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Books are losing value in Afghanistan – that scares me | Arts and culture

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It has been almost two years since the Taliban took control of Kabul. Like many Afghans who have worked hard to get a good education, I struggle. Knowledge seems to be losing its value and books are no longer considered a precious commodity.

When Taliban fighters arrived in the Afghan capital in August 2021, many of my friends rushed to the airport to try to leave, seeing no prospects for them in their home country. The brain drain was immense.

Holders of master’s degrees, doctorates, numerous published works, professors, educators, doctors, engineers, scientists, writers, poets, painters – many scholars have fled. One of my colleagues – Alireza Ahmadi, who worked as a journalist – also joined the crowd at the airport.

Before leaving, he wrote on his Facebook page that he had sold 60 of his books on various subjects for 50 Afghanis (less than a dollar). He never left the country; he was killed in the airport bombing by the Islamic State in Khorasan province.

I, too, decided to donate all my books – all 300 cents, covering subjects like international law, human rights, women’s rights and the English language. I donated them to public libraries, thinking that in a country run by the Taliban they would be of no value to me.

I started looking for ways to leave the country. Evacuation was not an option for me, so I decided to go to Iran, hoping to find safe haven there, like millions of other Afghans. But like my compatriots, I was confronted with contempt and hostility. I quickly lost all hope of being able to earn a living in Iran. But I found something that kept me going: my old love of books.

One day, while walking around Enqelab Square in Tehran, I couldn’t help but enter its bookstores. I ended up spending most of the little money I had on books about human rights and women’s rights that I had never seen in Afghanistan. Armed with these volumes, I decided to return home and try to return to my old way of life – surrounded by books and engaged in intellectual activities.

Upon my return, I began work on a book on women’s political rights in the international legal system and within Islam, which I managed to complete in about a year. I sent my manuscript to different publishers, but was rejected several times because they found the subject too sensitive and thought it would be impossible to obtain permission to publish it.

Eventually, Ali Kohistani of Mother Press agreed to take on the book. He prepared the necessary documentation and submitted the manuscript to the Taliban Ministry of Information and Culture to request formal permission for publication. Shortly thereafter, the book review committee sent me a long list of questions and critiques for me to respond to.

I revised the book based on the feedback they sent me, but it wasn’t enough to get permission. We have been waiting for a definitive answer for five months now and my despair grows day by day.

Kohistani visited the ministry several times to inquire about the manuscript, to no avail. He told me he wanted to publish five more books this year, but none of them were approved by the ministry.

Other publishers also suffer from the arbitrariness of the commission’s decisions and long delays. They say books the Taliban want to publish that fall under their ideology do not face the same challenges. They see this difficult process as an attempt to suppress any thoughts that disagree with the thinking of the Taliban.

Delays in publication permits and censorship are by far not the only problems plaguing the Afghan book industry.

Many bookstores and publishing houses have closed their doors over the past two years. In the book precinct in the Pul-e-Surkh district of Kabul, which I used to frequent before the Taliban takeover, the majority of bookstores have now closed their doors.

The Taliban’s decision to ban girls and women from attending secondary school and university means they are no longer buying as many books. Boys and young men have also dropped out of school and universities, being unmotivated to pursue education that cannot guarantee them employment. This significantly reduced the booksellers’ customer base.

Additionally, the Taliban government imposed high taxes on the sale of books, further reducing the declining revenues of booksellers and publishers.

Libraries across the country have also lost their readers, as fewer people go there to study or borrow books. Various book clubs, literary associations and reading initiatives have also stopped their activities. Owning, reading or writing books is no longer considered a value.

Overnight, Afghan book publishing went from a thriving sector – perhaps the most successful local industry – to a struggling and risky business venture. Afghans, who were avid readers, can no longer afford to buy books. I went from a proud author and book owner to a desperate man who tried, unsuccessfully, to maintain an intellectual life in Afghanistan.

It is extremely painful to see this state of affairs in Afghanistan – a country with a long history and literary tradition. This land gave the world Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi (also known as Rumi), Ibn Sina Balkhi (also known as Avicenna) and Hakim Sanai Ghaznavi (also known as Sanai).

Reading, writing and spreading knowledge have always been highly valued in my country. Afghan rulers from different dynasties respected freedom of thought and supported learning and knowledge production. Censorship, restrictions on education and the devaluation of books have never been part of Afghan tradition or culture.

No country in the history of the world has ever prospered when its leaders suppressed knowledge, education and free thought. Afghanistan is moving towards darkness and ignorance and that scares me. Killing books and killing knowledge will have horrible consequences for the future of this country.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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