Afghanistan’s resurgent publishing industry battles piracy

Afghanistan's resurgent publishing industry battles piracy

During the time of the Taliban, there were only two book publishers in the whole of Afghanistan. Today, there are more than 20 in Kabul alone.

(Alamy/Oleksandr Rupeta )

Afghanistan’s position on the fault lines of east and west, coupled with the diverse mix of cultures, religions, histories and political ideologies that have penetrated this central Asian country, has created a nation with a rather unique relationship to literature.

An ancient land with a rich history of storytelling, poetry and folklore, the 1978 communist uprising was hugely inspired by Soviet literature translated into Afghanistan’s official languages of Pashto and Dari (Afghan Persian or Farsi). When the Taliban violently rose to power in the late 1990s, they destroyed libraries across Afghanistan, including the National Library. At the same time, however, religious schools flourished, as did Islamic literature, mostly in Arabic. Today, the country’s western-backed government in Kabul is rigorously pursing capitalism, and English-language, western literature is in high demand as a result.

Despite having one of the lowest literacy rates in the world (just 31 per cent according to UNESCO), Afghanistan’s publishing industry is booming. According to a recent New York Times article on the subject, during the Taliban’s rule there were only two book publishers in the whole country. Today, there are 22 in the capital city of Kabul alone, in addition to 60 registered bookstores.

With relatively fast internet speeds and surging demand for knowledge in various fields, more and more books on an array of subjects are being written, translated and published in Afghanistan. But local writers and publishers are becoming increasingly anxious about the rampant copyright violations that undermine the industry’s potential for massive growth.

Many of the books sold in Afghanistan are cheaper, pirated versions of originals, which means that the people investing the most in Afghanistan’s book boom – writers and publishers – often receive the smallest financial rewards.

Since 2008, Afghanistan has had copyright laws to protect the rights of authors, composers, artists and researchers – but only on paper. In real life, implementation of these laws is minimal, mainly due to limited resources.

Along the banks of the Kabul River in the city’s old bazaar, Kitab Shaar or the ‘Book City’ provides a pleasant weekly escape from the hustle, bustle and tension of life in Kabul for young as well as seasoned writers and literary critics who engage in well-moderated debates, reviews and book launches.

Pashto writer and poet Alam Gul Sahar is one of the founding members of the Adabi Baheer, or literary movement, which is based in Kitab Shaar. It is a group that is nurturing a new generation of young Afghan writers, poets and literary critics in Pashto.

“There is a vibrant wave of the young boys and girls that want to explore. They want to read and write. Unfortunately, the circumstances, particularly copyright violations and other financial constraints, are limiting them,” Sahar tells Equal Times.

In an interview with Publishing Perspectives, Dr Ajmal Aazem, a pediatrician who runs Afghanistan’s biggest publishing house – Aazem Publications – and helped found the country’s first Association of Publishers in 2010, says piracy is a huge challenge to Afghanistan’s fledgling publishing industry. “We publish a book according to the rules of copyright, but after two to three days, the pirated version comes from Pakistan,” he said. Until recently, nearly all books sold in Afghanistan came from Pakistan. Even now, that is where the overwhelming majority of books in Afghanistan are printed.

Foreign writers affected too

The impact of copyright infringement is not confined to the country’s geographical boundaries. Afghanistan has a global diaspora of millions, with Afghan writers and intellectuals living all over the world who would like to be able to sell books to audiences in their native languages. However, they are frustrated by Afghanistan’s vague and poorly enforced copyright laws which pave the way for corruption and the manipulation of their art and labour.

Khosraw Mani is an emerging Afghan novelist living in France and writing in Persian. He laments the current situation and the failure of both publishers and writers to force the government into action. “No one is paying attention, or even talking about [issues related to] the publication of books in Afghanistan. The publishers do not want to be criticised, the writers do not criticise because they are afraid their ties with publishers will be affected, and the readers are reluctant to criticise [the current state of affairs] because they have gotten used to the way things are,” he tells Equal Times.

Wildly popular amongst Persian readers inside and outside of Afghanistan, Mani says had to pay from his own pocket to have his first four novels published, and he still hasn’t received any royalties. However, his most recent work has been published by a promising new online publisher, Nebesht Press, which sprung out of a successful literary magazine.

Academic textbooks and children’s books are amongst the most common books printed in Afghanistan, while books written by prominent politicians or about topical events are in particularly high demand. For example, US journalist Michael Wolff’s best-selling book Fire and Fury, a controversial behind-the-scenes look at the first nine months of Donald’s Trump presidency, has been pirated by multiple publishers and is hugely popular. So too are the two-part memoirs of the former Afghan National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghan Politics: The Inside Story.

But for publishers like Aazem, this is little cause for celebration. “Writers and publishers are still struggling because of these copyright violations. As a result, the book reading trend is not flourishing in the way it should be.”

To date, Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, whose books The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) were both international best sellers, has had the most commercial success in terms of bringing what can loosely be called “Afghan literature” to an international audience. But Kabul-based literary critic Waheed Siddiqi thinks that Afghanistan has many more writers who could enjoy international success, if only they were given the opportunity. “If our new writers were published in English, these young writers could easily surpass Khaled Hosseini [in terms of popularity] amongst non-Afghan readers,” he says.

But for Ardasher Behnam, a non-fiction writer whose previous books have focused on development and rule of law, this will be impossible under current conditions. “Although, we have an established legal system on intellectual property, the problem of its implementation still remains.” For him the financial uncertainty created by this lack of regulation leads him to an unhappy conclusion. “I believe that we don’t have proper publication industry. All we have is the individual efforts of authors, artists and other intellectual producers and publishers.”