Beethoven Vs Kid Rock



Beethoven Versus Kid Rock


I heard an ad on the radio recently, for a youth-oriented clothing company. The ad never mentioned a product. It merely presented a teenage girl saying: “I don’t like classical music. I don’t care if it’s supposed to be better or whatever! Rock and roll just makes me feel good, and no one can make me listen to classical music.” Then the name of the company was stated.

Hey, kids, buy our product, we hate classical music too!


Give It Up For Ludwig!

I picture a battle of the bands: Kid Rock is over here on stage one, Ludwig von Beethoven over there on stage 2. Where’s the crowd? Surging around Kid Rock, mostly. There’s no one over by Ludwig but a smattering of mostly middle-aged patricians in dinner jackets and evening dresses. Sidle close and you can hear them bemoaning the way the hoi polloi fail to perceive the superiority of classical music!

Now, let me say that in the course of talking to quite a few classical musicians, I couldn’t find one who claimed that classical music is better. “It’s just different,” they say. But let’s face it: the stereotype is out there—that classical music aficionados are snobs..

So I got to mulling the idea of one type of music being superior to another. It’s not like arguing that the Beatles are better than the Stones, or Mozart than Salieri. That’s comparing apples with apples.

Rating classical music above rock (or whatever!) is a different proposition. What could the argument possibly be?

High Music Versus Low Music

A certain ambiguity attends the term: what is “classical music,” exactly? In literature, “classical” refers to works so good, they survive the test of time. A book has to be old before it can be judged a classic. That’s not how the term is used in music. There are classical musicians operating right now. In fact, a composer can plausibly say he’ll compose a new piece of classical music tomorrow. Test-of-time has nothing to do with it—he already knows it will be classical.

Music scholars, incidentally, use “classical music” specifically for works composed after the Baroque period and before the Romantic—for Mozart and his rough contemporaries, in short. But we’ll ignore music scholars. Their definition is not what most of us mean by “classical music.”

No, most of us use “classical music” to mean the highbrow stuff played in concert halls. Every culture has its high music and its low music. The low music is what ordinary folks listen to in everyday life for pleasure. High music is what the aristocracy patronizes and supports. In the West, coming out of medieval times, that meant the church and then the various royal courts, which may account for the faint odor of snobbery surrounding classical music

No Garage Quartets

But there’s a good reason besides snobbery why classical music is linked to the rich. Classical music is a costly proposition. In any culture, classical musicians can’t just learn a few basics and let passion do the rest. They must train for years, like doctors (and the society must somehow support them through that long apprenticeship) because classical music is inherently rooted in a deep loam of tradition, which would-be practitioners must absorb before hanging up their own shingles.

Successful garage bands in rock and roll? Easily. But there will never be a classical music garage symphony orchestra.

Classical music, therefore, requires patronage. Historically, that’s where the aristocracy comes in. Even today, patronage is a part of that world. The San Francisco Symphony gets full houses and charges dearly for tickets, yet maintains an active fundraising department.

When’s the last time you saw a fundraiser for Kid Rock?

Scripted versus Unscripted Music

In the Western tradition, it seems to me, the invention of musical notation (completed by the 13th century) had a profound effect on the nature of classical music. Notation made it possible for a particular piece of highly organized music to be handed down to later generations, note for note.

Before this breakthrough, inventing music and playing music must have been the same thing: there was no separation of roles. After the breakthrough, some musicians could focus purely on planning what would be played. The composer’s role was born.

At the same time, notation took the lid off how complex a composition could be, because a composer could fuss with a piece of music at his (or her) leisure, analyzing its patterns intellectually and editing ad infinitum.

Without musical notation, Beethoven could never have created any symphonies.

Another Classical Tradition

And that’s pretty much what we mean by Western classical music today–music planned by one mind and played by others from scripted instructions. It may be worth noting that this is not inherent to classical music. Other classical traditions exist.

Take Indian classical music, for example. The rules are subtle and complex, to be sure. Indian musicians spend years, sequestered like monks, honing their craft, before they ever play in public. Each piece, known as a raga, is played in its own scale. The ascending scale is different from the descending scale. The piece begins with a definition of themes, then moves through elaborations of those themes, while the tempo evolves. One raga may take two or three hours to complete.

But within that subtle framework, the music is entirely improvised. The musicians choose what particular notes to play on the spot. No raga is ever played twice.



Mahler and the Case of the Missing Key

The Western approach to music, the scripted approach, lends itself to structural complexity. The medium lures composers in that direction. And the musical results give the intellect much to feast upon.

Classical pianist Patty Avery, a long-time music teacher, told me, “I appreciate many forms of music. BUT: what’s different about classical music is the depth. You find so many levels and layers, so much organization, so much room for interpretation. But you have to put in a lot time studying, not just to play it or compose it, but also just to hear it, really. Classical music isn’t quick and immediate. That’s why it struggles to find an audience these days–our culture is into quick and immediate.”

Let me illustrate what might be meant by the intellectuality of classical music. A college buddy of mine, Jan DeWeese, himself a musician and abstruse musical thinker, used to rave about the “lost key” in the symphonies of his favorite composer, Gustav Mahler. He said the lost key represented rootless modern humanity’s search for a true home.

I didn’t know what he was talking about.

I haven’t seen him in twenty years, but I decided to call the man now and get an explanation. Today, DeWeese teaches at Lewis and Clark College and plays Brazilian music on the mandolin, but he retains a powerful jones for classical music. I said, “Jan, tell me again about Mahler’s lost key.”

He didn’t know what I was talking about.

But he was willing to speculate. “I was probably thinking about the management of tonality that the great German composers achieved.”

Umm… management of tonality?

“The whole concept of a symphony is the musical odyssey,” DeWeese went on. “You start from a home key, there’s a departure, and then a return through a labyrinth of musical complications. The great composers like Beethoven take you as far as possible from home and get you back safely. Mahler took that form to an apex. But he didn’t come back and hit the primary themes obviously hard like Beethoven. In Mahler symphonies you’re lured to the edge of resolution in a key that you think is home, but it turns out to be a temporary perch. And your psyche knows you’re not there yet. Mahler awakens a sense of longing for that lost key, that lost true home.”

“Now Jan,” I said. “Be honest–do you really hear all that when you listen to Mahler?”

Yes, he did. “It takes analysis to prove what’s happening,” he said, “but the normal listener experiences the psychology of different keys deep in his musical physiology.”

I guess I’m not a normal listener. There’s no way that halfway through a Mahler symphony, any part of me feels my distance from the key in which the theme was first stated. Mahler’s lost key? Hey, I’m still trying to find my lost garage key. I don’t doubt Jan’s experience, but I know I need a lot more training before I can have the same experience.

It seems to me that every type of music starts as a sensory experience, but from that platform, Western classical music goes to the intellect (and through the intellect to a rich range of possible emotions).

Popular music goes directly to the emotions and the physical body—it’s got a beat you can dance to. The aura of superiority that surrounds classical music may really reflect a valuation of mind over body, intellect over emotions.

Complexity Schmomplexity

My friend Joe Quirk, a fool for the hardest of hard rock, says, “Okay, classical music has complexity but does that make it superior? Some people would say that what counts is raw emotional power.”

If Beethoven versus Kid Rock boils down to intellect versus emotions, reason versus passion, mind versus body, I think we’re right back to “not better, just different.”

I’ll take it one step further. Several centuries ago, the invention of notation elevated musical values such as structural complexity. But the last hundred years of technology may have thrown a new monkey wrench into the works. Actual musical performances can now be passed on to future generations for judgment.

The raga can still be played only once, but it can be heard countless times. The sessions that produced John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme were a unique event in time, but our children’ children can now experience that event, not just a reconstruction of it by other musicians.

Perhaps structural complexity must now compete with such values as immediacy, excitement, and emotional power. The former may be more common in classical music, but the latter is surely more likely to show up in less rigidly scripted., more improvisational forms such as jazz and some rock.

So when we take up the question of what music produced today will have an audience hundred of years from now, I’d say all bets are off. The Beatles? Snoop dog? Nirvana? Radiohead? They might have as good a chance of surviving the test of time as Morton Feldman, John Cage, or Phillip Glass. We just don’t know.

And that’s good news for Kid Rock (whom, incidentally: I’ve never heard: I just like the name.)

Naming Things


Naming Things


I’ve spent the last two hours trying to think of a name for this blog. A label. Names, titles, slogans, headlines and labels–some people have a genius for them. Some don’t. I, alas, am in the don’t pile. For this blog–column–whatever it is, I thought of: Notes and Natterings. Mind Over Mutter. The Accidental Observer. And several others that made my advisors recoil in horror and dismay. So: Reality Reconsidered. I’ll go with it for a while. I remember once, a bunch of us editors at Harcourt Brace were asked to come up with a title for the new edition of our reading program. The previous edition had been called the Phoenix edition, if I’m remembering correctly. So there we sat in rows of chairs, about fifty of us, brainstorming for hours. The Falcon Edition? The Eagle Edition? The Panther Edition? The Galaxy Edition? No one liked the titles I came up with–the Albatross Edition. Well, it carried on the bird theme, didn’t it? The Dinosaur Edition.

Next to me on the desk here is a brilliant newspaper headline. It goes with a story about the new alternative-fuel stations springing up along the west coast.

Where the Gas Is Always Greener

How do people who come up with stuff like that come up with stuff like that?

Great authors often write great titles–well duh. Take: The Beautiful and the Damned–it doesn’t get much better than that. Fitzgerald had some other gems too. Tender Is the Night–to die for, in my opinion. Then again, maybe great books turn their own titles into iconically great ones just by being such great books themselves. On the face of it, The Great Gatsby is ho hum, but somehow it’s stamped indelibly into our cultural imagination. I hear the phrase, I see a certain kind of guy, his white suit, the lawns in the background, the whole milieu. Same sort of thing with Peter Pan. Before there was the book/play/movies, was “Peter” already the perfect name for that little boy? What if J.M. Barrie had called him “Henry Pan”? Would “Henry” now feel like the very embodiment of magical, cocky, little-boy, naughtiness?

Some titles are great because of their audacity. You can’t top A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  Then again, maybe you can.  There’s a subtler, more elusive audacity about James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It issues such a peremptory call, and for such an odd act. Immediately you wonder: who’s “us”? Who’s telling us we should do this? And why should we praise famous men? What men, for that matter? And why now, particularly? At first blush that title seems perfectly direct, rather plain even, and yet every word in it turns out to raise a question.

I see that same elusive quality in some of Hemingway’s titles. The Sun Also Rises, for example. It’s the “also” that does it. What is that about? Is it saying something else rises, and so does the sun? Or is it saying the sun does something besides rise? (It does of course. Maybe one of us should write that book: “The Sun Also Sets.” Hemingway has a couple of other great ones: For Whom the Bell Tolls. And especially–especially: The Old Man and the Sea. Epic simplicity and mystic grandeur, yet so unassuming.

And now that I’ve started–As I Lay Dying. Light in August. The Sound and the Fury. I envy the guy who could come up with titles like those.

After I first posted these musings, I heard from my old high school buddy Joe Stillman, who said that he learned the value of a good, catchy title when he was at Columbia in the ’60s. He had decided to write a paper comparing Thomas Jefferson and Che Guevara but after researching Guevara and Jefferson thoroughly, he concluded there were no grounds for a comparison whatever. But it was too late to switch gears, he had to write the paper.   “I had nothing to say. However, I did have a great title:  Jefferson and Guevara: The Man in the Revolution and the Revolution in the Man.  My professor wrote that while the paper itself warranted an F, the title was great and he gave me a B+.”

My own titles aren’t bad, I think, but they didn’t come easily. Or, for the most part, from me.  West of Kabul, East of New York was a last late suggestion that I tossed out because my agent didn’t want to try to sell my original title, Straddling the Faultline. She said “Come on, come on, one more.”  I happened to  have a book of fairy tales in front of me, open to one from Scandinavia that was called, East of the Sun, West of the Moon.  And that, with modifications, turned into the title of my book.  The Widow’s Husband started out as The Malang of Char Bagh, but one of my writer friends pointed out that the only two English words in that title are “the” and “of.”  As for Destiny Disrupted, I love that title, wish I’d thought of it.  At book signings and such, people ask how I came up with it, and here’s the answer. I shot about a thousand ho-hum ideas at my editor Lisa Kaufman, and then she came up with a thousand and first idea better than all of mine.

Having said all that, I’m realizing: maybe Faulkner and Fitzgerald didn’t come up with those great titles. Editors are the great unsung creative heroes of publishing. I’m picturing a couple of them now, shaking their heads as they stare at the titles their authors have turned in. The Good-Looking and the Goddamned. As I Lay There Feeling Kind of Sick. Old Codger Catches a Big Fish. Big Hand Here for Celebrities -– Big Hand. Thank You. Thank You Very Much.

Two Sets of Questions

Two Sets of Questions


It seems to me that there are two sets of questions to ask about Afghanistan.                          

One set are foreign policy questions from the U.S. side: What is the goal there? What has the American policy been, and what has it achieved?  What should the policy be and what are the possible consequences of changing it? What are the larger regional implications of America’s involvement in Afghanistan. Where does this war fit into America’s global goals?       


From the Afghan Side

From the Afghan side, a whole different set of questions obtains. Who are the people of Afghanistan today? How can they reconcile their history with each other?  How can Afghanistan embrace progressive modernism without embracing the Communist conquest of the 1980s, which scarred the country so badly?  How can Afghanistan reject the violent Jihadism of reactonary Muslims today without rejecting Afghanistan’s deep and abiding roots in Islam?  Where is the country coming from, where is it now, and where could it go–at best and at worst? 


It’s All Very Complicated

And I’ll be trying to untangle some of these issues in the weeks to come; but this much seems obvious from the git-go.  The presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is not dampening the insurgency but fueling it.                          

Recently, in the San Francisco paper, I saw a map of Afghanistan in which “the parts the Taliban have succeeded in taking over” was shaded in red. Those parts included pretty much the entire southern half of the country.  The phrase “the parts the Taliban have succeeded in taking over” isn’t mine; that’s how the newspaper put it.  I think it’s more accurate to look at the area shaded in red on that map as the part of Afghanistan that has turned definitively against the United States.                          

What difference does the phrasing make?                      

Well, if you think of it the first way, you’re operating with a picture of a small determined group dominating a reluctant population, and it then makes sense to say: “We had better put in more troops and roll back these thugs.”                          

Pouring Gasoline on Fire

But if you think of it the second way, calling for more troops may well be like saying, “The fire is spreading! Quick! More gasoline!”                          

I have to say I am very nervous about Obama’s plan for the country. The President says that U.S. troops will begin leaving Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. The implication is that, by that time, the situation will be under control, and America will be able to depart from Afghanistan with confidence that everything will be okay.                          

But, instead of rolling anything back, all the extra troops going to Afghanistan may only be turning more Afghans against the American presence. If that’s the case, by next summer we’ll find that the insurgency has spread to a good deal more of Afghanistan–which will make it politically difficult to begin the pullout Obama is envisioning.  Instead, there will be pressure to increase the troops strength again.                         

And that way lies the Vietnamizing of Afghanistan, a process that is already alarmingly well along.

A Bank Teeters


A Bank Teeters, a Nation Trembles

The biggest private bank in Afghanistan is teetering on the edge of collapse. If you’ve been following the news, you know this. But in case you haven’t been following it closely, here’s some background. 

The trouble started on August 30 when the chief officers of Kabul Bank suddenly and dramatically resigned. The country’s central bank moved in and took over its operations. Despite official denials, everyone knew the officers didn’t resign but were ousted.  

As a rough comparison, imagine if the U.S. Federal Reserve suddenly took over Chase Manhattan, J.P. Morgan, and Bank of America. No, actually, that’s not dramatic enough. Kabul Bank was bigger in Afghanistan than those three banks put together are in the United States. You see, the salaries of almost all of the country’s government officials, military, police, and teachers were (are?) paid through Kabul Bank.  

As soon as the government announced the takeover, depositors rushed to get their money. Within two days, they had drained a third of the bank’s cash reserves, whereupon the government hollered: “Stop! No more payouts! Stop!” 

Move Along, Nothing to See 

After this came the obligatory official reassurances. Only a temporary measure. Nothing to worry about. The bank was solvent. All deposits fully guaranteed. Everybody should go home, take two aspirins, and call back in a year.  

But the three-day Eid holiday was coming up just then—one of the country’s two biggest annual holidays, the one that marks the end of Ramadan. It’s akin to the Christmas season in America. Everyone who had money coming—all those government officials, teachers, policemen, and whatnot—wanted to get paid before the big weekend. They gathered at the bank to demand their money and began to look a little mob-like. The police came in to do crowd control—which, of course, made the crowd harder to control.  

How on earth did it come to this?  

The Bush Doctrine

The answer goes back to those heady days, just after the American military drove the Taliban out of the capital. At that point, the Bush Administration made a fateful decision: to privatize the reconstruction of the country.  

Basically, this meant entrepreneurs were invited to rush in and set up businesses providing essential goods and services, with the assurance that they would be able to make big money, doing so. Rules were set down, dividing legal from illegal, which provided a fence. No one could operate outside the fence, but anyone could do anything within the fence, and let the best man win. This is basically the free-market capitalist idea of how to solve a society’s problems. In privatizing the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the Bush Administration was only being true to its neo-conservative principles.  

I don’t say this critically. There might be something to this idea. If people can get rich doing important and useful things, they might indeed do useful and important things. In fact, the prospect of getting rich might get the best minds and hardest workers flocking in to attack the toughest problems. Might.  

The Deadwood Syndrome

The trouble is: what’s legal is not necessarily what’s fair or ethical. The trouble is also that some acts might cross the line into illegal, but whether they did is a matter of opinion until somebody sues somebody and a case is brought to court. Since, in a chaotic country like Afghanistan, that might never happen, the most swashbuckling entrepreneurs will inevitably decide that operating at the borders of the rules or just beyond them is worth the risk.  Thus, in the free-for-all system the Bush Administration established and encouraged, even those who were technically playing by the rules were in a dog-eat-dog environment like the Wild West town of Deadwood. And in that environment, whenever any two business competitors were equally matched in skills, smarts, and capital, the winner was going to be the one with the least scruples and the greatest readiness to operate on the line between legal and illegal. Privatizing the reconstruction of Afghanistan attracted pirates, cowboys, and swashbucklers, amongst whom the meanest, toughest, shoot-from-the-hip survivors rose to the top—how could they not?  

Kabul Bank was founded by guys like that. Lots of enterprises in Afghanistan were founded by people like that. Once the bank got going, it attracted more guys like that. The chairman and founder of the bank was Sherkhan Farnood, an expert international poker player. In Taliban days, he lived (as best I can tell) in New York, but flew all over the world to play in big poker tournaments, where he won at least $600,000. Farnood claims he was born to the poorest family in Afghanistan in 1961 but was able to make a million dollars and found a bank by working hard.  

The CEO of the bank was another formidable fellow, Khalilullah Frozi, a former gem trader (Afghanistan is rich in emeralds and other precious stones, but these come from war-torn areas, so “gem trader” means more Indiana Jones than some old bald guy with a loupe.)  Back in the days when the Communists ruled Afghanistan, Frozi spent time in Soviet bloc countries, and like Farnood, he speaks fluent Russian. Between them, these two guys owned 56% of a bank that had taken in deposits of about $1.3 billion.  

A Trailblazing Institution

And the bank broke a lot of ground. It was a pioneering institution. It set up ATMs in Kabul and some other cities. It opened provincial branches. Its top officers also invested in real estate in Kabul and helped set up a new private airline.  

The bank also supported Karzai’s presidential campaign to the tune of millions. I’m not saying there was any quid pro quo. I’m just saying. Karzai’s brother Mahmoud came to own a share in the bank—about 9%. This is the same Mahmoud who founded the Helmand Restaurant in San Francisco nearly twenty years ago; it’s a great place, and won rave reviews in Gourmet Magazine. I met Mahmoud and his wife back when the restaurant first opened and have a picture of them somewhere in my files. They were a gracious, good-looking, well-spoken couple. Before that, Mahmoud worked as a busboy in San Francisco restaurants and in that period he sent ninety dollars a month to Hamid Karzai to help him get his (university) education in India. Recently, with a loan from Kabul Bank, Mahmoud did a quick buy-and-sell of a villa in Dubai and earned about $800,000 on the turnaround.  

Another shareholder in the bank was Haseen Fahim. His brother was General Fahim, once a top aide to the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud. In that brief period from 1992-1996 when the Mujahideen guerillas occupied Kabul—one can hardly call what those guerillas set up a government—General Fahim ran the intelligence service. After the fall of the Taliban, he became one of the country’s vice-presidents, a job title that has routinely gone to people with too much military clout to keep out of the government lest they make trouble as outsiders.  


The general’s brother Haseen got involved in the bank around 2004. It was he who loaned Mahmoud Karzai the money to buy in.  Haseen has taken out at least $92 million in loans from the bank and used some of it to speculate in real estate in Dubai. But he used a lot of it to set up or invest in businesses that got lucrative contracts from the U.S. military and the C.I.A.—because that’s where the real money was during the boom years.  

Farnood and Frozi were ousted after they began struggling with each other for control of the bank. Their struggle spelled instability and the bank’s mysterious web of investments and its complex ties to the political gang made U. S. officials nervous. The whole thing had a smell to it. The pressure was building for Karzai to take a stand against “corruption” and this pressure eventually forced Karzai’s government to move on the bank.  

But Karzai is in a sticky position. Given his family’s ties to the bank, anything he does to shore it up is corruption. Anything he doesn’t do to save the bank is disaster. It all adds up to one lesson: the clamor about corruption in Afghanistan is simplistic. The corruption in Afghanistan is hard to distinguish from business-as-usual; and given the policies put in place in 2002, business-as-usual is nearly impossible to disentangle from the project of restoring Afghanistan and protecting American interests there.

Stop Surfing


Notes and Thoughts


Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?


A guy named Nicholas Carr has written a book asserting that the Internet has changed the way our brains work–it’s making us less able to concentrate, he claims.

 The first time I heard his thesis, I kinda’ rebelled against it. I heard him on Fresh Air, the NPR interview program, and I agreed with interviewer Terry Gross, who kept suggesting that maybe we’re not getting stupider but smart in a different way.

Carr, however, came back with two points. First, he said, he found he was less and less able to read a book straight through; and second, he couldn’t formulate coherent thoughts by reading on the Internet in that typical Internet-way—skittering from website to website.

I must say I thought back to those points the other night when my friend Scott was gushing on about Apple’s new reader, the i-Tablet or whatever it’s called. The best thing about it, he said, was that you could load twenty books at a time, and as soon as you got tired of one book, you could go to another and the machine would remember where you were in every one.  

Of course, you don’t have to read twenty books at once, just because you can.  But I tell you, with technology, it seems to me, whatever you can do is hard to resist doing.  Technology doesn’t just open up more choices; it also mandates behavior.

Gross said that maybe those who have grown up with the new technology are going to be able to function with it and to formulate thought in ways that we older folks are neurally locked out of. While I was listening to her, I thought she was making a damned good point. And I still do. 

Carr, however, countered that when we read on the Internet, we read “shallow.”  We keep departing from a given line of thought to chase tangents. When we hyperlink away into hyperspace, we get a broad array of information and ideas, but we skim from the top of every topic. Skimming lets us spot the connection between two very disparate ideas; but it prevents us from relating two ideas that are connected in a very complicated way. 

So I’m thinking Gross has a point, but Carr has a point too. Reading intelligently consists of constructing meaning. Back in the old-days, when we read in the old-fashioned way, starting at page one and moving on to page-last, we gave ourselves up to someone else’s construction of meaning. We came to know a structure of meaning that someone had taken a lot of time to put together. If we constantly broke away from the author’s sustained line of thought, we simply wouldn’t get the point, because there are some concepts one simply cannot form unless one follows a long line of argument.  When we surf the Internet, by contrast, we’re collecting data that we need to construct meaning of our own, on the spot. And the structure we end up with may look grandiose, but it’s constructed of the most readily accessible bits of information. It’s a Taj Mahal made of straw.

I began to take Carr’s thesis more seriously when I came across a devastating related point. According to studies cited in Washington Post, kids now prefer to text than talk because it’s more efficient. I’ve seen this with my 19-year-old daughter Elina. I also see that lots of people have started interacting mainly on Facebook—that is, purely with text. The Post article points out that text doesn’t have the subtle additional information that comes from vocal inflections, facial expressions and the like. It also doesn’t have all the normal interactive stuff that happens between two people talking.

Two people talking is a bio-chemical event. The empathy that builds up is biological. When two people interact purely through text, the actual interaction is between a biological organism and a static object. The person who is presumably at the other end of the static object is an intellectual abstraction, based on the living organism’s internally-maintained conceptual framework.

Here’s where that rubber meets the road. On some standard personality tests, the Post reports, college kids today are registering 40% less capacity for empathy. Statistics can be iffy but a 40% drop! That’s not a borderline change. Something is happening.

And it’s not surprising.

It fits right in with the idea that empathy for a static object vested with personality through a feat of intellectual abstraction is going to be less instinctually passionate than empathy for a biological co-organism with whom one is in living interaction.

I say all this with a caveat: I msyelf spend 90 % of my waking hours in front of my computer, and if this device were a human being, it would be far and away my best friend.



The Invisible American Culture


Does America have a culture? I don’t mean “Kulcha,” as in high-flown symphonies and ballet, but culture, small c, a distinctive flavor, that je ne sais quoi that a group of people emanates by virtue of all its shared attitudes and styles.

Some say no. America, they say, is a patchwork of immigrant flavors from other places with nothing of its own. Or they allow that America has distinctive indigenous cultures but say they differ from region to region: there is Cajun culture, Yankee culture, California culture, but no such thing as American culture.

To which Mark Rosenfelder, linguist and master of the Metaverse website, retorts:

“Fish have also been known to doubt the existence of water.”

He’s right: the distinctive flavor of any culture is hard for its own members to perceive, because culture is more than a national costume and official celebrations. It’s a subtle web of understandings and assumptions that people may not know they share because, from the inside, most of it seems trivial and obvious.

If you’re American, for example, you probably hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • Thin is more attractive than fat. (Many cultures would disagree.)
  • Nodding means yes. (In Turkey, I learned to my chagrin, nodding means no.)
  • Upon reaching adulthood, people move out of their parents’ house. (Not in Korea.)

And the list goes on. If you’re American, there are certain things you just know, or assume, or expect that at least one other culture in the world finds less than obvious. Or even untrue. Or incomprehensible. For example: 

If you’re American, you know that…

  • In general, everybody goes to school till they’re about eighteen. Past that age, it’s a choice. Before that age, a kid who isn’t in school is a “dropout.”
  • A man who is still living with his parents at thirty is probably failing at life.
  • Adults work, because everybody must earn their keep.
  • It’s normal to die of old age. That’s the only normal death. To die of an illness is a tragedy, because illness can be cured. If doctors fail to cure an illness, they have done something wrong.
  • You can’t expect to get much done between late November and early January because that’s “the Holiday Season.” (In western Europe, a similar expectation holds for August.)

In America’s Holiday Season—whether or not you’re a Christian—you give and get gifts, go to more parties than usual, take time off from work, travel, and connect with family. Or feel bereft because you don’t.

In other holiday news: you are aware of Superbowl Sunday, even if you don’t care about football.

It’s the economy, stupid.

  • You assume that any product is available: it’s just a question of money. Shortages mean higher prices, not empty shelves. You never expect to go to a shoe store and find no shoes.
  • Haggling is not a part of shopping, unless you’re at a flea market or buying a big-ticket item. Instead, shopping involves studying the posted prices and making decisions. You can choose among many brands for any given product.
  • None will be the government brand. The government doesn’t make stuff.
  • You can recite any number of advertising slogans, though you’re not proud of it. You can recount the plots of several television commercials too. You believe that advertising influences a lot of people, but it doesn’t have much effect on you.
  • Nonetheless, there are ads you like and ads you don’t. In that way, ads are like pop songs.
  • The job title “teacher” sounds low-status to you. (In many cultures, it is a term of highest respect.)
  • “Lawyer” sounds powerful but possibly unethical. (In Muslim cultures it sounds just a bit more prestigious than “clerk.”)
  • “Politician” sounds tricky.
  • “Poet” provokes the follow-up question, “But what do you do for a living? (In Russia some poets are like rock stars.)
  • You don’t know how much money any of your personal friends make. It would be impertinent to ask. But you do know how much some celebrities make—especially athletes.
  • If you are given five seconds to name ten famous people, at least half of them will be athletes or entertainers.
  • Paying a little bit extra for better service in the private sector seems reasonable: you call it a tip. Paying a little bit extra for better service in dealings with a government agency seems unreasonable: you call this a bribe.

You are what you eat

  • Breakfast refers to a particular set of foods. These include eggs, toast, bacon, cereal, and citric juices—but not soup, pasta, or fried fish.
  • Lunch, by contrast, is anything you eat around noon. A restaurant may advertise “breakfast any time!” but never “lunch any time!”
  • Dinner is the big meal of the day, and you eat it in the early evening. It would be strange to serve dinner after 11 pm. (In Pakistan, I found, it’s common.)
  • If a meal includes meat, that’s the main dish. (In many Asian cultures, a rice dish will be the centerpiece, meat a side dish.)
  • You expect to eat something different for dinner every night. A perfectly valid reason not to choose spaghetti, steak, or tacos would be, “I had that last night.”
  • Dogs and insects are not food.
  • On a road trip, you’re attracted to places that advertise “homemade food,” even though you know it will never actually be home-made.
  • You think pie is better in small town diners, even though this is rarely true.
  • You know what a diner is.
  • When you stop at a diner or any other ordinary restaurant, you expect to see sugar, salt, black pepper, ketchup, and mustard at your table, but not chili powder, malt vinegar, or chutney.
  • You never wonder if the water served at a restaurant is safe to drink.

What manners to mind

Certain rules of etiquette are so basic, they don’t seem like choices, and you don’t remember learning them. For example:

  • If there is only one other person on a bus, you don’t sit next to that person. (In an Arab country, you very well might.)
  • In conversation with an acquaintance, you don’t stand closer than about two feet. You don’t touch the other person. (In Italy, you might.)
  • If someone compliments a garment you’re wearing, you don’t feel you have to give it to them. (In Morocco, you might feel you ought to.)
  • Of course you can walk side by side with a man. So what if you’re a woman? What kind of question is that?!! 
  • If you go on a date, your mother won’t come along.
  • If you’re invited to someone’s house for dinner, you don’t expect to spend the night. You would feel weird if the host suggested it. (In Afghanistan, it’s almost inevitable.)

Speaking of entertainment

  • As an American, you have, at some point, complained about TV. You’ve expressed disgust at what junk they produce nowadays. Yet you can name and describe at least ten shows and rate them from best to worst.
  • You cannot name ten operas. You have probably never complained that they don’t make good operas anymore.
  • You think of football, baseball, and basketball as major sports. Even if you know nothing about baseball, you know that “three strikes” means “you’re out.” Even if you know nothing about football, you’ll probably never ask, “How come they call it football? They don’t really use their feet.” (If you’re European, you might.)

In England a few summers ago, I saw the following lead paragraph from the day’s leading sports story. If you understand it, you’re probably not an American:

Resuming 180 runs adrift on 264 for seven after only 14 overs were possible on Saturday, Australia had hoped to frustrate England for as long as possible with Shane Warne setting his sights on a maiden Test century. But Warne and Australia’s resistance were blown away by a stunning burst of three for six in 29 balls by seamer Simon Jones, who claimed Test best figures of six for 53.

But is it art?

  • You expect that a story will have good guys and bad guys. (For counter-examples, look at recent animated movies from Japan.) It will probably have a happy ending. If it has a sad ending, it’s a literary story. Or pretentious. Or European.
  • You recognize Charley Brown but not Mafalda. (She’s the most popular cartoon character in Latin America over the past thirty years.)
  • You know about superheroes: they’re normal-looking characters with unusual powers who fight crime and injustice wearing masks and tight-fitting costumes, all the while maintaining secret second identities as normal, everyday human beings.  (There are so many versions of this story it’s fair to call this an American myth.)
  • Another fictional character familiar to you is the loner with his own code of justice. In the Old West, he appeared in small towns wracked by lawless violence, cleaned them up, and rode away before anyone could find out who he really was. In big, grimy twentieth-century cities, he was a private detective in a cheap suit who got beat up a lot and earned little reward for his work but kept at it anyway, adhering to his private code in a corrupt world. You understand why such a character is a hero.

Deep thoughts

  • “Moving on” is the healthy response to unpleasant incidents. (American reverence for “moving on” is brilliantly dramatized in the great American novel, Huckleberry Finn.)
  • “Living in the past” is bad. The proper thing to do with the past is to “let it go.”
  • “Living for the future” is good.
  • Living in the present is okay in moderation. (Buddhist cultures, by contrast, consider it noble though difficult.)

Of course, American culture, like every other, is made of big stuff too. The Bill of Rights. The Broadway musical. The blues…but this bottomless loam of petty self-evident truths is an indispensable part of who we are. It adds up to what others see as American about us when we travel. And it is also, I submit, an invisible web that binds us as a people. It doesn’t make us agree, but it lets us understand what we’re disagreeing about, and that is what makes conversation possible—a capacity we must never relinquish.

The Widow’s Husband

The Widow’s Husband

In 1839, the British marched into Afghanistan, overthrew its king, and occupied Kabul. Three years later, the entire British community tried to flee Afghanistan over the Hindu Kush mountains, but only one man made it. The Widow’s Husband is a historical novel set against the backdrop of this First Anglo-Afghan War.

Other novels have been set against this historical background, but they have told the story from the British side. The Widow’s Husband is the first to tell it from the Afghan side. The protagonists are from the tiny village of Char Bagh: Ibrahim is the spiritually tormented headman, the Malang, a mysterious mystic, the headman’s nervous, djinn-haunted wife Soraya, and his charismatic sister-in-law, the widow Khadija.

The novel moves from the secluded world of Afghan peasant women—a world never before portrayed in commercial fiction—to the lush fortresses of Afghan rebel lords, and the labyrinth of Kabul’s Grand Bazaar, and those British compounds where, almost to the end, the chandeliers continued to burn and the memsahibs to host amateur theatricals as an Afghan insurgency kept mounting unnoticed outside the compound walls.  

What is a Malang?

The malang of Char Bagh is a pivotal figure in The Widow’s Husband. What is a malang? Muslims in and around Afghanistan believe that once in a great while, God plucks some simple soul out of the grooves of everyday life and transforms him into a living embodiment of devotion. When this happens, woe to the man’s wife and children, his friends and familiars, for a malang loses all interest in the comforts and entanglements of clan and tribe. If he was a farmer, his crops go untended. If he was a merchant, he just walks away from his store, never caring that thieves might plunder the merchandise. If in a crowded bazaar you see a ragged, even naked, man with disheveled thickets of unkempt hair muttering incoherently to himself, you can be pretty sure you are looking at a malang. If you feel insecure about your standing with God Almighty, this is your chance to make up ground. You can touch the malang, you can seek his blessing; perhaps get an amulet from him. A malang will never go hungry so long as there are slackards in the world who need to make up for their spiritual shortcomings with redemptive charity. A malang is both like and unlike those revered Islamic mystics known as Sufi sheikhs. As the modern-day Sufi Abdul Hayy puts it: both are intoxicated by God, but the Sufi sheikh is someone who can hold his liquor.


The History

In the 1830s, the British were consolidating their empire in India. Russia, meanwhile, was expanding south. Afghanistan lay between these two forces like a nut in a nutcracker. The British intervention began after Russian envoy appeared at the Afghan court, seeking trade agreements. The British ordered the king of Afghanistan to expel him and receive no further emissaries from the Czar. When king Dost Mohammed Khan balked at taking such orders, the British decided on regime change. They found Afghanistan easy to conquer—it took mere weeks. “The Dost,” as the British called him, fled north. A compliant new king, Shah Shuja, took the throne. The “forward policy” as the British called it, seemed successful. But when the British puppet lost control of his country, the British found themselves facing a mish-mash of tribal armies and no clear enemy to fight, much less any single leader with whom to negotiate.


Historical Figures

The central characters in The Widow’s Husband are fictional but some real historical figures appear in these pages.

Alexander Burnes was the British spy chief in Kabul. As a young man, Burnes traveled through central Asia and wrote a book about it. He charged with rooting out conspiracies and foiling Russian agents in the country. He spoke local languages, affected Afghan dress, and considered himself quite an Afghan expert. On November 1, 1841, he assured the governor of India that Afghanistan was entirely pacified. “All is quiet from Dar to Bathsheba,” he wrote. Three days later, a mob dragged him out of his house and killed him.

William Hay Macnaghten headed up the mission in Kabul as Her Majesty’s envoy. He was to install the British puppet and consolidate his rule. Once the job was done he would be recalled. Burnes expected to succeed him and may have minimized the insurgency in order to hasten Macnaghten’s departure. After Burnes was assassinated, Macnaghten asked the Afghan chiefs to meet him and negotiate a gradual, orderly British withdrawal. A battle broke out at the meeting, and the chiefs killed and indeed beheaded Macnaghten.

Shah Shuja was one of many, many grandsons of the Afghan empire-builder Ahmad Shah Durrani, usually regarded as the founder of Afghanistan. In 1801, Shah Shuja attacked and blinded his own brother in order to seize the throne. He ruled until 1809 when he himself was toppled (by another brother) and fled to India. There he lived on a British pension until 1839, when the British brought him back to Kabul and put him on the throne again. He was assassinated in 1842, almost immediately after the British fled.


Wazir Akbar Khan , son of the ousted king, Dost Mohammed Khan. As the insurgency against Shah Shuja and his British sponsors mounted, young Wazir Akbar Khan emerged as a dashing hero among the Afghans. He led the attacks against the British in Kabul, but he was never the leader of a united Afghan force. After the British escaped the city, Akbar died in mysterious circumstances. His father may have had him poisoned, fearing his ambitions and his popularity.

Click here to buy


Praise for The Widow’s Husband

“… a lavishly detailed and unfailingly engrossing story of loyalty, custom, honor, and love… This is historical fiction at its page-turning best…”
–Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner

         Before the U.S. began its war on terror I had never given much thought to Afghanistan, thinking of it as the question to a Jeopardy answer: … And now, even more than when The Kite Runner was first published in 2003, Afghanistan is heavy on our minds. Afghanistan is not simply some sand-filled land in Far-Far-Away. It is a country rich in history and culture, a country that has often been the victim of invasion and conquer. In The Widow’s Husband, Tamim Ansary focuses on the 19th century British invasion of Afghanistan and the chaotic, unsettling results upon the Afghan people … The Widow’s Husband is a study in how easily different cultures can misunderstand each other and how easily those misunderstandings can turn to violence…
There are many strengths in this novel. Ansary switches between the voices of the Afghans and the British in a way where you can hear the cadence of each accent in your head as you read the words on the page. The characters, particularly Ibrahim, Khadija, the malang, and Oxley, a British soldier, are fully realized. Ibrahim is a well-developed protagonist. He is a case of contradictions, on the one hand devoutly pious, a man who would rather read poetry or his holy book than fight a neighboring village over necessary water. On the other hand, he is surprisingly indifferent towards his own wife while harboring love, and lust, over his widowed sister-in-law. There is a certain realism, a poetic correctness in the ending, even if it was not the ending I wished for.
If you are interested in 19th century Afghanistan history, in British invasions during the Empire years, or you simply wish to read a story about love, yearning, and struggle in the face of adversity, you will enjoy The Widow’s Husband.
— Meredith Allard The Copperfield Review

“…kept me up later than I’d planned—I had to finish it! A fascinating immersion into 19th century Afghanistan, its village life and its invaders….”
–Charlie Varon, author of The People’s Violin and
Rush Limbaugh in Night School


One of a series of lithographs made in 1848 by Louis and Charles Haghe

West of Kabul, East of New York


An Afghan American Story


West of Kabul paperback“Growing up bicultural is like straddling a crack in the Earth, especially when the two cultures are as vastly disparate as America and Afghanistan. The memoir is an account of just such a life. My father was an Afghan who was sent to the United States to study in the 1930s. My mother was the girl he met and married there in Chicago, the first American woman to live in Afghanistan as an Afghan. I was born in Kabul in 1948, the second of three children, and we lived in Afghanistan until 1964. I was 16 when I won a scholarship to a high school in Colorado and came to this country to study. My mother, sister, and brother moved at the same time, but my father stayed behind in Afghanistan, and except for a brief stint as press attache at the Afghan embassy in Washington D.C., there he remained until he died.”

West of Kabul, East of New York depicts the world in which Ansary grew up, a complex private world of Afghan family life, one never seen by outsiders. Here he also tells the story of a journey to the Islamic world just as Khomeini’s minions took American embassy personnel hostage, and the world east of Morocco went up in flames. Finally, this is the story of the Afghan expatriates who came to America after the Soviet invasion of their country and formed a community sustained by the dream of returning to Afghanistan– a dream dashed, by the post-Soviet civil war that led at last to the rise of the Taliban.  This book was selected by San Francisco as its One City One Book selection in 2008. Earlier, it was similar honored by the cities of Waco, Texas and Orland, Illinois. It has served as a common-freshman-reading text in many colleges and universities including Tulane, Carleton, Temple, the University of Colorado (Denver), and the University of Arizona (Tucson).

The New York Times says…

In the weeks after Sept. 11, when the television screens were filled with the certainties and chiseled uncertainties of the talking heads, a round-featured and bespectacled head would occasionally pop up. It did not so much talk as question and remember. For those moments, Tamim Ansary delivered us from text into context, from crisis into history, from isolation into geography, from a worid shattered to one that, having lived through millennia of shatterings, stays mournfully round, and around… “West of Kabul, East of New York,” (is) a book that steadies our skittering compass. Pointing east and west it signals not galactic opposites but two ends of a needle we can hold in our hand … It speaks with modesty of tone and is all the more resonant for that reason; it searches by sifting. Its unforced findings are at times inconclusive, and glitter at times. … His book sees things we cannot make out, and need to.

Reviewed by Richard Eder


The Seattle Weekly says…

… I never encountered Ansary’s talking head during his moment in the spotlight. To judge from West of Kabul, East of New York, he must have disappointed interviewers looking for either grand generalities or emotional raw meat. Everything about the book is modest: its length, its structure, its tone. Ansary’s authorial voice is so unemphatic, so over-a-beer conversational that you’re surprised to find tears rising or rage beginning to choke you as you learn about the interminable geopolitical catastrophe that is the author’s birthplace…. Ansary’s strategy is as simple as it is rare. He speaks of the world and its grand events entirely through the spectrum of his own experience. He doesn’t lecture us on Afghan history; he tells us as he learned it, growing up among the poor but privileged half-Westernized elite of royal Kabul in the early years of the Cold War. He doesn’t analyze the Afghan clan system or the intricate patterns of class, wealth, and sex that underpin it. He introduces us to the whole, huge, turbulent Ansary family: poor, proud, poetry-spouting descendants of the first followers of the Prophet himself, surrounded by their innumerable wives and children and servants and poor relations … .West of Kabul, East of New York is one of those rare pieces of journalism–Rebecca West’s dispatches from Nuremberg come to mind, and John Hersey’s Hiroshima–that don’t just record history but make it.

Reviewed by Roger Downey

Buy This Book

West of Kabul, East of New York is also available as an audiobook in in CD, tape or down-loadable (MP3) formats. It’s available from Blackstone Audio, Amazon, and Listen to a sample here.


Esquire Magazine says…

A gently told memoir by the guy who on 9/12 wrote the e-mail that probably became the most forwarded e-mail ever. (I have no actual evidence to support this; call it a hunch.)  … Ansary, a child of two worlds, and one who feels not quite at home in either, refers to his family as “Americans with an asterisk.” His descriptions of his Afghan childhood are luxe and delicious — crammed with beautiful textiles and wondrous smells, bazaars, casbahs, compounds with courtyards, servants, strawberry patches, ragged mountains… The childhood, in short, of an aristocrat. . …  West of Kabul, East of New York is affable, good-natured, and in love with its country. The author’s profound, complicated homesickness burns across every page.

Reviewed by Adrienne Miller


The Capital Times, Madison, WI says…

I did not intend to read Tamim Ansary’s “West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Reflects on Islam and the West” from cover to cover… Like anyone who was paying attention in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I had read the poignant letter from Ansary, which circulated broadly on the Internet and argued well and wisely against the “bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone Age” attacks on Afghanistan… It was powerful stuff, to be sure. And it … can reasonably be argued that any sensitivity the United States and other Western governments showed Afghan civilians was in no small part a byproduct of Ansary’s efforts. But when “West of Kabul, East of New York” came across my desk, I do admit that I wondered whether Ansary had not already made his contribution to the discourse.

How wrong I was.

Ansary has as much to say about America as he does about Afghanistan.  “West of Kabul, East of New York” … is not a polemic of globalization or imperialism. ln fact, it is essentially an autobiography. Yet, in his exploration of the Afghanistan he knew as a youth and of the practice of Islam to which he was exposed there, he opens vast horizons of understanding.    It is impossible … to avoid feeling immense sorrow and a good deal of humility after considering Ansary’s review of the human costs that Afghans experienced when the great powers of the planet began to play violent war games on their nation’s soil. Perhaps most importantly, however, an honest reading of “West of Kabul, East of New York” provokes questions that have nothing to do with Afghanistan, Islam or geopolitical posturing. When Ansary writes about the sense of community and connection he knew as a child growing up within the family compound in Kabul … he conjures a world that is dramatically appealing. In a time when Americans are bombarded with entertainment, it is refreshing to read of a time and a place where, “instead of television, we had genealogy.”

Reviewed by John Nichols