Biography in Brief
I am a writer, lecturer, editor, and teacher based in San Francisco. I direct the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop, teach sporadically through the Osher Institute, offer writing private, intensive limited-enrollment memoir writing workshops, and write fiction and nonfiction about Afghanistan, Islam-and-the-West, democracy, education, history, current events, social issues, my cat, and other topics as they come up.
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 post-sixties counterculture like a dog into surf. I worked for a collectively-owned 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, 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. Last year, I published Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, and more recently The Widow’s Husband, a historical novel set in Afghanistan in 1841.
The San Francisco Writers Workshop, which I direct, is a 65-year-old writers group that meets in the (fabulous) Meridian Art Gallery on Tuesday evenings. Learn more about the Workshop here. I offer a six-week memoir writing workshop limited to six 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 marketing 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 grammer and composition–twice: as an HBJ editor, I produced one level of the company’s massively succesful HBJ Language and then, 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, after years of running the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop, I have 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.
- West of Kabul, East of New York, a memoir. This book was selected as San Francisco’s One City One Book pick for 2008. It has also been selected as common freshman reading by colleges and universities ranging from Carleton, Tulane and Temple to College of Alameda and Houston Community College.
- Games Without Rules, the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan, a history. Published in November 2012, this book has been nominated for 2013 Northern California Book Award in the nonfiction category.
- Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, a history. This book won the Northern California Book Award for Best General Nonfiction of 2009, and has been or is being translated into nine langauges including Russian, Dutch, Indonesian, Korean, and Italian.
- The Widow’s Husband, a historical novel. The story is set in Afghanistan in 1841, against the backdrio of the first Afghan-British War. It is now available at all online bookstores and, in San Francisco, at Booksmith in the Haight, Bird and Beckett in Glenn Park, and Red Hill Books in Bernal Heights.
- Snapshots: This Afghan American Life (editor and published by me), an anthology. This collection of 15 personal essays or poems came out of workshops I ran with young Afghan American writers in California. The book has sold out, but used copies may still be found on Amazon, and another printing may be coming.
- Holiday Histories, a series of books at the 2nd grade reading level, uses holidays such as Labor Day, Martin Luther King Day, and Memorial Day to introduce young readers to important pieces of history–such as the Industrial Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil War.
- Native Americans, a ten-book series at the 4th grade reading level, introduces young readers to the culture and history of various indigenous peoples of North America.
- Cool Collections: a six-book series for first graders about things they might collect, is actually a sneaky way of teaching them how to classify and categorize, two critical thinking skills essential to reading comprehension.
- Just Imagine: a high-interest/low-readability series for teenagers reading at the 4th-5th grade level. My books for this series include such (nonfiction) thrillers as Creepy Creatures, Crimebusters, Mysterious Places, and History’s Mysteries. Collect ‘em all!