West of Kabul, East of New York
An Afghan American Story
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.
Here I depict the world in which I grew up, a complex private world of Afghan family life, one never seen by outsiders. Here too I tell the story of moving to San Francisco, and then launching on a journey to the Islamic world, just as the Iranian revolution erupted, Khomeini’s minions took American embassy personnel hostage, and the world east of Morocco went up in flames. Here too I tell the story of Afghan expatriates in America after the Soviet invasion of their country, a community sustained by the dream of returning to Afghanistan– until the dream was dashed, by Soviet bombs, by a civil war that followed their departure, and finally by the rise of the Taliban. West of Kabul is my account of the struggle to reconcile two great civilizations and to find some point in the imagination where they might meet.
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.
Born and brought up an Afghan, he could tell of a country that was something other than a cause and a target. A longtime American, he could speak to a country that never thought much about anywhere else, until anywhere else flattened part of Manhattan. His college basketball coach, observing an oddly inflected movement or two, once demanded: “Where have you been all your life, Afghanistan?” Having thought to suggest the figurative moon or ultima Thule, the coach was taken aback to hear: “Yes.”
Ansary, a California writer and editor, has put this and much else into “West of Kabul, East of New York,” 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. Ansary loathes Osama bin Laden and fears what he stands for, something lucidly set out at the end. But it is part of himself that our bombs hit, as well. No windy feeling, this, but as homely as his reaction to a talk-show caller who suggested nuking:
“I saw my grandmother K’Koh, elfin soul of the Ansary family. Oh, she died long ago, but in my mind she died again that day, as I pictured the rainfall of bombs that would be coming.”
“West of Kabul” is Ansary’s effort to ponder and set down what he had improvised in those post-September television interviews: “The dissonance between the worid I am living in now and the world I left behind.”
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.
The beginning depicts Tamim’s fIrst 16 years, spent in the Afghanistan of the 1950s where his father, member of a distinguished family, was a poet and literature professor and later a government official. He’d met Tamim’s Finnish-American mother while studying in Chicago and taken her back to live in the Ansary family compound in Kabul.
The second part tells of Tamim’s move with his mother and sister to the United States in 1964, of his counterculture years at Reed College in Oregon, and of settling down as an editor in San Francisco, and marrying.
In the eariy I 980s the Iran revolution awoke memories of his Islamic childhood; he
took a kind of roots-seeking trip through North Africa and Turkey, talking to fundamentalists and painfully discovering how alien they were, not just to his adult American life but also to the Islam he remembered from prewar Afghanistan.
Perhaps it is the childhood memories that are most revealing; Ansary, who can be rather flat writing about the United States, makes the lost ways of the Ansary compound magically familiar. He evokes a virtually medieval Kabul: unpaved roads, little electricity, no running water. No garbage service because – ecologist’s dream -“we didn’t produce any garbage.”
He writes of religion unforcedly practiced: prayers by most, kneeling and facing Mecca-ward in the common room, while a few quietly occupied themselves otherwise.
It was a very different Islam, rigid and punitive, that he encountered later, in his travels. He writes suggestively and with alarmed understanding of the radical fundamentalists he talked to (among them his brother, now estranged). In the Taliban followers he sees a generation of displaced children, their zeal armed and instructed in the Pakistan refugee camps and untempered by the social context of the prewar Afghanistan they never knew.
It is not Islam that is the threat, he writes, but Islam deracinated by poverty, war, and social and economic displacement, and finding its strength and justification in a Manichaean view of history.
Once out of his teens, the half-American boy couldn’t wait to shake the venerable golden dust off his feet and get to the United States. He is firmly planted there, but in one respect he grows a little higher than the rest of us. 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.
… The first of the three parts of Ansary’s book ends with the family–sans father–departing for the U.S., permanently as it turned out. Fourteen years of Americanization, deracination, and happy countercultural living followed before Ansary ever met another Afghan or spoke a word of Farsi. Then a chance assignment from the left-wing Pacific News Service took him on an awful journey across North Africa that prepared him unwittingly to understand, as few Americans can, what motivates the radical Islamists who form the ranks of Palestine’s suicide squads, medievalizing fascists like the Taliban, and the mad but practical ideologues of Al Qaeda.
Among their uncounted number was and is Ansary’s younger brother. And it’s that agonizing connection that renders Ansary’s life, dead ends and all, ideal material to introduce previously immune Americans to how it feels to be a target of the world historical process. 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
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 Audible.com 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.) Tamim Ansary’s e-mail—the gist of which was “I’m from Afghanistan, and things are much more complex than you, in your freaked-out state, understand right now” — appears in the back of the book. “I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about ‘bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age,’” it begins. “When you think ‘Taliban,’ think ‘Nazis.’ When you think ‘Bin Laden,’ think ‘Hitler.’” You remember this e-mail.
Ansary comes at all this from a rather unique perspective. His mother was, in 1945, the first American woman in Kabul; his father was a “Volga-level” (as opposed to “Mercedes-level”) public official in Afghanistan. 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. When Ansary is an adolescent, his father accepts a job in America, moving the family, thus taking them away forever from Afghanistan. … 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. Indeed, before I picked up his book, I had thought that I had already read all that Ansary had to say that mattered.
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… He penned a letter that skillfully dismantled preconception after preconception until he finally got to the big one: “We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that’s been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They’re already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that…
It was powerful stuff, to be sure. And it had an impact. Because of the wide circulation of Ansary’s letter on the internet, and because of the ensuing television interviews he did, 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. And “West of Kabul, East of New York” is a book that ought to be placed next to Benjamin Barber’s “Jihad vs. McWorld” and Chalmers Johnson’s “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire” on the shelf of necessary reading for those who would try to understand the complex global circumstance in which America now finds itself.
Ansary’s book 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 take seriously those who portray Islam as an inherently threatening religion after reading Ansary’s warm reflections on the sights, the sounds and the tastes of his youth. The Islam Ansary recalls is nurturing, kind, humane and humanistic and radically distinct from the hard fundamentalism practiced by the Taliban, bin Laden or the current rulers of Saudi Arabia.
It is equally 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 “our group self was just as real as our individual selves, perhaps more so” – 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.”
“West of Kabul, East of New York” will be consigned by many to the growing stack of books about Afghanistan, Islam and all things Sept. 11. It does not belong there. It belongs to the broader library in which are considered the big questions about the price of progress in this perhaps too modern world.
Reviewed by John Nichols