By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, Aug 1 (Reuters) - Shah Muhammad Rais is the biggest book-seller in Afghanistan, but while business is good, he still has another mission in mind: to get his countrymen interested in reading again.
Having failed to reach all the far-flung corners of war-torn Afghanistan with a mobile book shop on a bus, the 54-year-old Rais has now launched a Web site (www.shahmbookco.com) to reach those who have access to the Internet and order books on-line.
He claims to have the world’s largest collection of books on Afghanistan in key international languages.
"I would say they are unique," Rais said in his store in the heart of Kabul as his staff dusted off a pile of books, part of the nearly 1 million he owns.
"With regret and unfortunately, I have to say that I am the main book-seller in Afghanistan. There will be a crisis of books if something happens to us or if we collapse. So, it is very important that we have others involved in this too," he said.
Rais, who has an engineering degree, has been involved in the book trade for 35 years and is well known to many expatriates in Kabul as well as Afghan book lovers.
A visiting Norwegian journalist wrote a book about Rais months after the Taliban’s fall in 2001.
"The Bookseller of Kabul", portraying Rais as tough and brutal with his family, became a worldwide hit with sales of more than a million copies.
Rais, who hosted the author, Asne Seierstad, rejects the book and at one stage was planning to take legal action against her. His worst experience as a book-seller during the past three decades of war was being thrown behind bars for two years by the communist government of the 1980s for selling "imperialistic books" and copies of the newspapers of Western-backed Afghan factions opposing the regime.
BOOKS SOLVE PROBLEMS
In 2002, he began to work on a project to sell books from a bus to remote parts of Afghanistan.
After failing to get support from foreign NGOs involved in educational or cultural projects, he bought a bus himself.
The bus took some 20,000 books to a number of northern provinces in 2006, but violence and insecurity in the south and east blocked his efforts to reach the rest of the country.
"That way, a student would have saved money and time by not travelling all the way from Kunduz or Takhar to Kabul to buy a book," he said referring to two northern provinces.
"There was a big rush and enthusiasm, but I had to drop the project for I did not receive support from the government and the NGOs. Of course, business was and is part of my agenda, but people would have benefitted more from it," he said.
The cost of a book on the bus tour would not have been higher that what Rais sells in his store in Kabul now, he says.
Now, the broad-shouldered and neatly bearded Rais has created a website containing the books he has for sale and their prices. But buyers have to pay and arrange for their own private transport to receive the books.
The spirit of book reading has suffered in Afghan culture due to three decades of war which hurt education and literacy rates in Afghanistan, once the birth place of many important and Asian scholars, scientists and poets.
"Through books, our kids would know about their culture, history and understand the world. Books are like seas. You have to dive into the sea to get the pearl. You have to read books to know how to solve your country’s problems," Rais said.
"Unless, we reintroduce the habit of book reading, we will have more illiterates and more trouble," he said.
Rais is working on a personal memoir of the last three decades and also wants to expand his current business by building a "massive book shop, library and a publishing house to have direct contacts with the world’s libraries," he said. (Editing by Jerry Norton)