The Seduction of Jihad

The Interpol notice of the Juma sisters, October 2013
The Interpol notice issued in October 2013 after the Juma sisters left Norway for Syria

Having a conspicuous authorial presence in reportage serves as both an overture and a safeguard. It establishes a complicity between author and reader, allowing the two to learn at the same pace. And it makes the author’s motives and methods more transparent than they might otherwise be. If the author errs in judgment or fact, he or she will do so in plain sight.

One of the distinguishing features of the Norwegian writer Åsne Seierstad—indeed, one might say, a leitmotif of her work—is her disdain for this convention. This was apparent in her first book to achieve international repute, The Bookseller of Kabul, which she wrote after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It described the intimate thoughts and actions of a well-off, fractious Afghan family under a severe paterfamilias, Sultan Khan. Apart from a short foreword, in which she explained how she had met Sultan Khan and secured his approval for her project, and an even shorter afterword, Seierstad absented herself from the narrative. She presented her characters with Olympian authority. Though no one asked her to do so, she changed their names, which suggests that she expected the book to cause them embarrassment.

These pseudonyms turned out to be inadequate camouflage. The identity of Sultan Khan—Shah Muhammad Rais, a well-known bookseller at the Intercontinental Hotel—was obvious to any bibliophile in Kabul and to a great many passing travelers. In the book, Seierstad introduced Rais as a tyrant lording over his sullen brood. She also wrote about his son’s sexual frustrations and described his aged mother’s “enormous body parts” wobbling absurdly in a bathhouse. Furious, Rais went to Oslo and hired a lawyer; his wife filed legal charges against Seierstad. The case concluded in 2011, when Norway’s Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling that the author had invaded the privacy of Rais and his family, on the grounds that the family was “aware of the nature of the book project” and that the book’s contents were “essentially deemed true.”

By that time The Bookseller of Kabul had become the most successful nonfiction book in Norwegian publishing history and an international best seller. Part of what made it so gripping was Seierstad’s decision to write herself out of the story. But the sense she creates of direct contact between reader and character is false. The author is ever-present, interpreting and manipulating events to thrill and engage us, which in turn raises the question of trust. Why won’t she meet our eye? It was as if she had decided that by calling attention to her own choices and interpretations, she would be getting in the way of our emotional engagement with Rais’s family. And so in The Bookseller of Kabul she allowed the reader to…

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