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.”
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
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.) … 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