Call it the e-mail heard round the world. On September 12, incensed by reactionary comments he’d heard on a radio call-in show that morning, Tamim Ansary, an Afghan American writer of children’s books, hammered out an impassioned and informative note. There was no point in “bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age” when the Soviets had already done so 20 years earlier, he argued. He went on to compare the Taliban to the Nazis, bin Laden to Hitler, and the Afghan people to the Jews.
The note, originally sent to 20 of Ansary’s close friends, quickly landed in millions of in-boxes worldwide. Salon posted the note as an opinion piece. The media came knocking: Oprah, Charlie Rose, World News Tonight. Overnight this shy, modest man morphed into a sought-after media pundit, an unofficial spokesperson for the Afghan people. (The Northern Alliance approached Ansary about becoming its official representative in the West. He refused.)
Seven months later, as he speaks from the basement office of his San Francisco home, Ansary has a voice that still rings with surprise at his e-mail’s unexpected effect. Before rising to fame, the 53-year-old was chasing a career in journalism, then in fiction writing, largely without success. His agent put Ansary’s novel on the back burner and spun his sudden éclat into a deal for a memoir that would begin where his celebrated e-mail left off.
The result, West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), proves that the e-mail wasn’t a fluke. Ansary possesses a rare talent for clearly delineating complicated philosophical and political questions. His prose is subtle and addictive. Organized as a triptych, Ansary’s “own small story” provides the raw material for his analysis of the anxiety of a bicultural existence, the nature of Islam, and the Afghan value system. The first section presents a child’s view of pre-Soviet Afghanistan, which reads like a fairy tale with its walled villages and intermarried families. In the second section, Ansary takes up Islam, chronicling his 1980 journey through the Islamic world, in search of both spiritual answers and a career as a “macho journalist” (neither materialized). Finally, the third part confronts the problem of being both Afghan and American. “The culture of the Afghan—or the Islamic—world is not the opposite of the culture here, it’s merely built (and lived) on a whole different set of premises.”
Born in Kabul to a prosperous, respected, mostly Western-educated family of poets and scholars, Ansary and his two siblings never quite fit in with their Afghan peers. Their mother was a feminist, atheist American. When Ansary was 10, the family moved to the remote desert town of Lashkargah (near the border of Iran), where his father oversaw a U.S.-funded irrigation project. There, among the American military brats, the Ansary kids felt more at home, though they “remained Americans with an asterisk.” As a teen, Ansary confessed to his parents his “spiritual yearning” for America—a land he knew only through his mother’s stories. Months later he was on a plane, along with his mother, sister, and brother, imagining that soon he “would be relieved of the discomforts of a divided self, free to roam the world as just one person: Tamim Ansary, American guy.”
Shucking off his divided self wasn’t easy—particularly when one considers the fate of his siblings. His liberal, environmentalist brother returned from a trip to Pakistan as an Islamic fundamentalist, brushing his teeth with a twig in emulation of the Prophet Muhammad. His sister married a Republican, moved to the Deep South, and forsook her Afghan identity. Ansary attempted to straddle the two cultures, a chameleon-like feat. “I am an Afghan among Afghans, and an American among Americans,” he explains. “My whole body changes depending on whom I’m with, my gestures, the way I express myself. I wanted to dramatize that experience—and what it took to accommodate those two selves—in the book.”
September 11—and his involvement in its aftermath—seem to have shown Ansary the extent to which his American self is winning the cultural wrestling match inside his head. His goals and desires are distinctly American—”to improve and get to the next place and so on. I think about making sure my kids go to good colleges, pushing my career forward.” There’s a cruel irony, of course, to the way in which Ansary, in midlife, did manage to further his career. While the irony is not lost on him, it also does not trouble him. “Somebody asked me if I felt ghoulish, because this thing that happened was so terrible and now because of it I’m more successful than I was,” he says slowly, choosing each word carefully. “I told that person, ‘You can’t swim in any river other than the one you’re in.’ This is the river I’m in.”
That river, it turns out, is one of advocacy, rather than activism. As many Afghan Americans head back to Afghanistan, to help rebuild the country, Ansary plans to stay in the U.S. His contribution to the cause will be his writings—not just the memoir, but a future body of articles and essays, which he hopes will enlighten and inform Westerners, and, ideally, inspire them to send cash to the many small, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working to build wells, outfit schools, and clear land mines from farming areas. In conversation as well as in his book, Ansary’s views on Afghanistan are more sociological than scientific, more personal than political. He worries that the West will do more harm than good, if it doesn’t attempt to rebuild the country from the inside out. “The international community has to realize that Afghanistan won’t be viable unless institutions emerge from Islam and its ideology.”
Last month, Ansary met with the leaders of some NGOs in Pakistan while visiting Afghan refugee camps on behalf of an American relief organization. He was particularly impressed with AREA, the Agency for Rehabilitation and Energy Conservation in Afghanistan, a group that trains and pays villagers to use land-mine-detection equipment. “The land mines are a root issue in terms of getting this country back on its feet because agriculture and herding are the root industries—and you can’t farm or herd if you have land mines.”
This summer Ansary will return to Afghanistan for the first time since his departure 36 years ago, on a primarily personal quest. His late father, who remained in Afghanistan after Ansary and the others left, owned vineyards. “Technically, those are my lands,” he explains, his voice wavering a bit. “I can talk to the people who are using those lands and assure them that they can have it. And maybe I could work with the people, and work with AREA, and help them clear the mines.” He adds, almost as an afterthought, that he will try to write about his trip for magazines or newspapers. “Of course, it’ll be—it’s always for me—the personal story, which continues to unfold.” For now, it seems, Americans are hungry for that personal story—the human face of the country in which our government plays out its war on terrorism. But considering the massive problems Afghanistan must solve, one wonders if, for both Ansary—who will soon witness the havoc wreaked upon the site of his idyllic childhood—and for those readers who will look to him for understanding, that “small story” will continue to suffice.