Kabul Reads

“Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” ~ Plato

The idea to start a bookstore first came to Nargis Ehsan and Sher Shah Rahim when they struggled to find books they wanted in Afghanistan, especially in English. Not having enough libraries in their country also contributed as an incentive. Their main aim though has always been to promote the reading culture amongst their people so that their beloved Afghanistan has a chance to move forward towards a brighter future. 

As the first online e-commerce business in Kabul, KabulReads has paved the path for many others since it opened its virtual doors in 2019. The store is one of only 60 registered bookstores in Afghanistan today and one of 2500 women-founded businesses. The decision to keep it online meant “having books delivered to clients easily, which is one less hurdle between them and reading”, says Nargis. In many countries, a bookstore is as common as the next Starbucks around the corner. The significance of one that supplies books of all kinds, in different languages to men and women alike in a place like Afghanistan is very unique.

Launching the first online store, complete with a website, iOS and Android mobile applications, came with its challenges. Though familiar with small Instagram and Facebook businesses, shoppers in the country had to be guided and taught to place an order from an e-commerce website. “We weren’t looking for a single order; we wanted to build a customer base, which required additional effort. Some people took the time to visit our website and place an order, while others never returned”, says Sher. The innovative team is already developing the first audiobook app, which will carry titles in the country’s native languages and be available to Afghans everywhere.

Sher Shah & Nargis Ehsan

A business like KabulReads “contributes to multiple transformations simultaneously.” In a country where women’s rights for many years have been appalling, especially under the Taliban rule, the store assists the country’s female population in developing and sustaining a reading habit. “We sell between 600 and 800 books per month, which equates to approximately 360 orders. Last month, we analysed and discovered that 4 out of 5 of our top returning customers are women who have placed at least 20 orders. These include housewives, professionals, students, and readers of all types”, informs Sher. 

Despite having physical bookstores in the country, many women are hesitant to visit them. “Some women are permitted to go out and shop without being escorted by a male but choose to stay at home. Mostly as a result of the male-dominated society, we have here – women are conscious of how they are looked at and are not confident when dealing and bargaining with male shop owners.” The opportunity of getting books delivered right to the doorstep with just a click of a mouse extends a new level of freedom to Afghan women.

Addressing the most pressing question in my mind about how their business and aspirations could be affected by the growing presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan again, the duo confidently replies, “People will continue to read books regardless of who runs the political show.” They inform that bookstores could be prohibited from selling English or some genres of books, but that is not their primary concern. “I am mostly concerned that a large number of people – particularly women – will lose their buying power to spend money on books or anything else.”

Despite the uncertainty, the store is thriving with over 5000 clients around the country. Filling the vacuum for not just English but also books in Dari and Pashto. “We succeeded where others failed because both Nargis and I contributed to KabulReads’ success in our own ways”, says Sher. “I approached it as a business and made most of my decisions based on numbers. On the other hand, Nargis ran it as a community and maintained a close relationship with her customers, treating them like family. Both are significantly important in the success of any business. It is because of Nargis that all our customers adore us and will go to great lengths to help us grow and purchase from us repeatedly.”

 “There are two types of people in Afghanistan”, says Sher Shah. “People who have experienced things by travelling, studying, or working, and people who haven’t experienced anything at all. Books help both kinds. During these difficult times, reading helps people travel and imagine things beyond their reach without moving at all. It helps them cope with their anxiety and find a reason to live and be hopeful for a better future. It helps people to understand that there is a world that they haven’t seen or experienced. It pushes them to get out of their comfort zones and achieve more. In times when almost all countries have closed their doors on us, we need books to help us travel in our imagination and find peace.”

Nargis expresses the vital importance of stores like KabulReads and its mission to cultivate the love of reading in her country with a hopeful message; “Books are the makers of society and can ensure peace, tolerance and acceptance amongst people. Books can cause progress, open minds and improve society at large.” 

In my mind, that is a mission worth pursuing no matter where you live in the world. 

 Thank you to Nadia Hashimi (best-selling author of ‘The Pearl that Broke its Shell’ and other books) for introducing us to KabulReads. 

Kabul Reads Partners
Kabul Reads Partners

Sher Shah Rahim – Managing Partner, KabulReads
Sher Shah Rahim is an Afghan entrepreneur who has pioneered both small and large businesses in the nation, all of which contribute significantly to the country’s economic growth and the total job market. Among his accomplishments are multimillion-dollar products like as WasalPay, KabulReads, and AfghaNet (an internet service provider), and many others.
Sher Shah Rahim is an Afghan member of the World Summit Awards (UNDP) jury, assisting in the achievement of the SDGs through technology. He is also a mentor at the UNDP’s innovation lab, where he assists and advises emerging entrepreneurs throughout the world.
Sher Shah Rahim has an entrepreneurial viewpoint on Afghanistan’s present economic and business environment. He has spoken at TED, the Internet Governance Forum, the Google Developers Group, and the Rotary Club, among other venues.
Sher Shah Rahim graduated from the American University of Afghanistan with a bachelor’s degree in information technology and computer science. Additionally, he is pursuing an MBA from Quantic University (online).

Nargis Ehsan – Ex-Managing Partner, KabulReads
Nargis Ehsan currently works at IAP as the Chief Executive Officer. She has several years of experience working as a coordinator with online international organizations such as the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR) and Pax Populi. She has also worked as a freelance writer and translator for international news outlets as the Guardian.
Nargis oversees all business operations, assists with business development and other activities that keep IAP run and grow at an exponential rate. Nargis has her Bachelor’s in Business Administration from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). She is also an advanced communicator with proficiency in English, Pashto, Dari and Urdu/Hindi.

Read more by Shikha S. Lamba


26 thoughts on “Kabul Reads”

  1. The city will be richer with Kabul reads! Can imagine how difficult a journey it must be – barely begun in 2019 , kudos to nargis and sher shah !

    1. Thank you so much for reading Simeran. Their journey is going to get even more difficult now,unfortunately.

  2. Thank you for covering this inspiring story, Shikha–so heartening to learn about this online business that’s making it easier for women in Afghanistan to buy books. I’m worrying about them, given the takeover of Kabul today, and am praying that they will be safe and that their good work can continue.

    1. Thank you so much for reading Holly. I am praying that the good work can continue as well. Right now they have closed their deliveries.

  3. My heart bleeds when I read this, yet it is filled with gratitude for Kabul reads. Such a laudable effort in today’s most stressful times. Wish them good luck for their future, may the books come to the rescue of the minds and hearts of all in Afghanistan.

  4. A sigh and an applause emanate together. What a laudable initiative by Nargis and Sher Shah. Kabul Reads is so many things rolled into one and not just a book store. For some it’s a soothing balm, for others a healing medicine, for many an exciting adventure to places beyond imagination, to many an escape from the mundane chores, a message of hope and so much more. You captured the essence and spirit of it so beautifully Shikha. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much for reading Sondi. You are so right and have so well described what a bookstore can be depending on where it is located. We are blessed to enjoy these freedoms.

  5. Such an informative piece. Thanks for converting this amazing story of something as simple a a opening a bookstore which could be a Herculean task in a place like Afghanistan

    1. As they say, “That’s the thing about books, they let you travel without moving your feet”!
      I hope and will pray that this brilliant initiative by Nargis and Sher Shah could spring back stronger.
      Hearts breaks to think about those women who would have found some solace in these books 📚, now might not be able to enjoy as much freedom. Hope I am proven wrong. Wishing Afghanistan glory and honor today and always.

      1. Thank you so much for reading Ruhi and for your hopeful message as well. As an avid reader myself, I can’t imagine a world without books.

    2. Thank you so much for reading Mayura 🙂 Books can do more than just give wings to ones imagination 🙂

  6. I am so heartened by the efforts of these brave, inspired and inspiring entrepreneurs but also filled with dread for what lies ahead for Afghanistan and her people, in particular her women and girls. Thank you for bringing KabulReads’ story to us and for spreading the word on how we can help. Your compassion is boundless.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for sharing Maureen. There are so many more amazing people there who have really worked hard through years of war and strife to do something meaningful and progressive for the country. I hope it was not all in vain.

  7. What a wonderful initiative though I am worried now with the latest development whether women will feel comfortable ordering books even from their home.

    1. Swati thank you so much for reading. Currently, they have had to stop their deliveries. I hope things can settle enough soon so that they can start operating again.

  8. All the very best to Kabul Reads for their initiative and hope they can continue to do the good work in these challenging times.

  9. Thankyou for covering this and shining the spotlight on Afghanistan. My heart fills with dread when I think of the terrifying scenario unfolding there currently, but what a beacon of hope KabulReads is! I hope this initiative will bring courage, comfort and strength to those that access Kabul reads. Fingers crossed for stability and peace to prevail in Afghanistan soon.

  10. Well done to your small contribution Shikha. Hope the world improves for these women while they can live freely and read to their hearts content.

  11. My heart broke for the founders of the bookstore and Afghanistan. They were doing such laudable work. It’s speaks to the power of books as tools of change and also makes me aware of how much we take for granted. Thanks for bringing this to our attention Shikha.

    1. Thank you so much for reading Priya. I hope they and other businesses like them can open their doors soon.

  12. Thanks so much for sharing this article, Shikha. If you’d like to get in touch with me about that piece we discussed during the Paperbacks & Co. Power Hour, you can reach me at: emiliespinsayarn at gmail dot com

  13. What an amazing effort by sher shah n nargis I just hope they can continue this effort to bring joy n peace to the people who love reading n love books best wishes

  14. God protect Nargis and Sher Shah from the hurdles they are most certainly facing in their laudable venture in a beautiful land that has fallen to destructive forces. Civilized society stands shoulder to shoulder with these brave souls.

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