Biography in Brief
I was born in 1948, in Kabul, Afghanistan. My father worked as a professor at Kabul University and my mother—the first American woman to marry an Afghan and live in Afghanistan—taught English at the country’s first girls’ schools. We Ansaries hailed from the village of Deh Yahya, about 20 miles from the city. Our ancestor Sa’duddin, an 18th century mystic, is buried near that village and his tomb attracts hundreds of Sufi devotees to this day. Our family also traces its ancestry further back, to a pair of Arab brothers who allegedly conquered Kabul for Islam in the 8th century. Their graves can still be seen on a hillside high above the city: two spooky 12-foot-long stone tombs, side-by-side, surrounded by weeds and tall grass that teems with feral cats and (some say) djinns.
In the mid-fifties, my family moved to the tiny government-built town of Lashkargah, in the country’s southwestern desert. Today, that area is the heart of the Talibinist insurgency. Back then, it was the nerve center for the country’s biggest American-funded development project, a vast complex of dams, canals, and experimental farms, which my father helped to run.
When I left Afghanistan in 1964, the country was still a tranquil backwater. I finished high school and college in the United States, then plunged into the late-sixties and post-sixties counterculture like a dog into surf. I put in a few years working for a collectively-owned-and-operated newspaper called the Portland Scribe and dreamed of building a new world, a dream which ( you may have noticed) came to nothing. Later, just as Khomeini was seizing power in Iran, I traveled in North Africa and Turkey, looking for Islam, and found Islamism instead. Unnerved and exhausted, I returned to San Francisco, married the love of my life, and settled into a quiet life of editing and writing children’s books, textbooks, fiction, magazine articles, and a column for the late, great Microsoft learning site Encarta.
Then came September 11, 2001. The day after those airplanes brought down the twin towers, an email I wrote to a few friends went viral on the Internet (it was the first anything to go viral on the Internet) and I found myself derailed from my previous career (whatever that was) into speaking for Afghanistan and trying to interpret the Islamic world for the West–because at the time there was no one else to do it. In my memoir West of Kabul, East of New York, I depicted how it was to grow up straddling these two vastly disparate cultures—Afghanistan and America. In 2008, I published Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Then The Widow’s Husband, a historical novel set in Afghanistan in 1841, and more recently Games Without Rules, the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan. (The title speaks for itself.)
I directed the San Francisco Writers Workshop for 22 years, stepping down in 2015. (The workshop was founded in 1946 and is still meeting every Tuesday evening at the Alley Cat Bookstore in San Francisco’s MissionDistrict. Learn more about the Workshop here. ) I offer a six-week memoir writing workshop limited to fibve participants at my home. I also teach sporadic six-week courses through the Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning, at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley. These courses have included:
- World History Through Islamic Eyes
- Learning, Teaching and Society: a look at issues in education
- The Apparatus of Democracy: how American democracy works–and doesn’t
- Hot Spots: a discussion of political hot spots in the Islamic world today
- Conspiracy Theory in Politics, History, and Society
Over the last ten years, I have spoken at over 100 venues; and I still speak, run workshops, and do residencies at colleges, high schools, book clubs, conferences, charity events, and other venues. For a list of topics I speak about and places I have spoken, please go to my Booking page, here.
I was a senior editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, I did newspaper editing at the Portland Scribe, I edited public relations material and reports for the Asia Foundation, I “provided website content” ( as the jargon has it) to Microsoft’s Encarta, I’ve revised and edited content for other websites, and I literally wrote the book on grammar and composition–twice. First, as an HBJ editor, I produced one level of the company’s massively successful HBJ Language. Then, some years later, for a series called Adventures Plus, published by Focused Learning, I wrote the Score Booster Handbook for Reading and Language Arts (the only grammar book that’ll make you laugh). Plus, in the course of many years of running the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop, I developed considerable prowess as a critiquemeister. Anything you can write, I can improve (unless you’re Tobias Wolf, America’s most perfect prose stylist). And it doesn’t have to be literature: website content, love letters, marketing reports, fake biographies of your company’s apocryphal “founder”–whatever you got: if you have the money and I have the time, I have the editing muscle. BUT: I donn’t doo proofreeding bekawz I;’m an abyzmal spler.