Nuts come in from Iran and fresh fruit from Pakistan, even though Afghanistan grows both in abundance. Years of bloated foreign aid budgets have produced high salaries, destroying local industries. As a result, about the only thing the country does not import is opium.
At a time when book publishers in many countries are struggling, over the last three years those in Afghanistan have been flourishing — and that is despite the country’s chronically low literacy rates: Only 2 out of 5 Afghan adults can read. But those who can seem to be doing it with remarkable regularity, both despite and because of the country’s cyclonic violence, especially recently.
In a turbulent, troubled society, curling up with a book has become the best tonic around.
“I think in any environment, but perhaps especially places at war, book reading creates a pause from day-to-day life and isolates a reader from their surroundings while they’re buried in a book,” said Jamshid Hashimi, who runs an online library and is a co-founder of the Book Club of Afghanistan. “This is powerful anywhere, but in a place like Afghanistan, it can be a means of emotional survival.”
People at a bookstore in Kabul, Afghanistan. NYT
Unsurprisingly, Afghanistan’s book publishers have capitalised on this. What is more noteworthy is that a major piece of Afghan socioeconomic development is happening without direct foreign aid or foreign advisers.
“It’s an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process,” said Safiullah Nasiri, one of the four brothers who run Aksos, a book publisher that also operates several bookstores in Kabul. His remark was a deliberate play on international community jargon about shifting to Afghan control of institutions dominated by Westerners.
“It’s really an exciting time in the book world here,” Nasiri said. “Publishers are all trying to find new books to publish, young people are trying to find new books to read, writers are looking for publishers. It’s a very dynamic atmosphere. And it’s something independent, with no foreign assistance.”
Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan with a rapidly growing population of more than 5 million, has 22 book publishers, many with their own presses, or using the presses at local printing houses. Scores of others are scattered throughout the country’s 34 provinces, even in war-torn areas such as Helmand and Kandahar.
In the past year, especially, many publishers have been expanding, opening up distribution centres around the country and underwriting either their own bookstores or providing consignments to independent bookstores. Kabul has 60 registered bookstores, according to the government.
Clients at Aksos, a book publisher that operates several bookstores, in Kabul. NYT
It was not always so. During the Taliban reign from 1996 to 2001, only two publishers survived: the state publisher and a private company, Aazem Publishing. By the end of 2001, the only independent bookstore was in the Intercontinental Hotel, the site of a deadly attack last month.
In the years after the US-led invasion, cheaply printed and brazenly pirated books from Pakistan were as dominant as that country’s fruits and vegetables in the markets of Kabul.
Afghanistan’s new government faced the enormous task of rebuilding the educational system, which had been savaged by decades of civil war, followed by five years of a Taliban regime that closed schools and destroyed foreign-language books. That meant millions of new textbooks, which initially were printed in Pakistan. But as relations with that country soured, the government steered those textbook contracts to a few major Afghan publishers.
Foreign aid underwrote the school system, so the textbook business jump-started the book publishing industry. Because millions of textbooks had to be printed in a short period of time, Aazem and a few other companies invested in their own presses, which went largely idle once the school publishing season was over. Then the new publishers began translating Western books from English into Dari and Pashto, the country’s two main languages.
Other publishers sprung up, renting the bigger companies’ presses.
“There was such a curiosity and thirst to know about the world and how people think about Afghanistan,” said Davood Moradian, director general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, a research organisation whose picturesque ancient campus, the Fort of Nine Towers, is a favoured venue for book parties. “The book industry is a growing phenomenon to try to satisfy that thirst.”
The first locally published books were nonfiction titles about Afghanistan, by Western authors, and they sold so well, there was a rush into the business. Books like Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Steve Coll, and The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World, by Zalmay Khalilzad, hit the best-seller lists here.
“There was this huge pent-up demand from so many years without new books,” said Dr Ajmal Aazem, a paediatrician whose father founded the publishing house that bears their name. The Aazem company is publishing books as fast as it can, limited only by a shortage of qualified translators from English into local languages. Aazem’s 2017-18 goal is to print three new titles a day, 1,100 a year — a huge number for any publisher.
The publishing house is festooned with life-size posters of recent book covers, and the bookshop is full of volumes in artfully arranged helical piles or displayed on the walls with English and Persian versions opening from right and left, side by side. The floor in the middle of the sales room has been raised to accommodate the presses on the floor below, making a sort of platform with comfortable armchairs.
Because editing a book in its original language can be much faster than translating it, the bigger publishers have begun commissioning original work as well, for the first time in many years. Aksos has even started a sort of Afghan version of Amazon, selling books through its Facebook page and then delivering them the same day by couriers for the equivalent of about 50 US cents a book in Kabul. Afghans often lack internet connections or personal computers at home, but educated young people usually have Facebook on their smartphones.
Piracy remains endemic. On a recent day, even some of the titles in Aksos’ own busy, flagship bookstore were pirated copies of popular books.
Publishers are worried. “On a lot of our books, we’ll sell 1,000 copies, and the pirates will sell 4,000 copies of the same book at lower prices,” Aazem said. “The government needs to do more to stop this.”
Government officials have started enforcing the country’s long-ignored copyright laws, according to Sayed Fazel Hossain Sancharaki, who is in charge of publishing at the Ministry of Information and Culture. “In the last four months we’ve had four or five copyright cases,” he said. One photocopy shop was closed recently by the government for running off copies of printed books.
Realising that The Envoy, the 2016 memoir by Khalilzad, the Afghan-American who was US ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq, would be a big seller here, Aazem rushed to acquire the Dari and Pashto rights. He was determined to offer a better-quality book at a narrow markup and flood the market before the pirates could do so. But Aksos managed to print a Pashto version first, without rights to it, selling 1,000 copies in three days, he said.
Nasiri, the owner of Aksos, which is also translating a new title every week or so, denied that his company printed pirated books. And he, also, complained about piracy. “We do have copyright law in Afghanistan, but no one seems to know that,” he said. “It’s a big, serious problem.”
Aksos recently began commissioning original books, too, including Baghdadi Pir, a historical novel in Pashto about a British spy in the 1920s during the time of King Amanullah.
But the publisher’s big sellers are self-help books, particularly in the how-to-get-rich genre. Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work is also popular in translation, particularly among female readers.
Nasiri admitted that his bookstores stock many pirated volumes, even if they do not pirate books themselves.
“We are actually against that, but since almost all books are pirated, we have no option but to accept pirated copies and sell them,” he said. “If we don’t do that, it will make business hard for us. This is happening all over Asia.”
The most recent publishing sensation in Kabul also became its biggest piracy scandal: Afghan Politics: The Inside Story, a two-volume book set by Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former President Hamid Karzai’s national security adviser and a Henry Kissinger-like figure here. Aazem Publishing sold thousands of copies in its first few weeks in print, though it is pricey by Afghan standards, at $15 a set. Its VIP-studded book launch was held at the Fort of the Nine Towers in November, and an English translation is due from Aazem this year.
“We invested heavily in that book and printed it beautifully, then kept the cost as low as possible to defeat the pirates,” Aazem said. Promotional posters were distributed to bookstores, showing the avuncular Spanta, and billboard space and airtime were purchased to advertise it.
Afghan Politics was out for about a month, however, when an electronic file of the book began circulating on Afghan social media accounts.
Furious, the publishers at Aazem closed their doors in protest, hanging black curtains in all the windows and idling the presses until the government promised to pursue book pirates. They’re still waiting.
–New York Times News Service