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.

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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

Previous Engagements


Selected Previous Engagements


Television appearances

  • Oprah Winfrey Show
  • Bill Moyers, In Conversation with
  • KTLA, Los Angeles
  • KRON, San Francisco
  • Al Jazeera, The Riz Kjhan Show
  • The News Hour with Jim Lehrer
  • Ariana TV
  • Noor TV

Radio Shows

  • The Michael Krasny show, KQED
  • The Ronn Owens Show, KGO
  • The Gene Burns Show, KGO
  • World History Through Islamic Eyes, a 6-week series on KALW
  • NPR stations around the country

Speaking Engagements

  • Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
  • Dartmouth University, Hanover, New Hampshire
  • Temple University, Philadelphia, PA
  • Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts
  • Reed College, Portland, Oregon
  • Albion College, Albion, Michigan
  • Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesotta
  • Mills College, Oakland, CA
  • Baylor University, Waco Texas
  • Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington
  • University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
  • University of California, Santa Cruz, CA
  • University of Colorado, Denver, Colorado
  • University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
  • U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, Hurlburt Field, FL
  • California State University, Hayward, CA
  • Sonoma State University, Sonoma, CA
  • Albertus Magnus College, New Haven, Connecticut
  • Cy-Fair College, Cypress, Texas
  • Ferrum College, Ferrum, West Virginia
  • LaGuardia Community College (CUNY), New York, NY
  • College of Alameda, Alameda, CA
  • Flathead Valley Community College, Kalispell, Montana
  • Houston Community College, Houston, Texas
  • Canada College, Redwood City,  CA
  • Lee College, Baytown, Texas
  • McLennan Community College, Waco, TX
  • Paradise Valley Community College, Phoenix, AZ
  • San Francisco City College, San Francisco
  • Union College, Barbourville, Kentucky
  • Berkeley High School, Berkeley, CA
  • Lick Wilmerding High School, San Francisco, CA
  • The Lovett School, Atlanta, GA
  • The Urban School, San Francisco, CA
  • Colorado Rocky Mountain School, Carbondale, Colorado
  • Washington High School, San Francisco, CA
  • Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival, Carmel, CA
  • Colorado Association of Teachers of Foreign Languages 
  • The Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
  • World Affairs Council of San Francisco, CA
  • World Affairs Council, Houston, TX
  • Commonwealth Club of Northern California
  • Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California
  • Juniper Creek Writers Conference, Carson City, NV
  • Books by the Bay, San Francisco, CA
  • Afghan Public Library Foundation, San Jose, CA
  • Los Angeles Public Library, Los Angeles
  • Mechanics Institute Library, San Francisco, CA
  • San Francisco Library, various branches
  • Berkeley Public Library, Berkeley, CA
  • Larkspur Library, Larkspur, CA
  • Pleasanton Public Library, Pleasanton, , CA
  • Redwood City Libraries
  • Foster City Library, Foster City, CA
  • Litquake, San Francisco, CA
  • Porchlight Storytelling Series, San Francisco, CA
  • Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, Los Angeles, CA
  • New Hampshire Humanities Council, Manchester, New Hampshire
  • Osher Institute, SF State University, San Francisco, CA
  • Osher Institute, U. C. Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
  • Partnership for Education of Children in Afghanistan, St Paul, MN
  • Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, Jackson, MS
  • World Affairs Council of San Francisco
  • Sequoia Senior Center, San Francisco, CA
  • San Francisco State Poetry Center, San Francisco, CA
  • Stanford University Student Assocation, Palo Alto, CA  
  • Harvard University Club, San Francisco, CA
  • Stanford Women’s Club, San Francisco. CA

Lecture Topics

Selected Lecture Topics


World History: an Alternative Story

World history as commonly taught in Western schools traces a development from Mesopotamia and Egypt, through Greece and Rome, and then to the Dark Ages, which is followed by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern democratic nations. I offer an alternative global storyline: a picture of world history as it looks if you put the Islamic world at the center.  From this perspective, the successor to Mesopotamia was Persia, the Dark Ages were the brighter ages, and the Crusades and the Mongol invasions were pivotal turning points. This talk explores the relativity of historical narratives and proposes a world historical story from a truly global perspective, a theme explored (but not exhausted) in my book Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.


Conquering Afghanistan

Afghanistan is impossible to conquer, says conventional wisdom.  Actually, Afghanistan haas been conquered many times. It’s just that the succesful conquerors are now called Afghans. What is difficult, it seems, is conquering Afghanistan and holding it from somewhere else.  Four times in the last 180 years (or five, depending on what you’re counting) a mighty global power has undertaken this project.  The first three attempts failed and the fourth one may be in the process of foundering now. Curiously enough, the failed conquerors failed in the same way and for the same reasons. The United States failed to learn from the Soviets, the Soviets from the British, and the British from themselves! Yes, they made essentially the same mistakes in Afghanistan twice within forty years. What accounts for this amnesia? I probe this question by telling the story of the failed British and Soviet attempts to conquer Afghanistan and comparing them to the US/NATO experience of these last ten years.


Writing Fiction, Writing Memoir

This workshop and discussion introduces writers and writing students to the differences, similarities, and interrelationships between writing fiction and writing memoir, with a focus on strategies for discovering the story arc in real experiences and for tapping the techniques of narrative fiction to bring memoir vividly to life. I draw upon understandings I have developed during my sixteen years (and counting) of running the 65-year-old San Francisco Writer’s Workshop.


Living in Two Worlds: an Afghan-American Life

What was it like to grow up in Afghanistan with one foot already in America? I contrast life in a highly conservative Islamic society to that in post-modern United States and explore, along the way, such thorny topics as the chaderi (or “burqa”) and the position of women in Islamic society. Stories from a bi-cultural childhood illuminate how and why the worldview of Afghans typically differs from that of Americans. This discussion elaborates on themes touched upon in my critically-acclaimed memoir, West of Kabul, East of New York.


Why Afghanistan Is Difficult: Prospects and Problems

I move from a long view of Afghanistan in the context of world history to the destruction of Afghanistan in recent decades, to my own experiences in Afghanistan after the events of September 11, and finally to the current U.S. involvement in this country. In this talk, I illuminate the orgins of the Taliban and their evolution into current times, the social turmoil in the country now, and the implications of events in Afghanistan for Pakistan, Iran, the former Soviet Republics, the broader region, and, most importantly, the people of the United States.


Translation and Understanding “The Other”

This lecture uses poetry translation as a frame for examining the difficulty of communication across any border—cultural, historical, or personal. No message can be mapped directly from one language to another: because of the countless assumptions and understandings wedding any message to its cultural context, switching languages entails switching frameworks. Yet understanding how an entire cultural framework is involved in every word and phrase of a language also points toward ways that the West can comprehend the world as experienced by the East, that people of the twenty-first century can comprehend the world experienced by people of the past, that we as individuals can comprehend the world as seen by any other person.


Why Islam Has Trouble with Western Modernism

After a look at the historical unfolding of Islam in its first millenium, I explore the reformist currents of the last two centuries and the challenge that Islamic thinkers face in formulating a theology relevant to industrial modernism and yet true to Islamic traditions.  This talk introduces the ideas of Muslim modernists such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Sir Syed Ahmad, and Mohammed Abduh as well as the currents of thought leading to the Jihadist movements of today.  I also look at what would be involved doctrinally in shaping a modernist Islamic theology.


Ask Tamim


Betty H. asks:

Why is New York City called The Big Apple?   

New York City is called The Big Apple because it sounds so much cooler than Fun City, the dorky nickname used in all the promotional literature put out by the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau prior to the 1970s. In that decade the bureau revamped its publications, in part because the tourist industry seemed to be slumping. Someone spotted the term Fun City in the pamphlets and said, “Hey, there’s our problem right there.” (Fun City sounds exactly like something a publicity department would invent.) A search was launched for a new nickname, and that’s when someone dug up Big Apple. The term was coined in the 1920s by African American musicians who made their living moving from town to town, mostly playing little clubs and dives. Those musicians had a saying: “There are many apples on the tree, but when you pick New York City you picked the Big Apple.” That nickname was largely forgotten until the New York City Convention & Visitors Bureau dug it up and made it popular again. (Incidentally, Sacramento, California, in a moment of self-deprecation, followed suit by promoting for itself the nickname the Big Tomato. No word yet on whether any cities will be nicknaming themselves the Large Cucumber, the Plump Rice Grain, but I’ve heard Seattle is thinking of adopting the nickname the Grande Latte.   


Curious Kelley asks:


I have a friend who believes that Neil Armstrong never walked on the Moon. He says the whole thing was a hoax set up by NASA and produced in a Hollywood studio. He has two main reasons for his opinion. First: The lighting on the Space Craft was too good–every word across the entire space shuttle was perfectly legible, almost as if it was spotlighted. Two, the American flag was blowing in the wind. What wind? There is no wind on the moon. Is my friend right? Have I been gullible all these years?   

Frankly, your friend’s reasons don’t impress me. I would expect light to look different on the Moon than it does on Earth, because the Moon has no atmosphere to soften or diffuse it. With no atmospheric distortion, the letters on the spacecraft would look sharper and clearer than anything filmed on Earth. As for the flag, I assume NASA supplied Armstrong with a flag made of some stiff material that would hold its shape, so that when he stepped onto the Moon, the stars and stripes would show. I mean, let’s face it–those guys were rocket scientists. If the Moon shot were faked, think how many people would have had to have been in on the conspiracy. (Watch the credits next time you see a film that has a lot of special effects.) Think about what a great story this would be for some journalist. Then calculate how many journalists are crawling around out there, looking for a story. Then consider how much the tabloids might pay for such a story. Do you mean to tell me that in all these 30-something years, for that kind of money, no one has spilled the beans? People walking on the Moon I can believe, but this other idea? No way am I that gullible!   


Len M. asks:


If you’re going in and out of a room, is it more cost-efficient to flip the light switch on and off or to leave the light on until you’re done with that room?   

Computing energy efficiency is always a tricky business because you have to take hidden costs into account. Here, you’d have to take into account the fact that a regular light bulb wears out faster if you keep switching it on and off. Even so, according to my power company, it’s more cost-effective to turn a light off when you leave a room if you’re going to be gone any longer than a minute. I don’t know how this computation will change after all our lightbulbs are that LED kind, which use about 2% of the wattage of the old, incandescent kind that will no longer be sold after 2012. I think the minute might be extended to a couple of hours at that point, because the cost of making those light bulbs—depending as they will on precious rare-earth elements—will be so much higher than the cost of running them.   


Brenda R. asks:

How much is a cow worth? I was driving past a meadow one day, I saw thirty cows, and there was no one guarding them. Anyone could have taken one.  How many dollars are thirty cows worth?      

Well, Brenda, the answer to your question depends on the market.  In a bear market, a cow isn’t worth anything, because a cow isn’t a bear.  In a bull market, you can get $2,400 or more for your animal, provided your animal is a bull. In the less well-known cow-market, it’s up to $2,000 for a beef cow but $500 -$800 tops for a dairy cow: go figger.            

This animal sells for $3,000.
This one? A mere $800.


Incidentally, I was talking to a woman in Washington State recently who raises rodeo horses.  How much does one of them sell for, I asked.  “Oh,” she said, “anywhere from 15 to 25 thousand for a good one. ” Think about that next time you driving past a corral with 30 radio horses browsing around, munching on grass!    

Ann L. asks:
Why are bluejays blue? Aren’t they eating the same worms and bugs as sparrows? Also, why do many birds have such bright plumage? Don’t the bright colors make them easier for predators to spot? If that’s so, how come evolution hasn’t weeded out this trait? 

Sparrows don’t look blue because “you look like what you eat” isn’t a reliable rule in nature.   If it were, cows would look green and babies chalk-white. Also, wolves would like sheep and patrons of Carl’s Jr. like messy hamburgers. As for the bright plumage, only the males have those adornments in most species. The females generally have boring feathers that make them blend in with the shrubbery. The thing is, the bottom line in evolution by natural selectionis the passing on of ones genes.  So it’s not just about surviving predators; it’s also about getting more chances to mate. Bright feathers make the males easier for predators to spot, but it also gets them noticed mor easily by the females. And that’s important because in nature, females can get by with cunning and strength, but for males, it’s a jungle out there, and in the long run only the pretty survive.

Nine Underrated Inventions

The Nine Most Underrated Inventions


“Great inventions.”

Typically that phrase refers to big ticket items. One thinks of dazzling intellectual breakthroughs:  the telescope, the steam engine, the airplane, the wheel…

And those were all tremendous, of course.

But often, it’s some mundane little device that changes history. It might be no more than a slight improvement on some earlier invention. If it intersects with a historical moment, it can become a pivot. Then, like the lever that lifts the elephant, it produces consequences far out of proportion to the ingenuity of the thing itself.

I’ve drawn up a list of nine such items. There might be better examples, but any such list illustrates, I think, the way our lives are interwoven (almost creepily) with the things we make.

The Chariot  The wheel was great. The cart followed from the wheel and it was great too. But the chariot? That’s just a two-wheeled cart. How hard was it to think of four minus two? And how consequential could that have been? The fact is, the chariot had an immense effect on history. Here’s how. In ancient times, the world of farms, towns, cities, workshops and governments—the “civilized world” —was a belt of territory stretching from the Indus River to Asia Minor. These folks had the cart, which is useful mainly for going straight: it can’t turn quickly. North of the civilized belt lived a nomadic people, now remembered as the Indo-Europeans. They invented the chariot, which was really just a basket slung between two big wheels, but it was light enough for a horse to pull, and it could pivot as no four-wheeled vehicle could. The horse-drawn chariot gave the Indo-Europeans a crucial military advantage over the sedentary farmers. It keyed their expansion into India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Italy, where they overwhelmed and replaced the original inhabitants. That’s why English, French, Italian, Greek, Persian, Hindi, and so many other tongues all belong to the same group, the Indo-European family of languages. Most of us from America to India are descended from those nomads.

Concrete Some might say concrete wasn’t an invention because it already existed in nature. That’s like saying the airplane wasn’t an invention because birds could already fly. The Romans figured out how to make artificial concrete by mixing lime, sand, and bits of broken rock with a certain pink volcanic ash. Then they reinforced it with bronze rods. This invention had a precious property: it set and hardened when wet—even under water. Reinforced concrete could span distances, as bricks and stones never could. Using concrete, Romans could build sea walls to protect coastal towns. They could bridge just about any waterway. Rome’s conquest of the world and its ability to hold its conquests together rested largely on its ability to build walls, bridges, roads, aqueducts, and monumental buildings. Concrete was the key to all that. The rule of law is often called Rome’s greatest contribution to civilization, and maybe so, but concrete has to come in a close second.

Horse Collar In medieval Europe, the collar that attached an animal to a plow had flat straps that pulled across the animal’s chest. Because of the way a horse is built, these straps pressed against the horse’s jugular vein, rendered it incapable of pulling a plow. Farmers, therefore, used slow-moving oxen. Then someone invented a collar with softer straps that distributed the weight a bit differently. This tiny innovation allowed the same familiar collar to be used on horses. Horses work roughly fifty percent faster than oxen. Using horses (and a slightly improved plow) peasant farmers could suddenly produce a surplus. A surplus gave them goods to trade at crossroads markets on weekends. Markets soon turned into towns. Towns meant some folks could give up farming and just make goods for sale. A proliferation of such goods meant some people could live purely by buying and selling. You see where this is leading—the horse collar played a pivotal role in ending the feudal system and launching the rise of Europe.

Longbow When people think of major military inventions, they usually think of the gun, which did key the European conquest and colonization of Africa and the Americas. But if you want to talk about a weapon that triggered the greatest historical change in the least amount of time, the longbow gets my vote. The longbow changed history on three specific days in 1346, 1356, and 1415. On those days, English and French armies clashed at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. Why was the longbow so important? Because it enabled leather-clad English commoners to defeat iron-clad French knights. Throughout medieval times, a European army consisted fundamentally of armored noblemen on armored horses. These living tanks personally won or lost battles, and that’s what made nobles noble. At Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, the French army had roughly three times as many knights as the English, but the English army had archers armed with a new kind of bow. It differed from the old kind of bow only in length. But that extra length gave it just enough power to shoot some hundred feet further and pierce armor. Just like that, the armored knight was finished as a significant element in war. From this time forward, power began shifting from the armored class to the moneyed class—which soon came to include merchants, manufacturers, and bankers.

Eyeglasses Reading glasses were invented in Italy about 1350 and eyeglasses that corrected near- and far-sightedness around 1450. Isn’t that just about when the Renaissance began? All right, this is pure speculation, but I know one thing. I have an affliction considered trivial today: I’m myopic. If I were living before eyeglasses, I would be considered blind. My job would be to sit by a road with a begging cup. Roughly 25% of the people in North America are nearsighted like me. I wonder how many potential writers, artists, scientists, inventors, philosophers, and the like never grew their talents because they lived before the invention of eyeglasses? How many seminal intellectual feats since the invention of eyeglasses were achieved by people who wore glasses?

Rotary Printing Press Johannes Gutenberg invented the flatbed printing press in 1450. His invention remained basically unchanged until 1827. That year, the steam powered rotary printing press was invented, which printed from a single continuous roll of paper. The best flatbed press could print about 125 pages an hour; the new device could do about 18,000. At the time, no one needed that many copies of anything that fast, but invention is the mother of necessity. In 1833, a New Yorker named Benjamin Day decided to print a newspaper so cheap that at least 10,000 people a day could afford it: he would profit on volume. But—what could he possibly put in a newspaper that 10,000 people a day would want to read? That’s when Day’s newspaper the Daily Sun (and soon a host of imitators) invented…news. Before this time, “news” was whatever gossip drifted past a person’s ear. Mass-newspapers, however, had to find events to report every day or they’d go broke. Spotting events of the greatest interest to the greatest number emerged as a skill. This was the first step toward mass culture, mass media, mass opinion, mass movements, and “the mass” in general.

Barbed Wire In 1870, the American Midwest teemed with wild cattle, which cowboys collected and herded to railroad stations to sell for meat and hides. The land was “open range,” belonging to no one: any herder could graze his cattle on any pasture. Branding kept herds private. Farmers tried to settle here, but they couldn’t fence out the cattle, wood being scarce and walls of sod being laborious to build. Then in 1874, barbed wire was invented: Joseph Glidden took out the basic patent, and by 1880, he was selling over 80 million pounds of barbed wire every year. “Devil’s wire” was cheap and easy to string and it quickly divided the open range into private plots. Farmers could then move in. By 1900, the entire Midwest was on its way to becoming the nation’s granary. Cowboys and the Old West had moved from the prairies into those deep crannies of the American psyche where myths are stored..

Carborundum Perhaps you’ve heard of carborundum. It’s an industrial abrasive consisting of silicon carbide. Okay, probably you haven’t heard of carborundum. Invented in 1893 by Edward Goodrich, this invention made possible the mass production of precision-ground interchangeable metal parts. You need carborundum to make machines used in a factories to make other complex machines. Most of us will never find a use for carborundum in our daily lives, but we wouldn’t have cars, cameras, or CAT-scan machines without it. That is why the United States Patent Office called carborundum one of twenty-two American inventions most responsible for the industrial age of the twentieth century.

Bakelite  All right, I’m cheating a little here. Few have heard of Bakelite, because Bakelite is no longer made. What we’re really talking about here is something bigger. Bakelite, invented in 1907, was the world’s first plastic. By the 1920s, it was everywhere. The invention of one plastic inspired the search for others. World War II gave intense impetus to this research. After the cataclysm, Bakelite gave way to Lucite, fiberglass, nylon, and many others. It’s all plastic, though, and plastic has two salient features. It can take any shape, and it never decomposes. It has therefore shaped, literally, the way our (designed) world looks, and it has magnified the waste disposal problem to a scale the ancients never imagined.

Traditionally a list like this has ten items, and I could go on. Consider the adhesive postage stamp. (It led to the concept of prepaid mail delivery.) Consider the electromagnet. (It led to the telegraph.) Consider the tin can. And then consider the aluminum one. And then consider the pop-top beer can.

Okay, maybe don’t consider that one.

Because here’s the thing, of course: the closer you come to the present, the larger small things loom. It gets ever harder to identify which inventions had the hugest impact on history—because less and less history lies downstream from the invention.

If I had to add one device from the last twenty years to my list, for example, I might pick the cell phone. There’s no telling what the consequences will be of a device that enables people to remain in touch while on the move. And of course, the cell phone quickly stopped being a phone. Just like the telegraph (once invented) it quickly expanded into a myriad subsidiary inventions that revolutionized communication. The operative phrase is “no telling.” That’s the thing about historically pivotal inventions: we can’t really know what they are—only what they were.