any other book plans?
'I have some plans that I won't tell you,' she says, like a literary flirt.
Have you started?
'Um, I won't tell you.'
Does it involve travel?
'Yes,' she smiles. 'It's not about Norway.'
With Their Backs to the World by Åsne Seierstad, tr by Sindre Kartvedt (Virago, £7.99)
The Serbia portrayed here by Åsne Seierstad is more than a pariah state - it is, as one of her subjects admits, a reservation. Cordoned off from the world by dictatorship, sanctions and war, the Serbians have grown introverted and resentful, their country economically stultified and, thanks to decades of propaganda, thoroughly in denial about the past.
Seierstad essays a wider diorama here than in her intimate study of Afghanistan, The Bookseller of Kabul, interviewing and befriending more than a dozen Serbs and their families, from a black-market spiv to a theatre director turned Milosevic crony to a family of Kosovan Serb refugees, exiled and despised. The book's time-lapse structure - completed in the wake of the Kosovo campaign, extended after Milosevic's fall and revisited last year - lends it a desperately sad quality, as even those who start off filled with energy see their hopes founder in a new world of capitalism, corruption and division. RC
Five years ago the award-winning Norwegian journalist spent time with 13 different people, plus one family, in Milosevic's Serbia and wrote compellingly about their lives. She has revisited them twice since the dictator's fall, and the update is not all roses. One of them, a much-travelled musician, concludes that 'we still have a miserable standard of living and a marginal standing in the eyes of the world.' NB
Waiting for Lazar
Saturday, January 7, 2006 12:00 AM Page D8
With Their Backs to the World:
Portraits from Serbia
By Asne Seierstad
Virago, 340 pages, $17
In the space of a decade, Slobodan Milosevic led the Serbs into instigating and losing at Least three major wars in the former Yugoslavia. This process of tragic and self-destructive repetition speaks not so much to the triumph of hope over experience as to an almost suicidal determination to keep fighting for ever more irrational and indefensible reasons. They only stopped when there was no one left to fight, having lost to everyone. It is a process completely in keeping with the Serbian character and with their self-perception.
In the process, immeasurable suffering was caused to the peoples of the region, and ultimately to the Serbs themselves. While there were many crimes committed by the Croats, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Kosovo Albanians against the Serbs, somehow the Serbs managed to top the poll of misdeeds in each arena, adding to the bloody butcher's bill of a region that already regarded itself as having so much history it didn't need a future.
The inability of the Serbs to recognize any equivalence between the suffering of others, particularly victims of Serb atrocities, and their own suffering is a constant theme throughout Asne Seierstad's thought-provoking With their Backs to the World. This ethical blindness is in fact common throughout Balkan communities, but is especially prevalent in Serbia, where it feeds into a national myth of tragic fate to which the Serbs are almost clinically addicted.
Seierstad, the award-winning Norwegian author of The Bookseller of Kabul, has here turned her attention to Serbia. She began the book over five years ago, but events kept changing, so she continued to return to update her story. Or rather, the stories of those she has met. Seierstad befriended and interviewed over a dozen Serbs for this book, and her stand-back, non-judgmental approach allows each of them to relate how they have experienced the changing fortunes of Serbia and what they feel it means.
She has chosen a wildly disparate collection of people, and in so many ways the stories they tell are vibrantly different: Grandpa Bora, the Milosovic loyalist until the end; Rambo Amadeus, the irrepressible rock star; Sveta, the young new priest; Bojana, the tireless journalist. And yet, by the end, the picture is much more monochrome. Whether Milosevic loyalist, student radical, democratic activist or budding entrepreneur, they all end up disillusioned, despairing and sullenly resentful. The high optimism for some engendered by the toppling of Milosevic has retreated to cynicism and pessimism that anything will ever change for the better. After years of resistance to Milosevic and, finally, the seeming triumph of democracy, Bojana wearily reflects that "It's sad to see that we haven't got very far, isn't it? Makes you wonder why we're still so far away from Europe. . . . It's as if we just stopped somewhere."
Worryingly, Seierstad's clear-eyed approach reveals that most of her subjects end up resorting for comfort to the nostalgic myth of Serbia's history. The myth is that one Prince Lazar deliberately chose honourable defeat by the Turks in Kosovo in 1389 in order to win a heavenly empire for the Serbs. It was a choice that led to the enslavement of his people, and, as Seierstad eloquently shows, is almost uniformly regarded by Serbs as the right one, the morally correct one. As such, it defines the Serb's moral universe, and has framed their view of themselves and their history as that of tragic heroism.
Significantly, Grandpa Bora eventually replaces his picture of Milosevic with one he believes to be of Lazar at a feast before the battle (it is in fact The Last Supper, and atheist Bora has mistaken Christ for Prince Lazar, but in Serbia, perception becomes reality).
It is through this prism that the Serbs have viewed the rest of the world, including the strikes by NATO that, in the face of the UN's refusal to act or approve, were the only chance to protect the Kosovo Albanian population from the actions of Serbia's military.
Seierstad brilliantly allows her subjects to talk and paints vivid and electrifying pictures of their characters and fates. But her careful objectivity doesn't prevent her from repeatedly confronting her subjects with uncomfortable facts, such as Srebrenica. Mostly, they react by denying Serbia's systemic guilt or clothing it in vague allusions to the inevitable horrors of any war. As one of Seierstad's interviewees says, speaking of the largest atrocity in the Bosnian war, "What was Srebrenica, really? . . . It was war. In war civilians sometimes suffer, unfortunately. Very many Serbs suffered from this war. . . . Killed in their homes, or made to flee, so very many murdered in cold blood."
Normally commendably restrained, Seierstad does intervene with her thoughts at such times. She reflects that "this is how so many wars have started in the Balkans -- through stretching historical facts to fit an emotional state, through lying about everything from statistics to myths. Great wars start out as folk songs and campfire stories, and end in genocide and blood baths."
The avuncular folk-rock star Rambo Amadeus agrees, saying that nationalism is "back in the saddle, riding us again." And Seierstad brilliantly ends her perceptive book with Rambo singing a warmongering folk song, which was banned by Tito but a big hit in the Milosevic years. He has added it to his new CD. As he repeats the chorus ever faster, Rambo pauses and says "This is how it all starts."
Patrick Rengger is a Calgary-based writer and journalist who travelled throughout the former Yugoslavia during and after the Bosnian War. His collection of poems based on his experiences is tentatively titled A Cold Place Far from Home. His play, also based on these times, is Cut is the Branch.
Another page on this author, here