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If you have an e-mail account--and if you're reading this, you probably do--you're likely to have received an e-mail a few days after 9-11 that purported to be written by an Afghani-American, Tamim Ansary.  A moving plea for Americans to try to understand the plight of the people of Afghanistan, it began as follows :

    I've been hearing a lot of talk about "bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age." Ronn Owens, on San Francisco's KGO Talk Radio,
    conceded today that this would mean killing innocent people, people who had nothing to do with this atrocity, but "we're at war, we have
    to accept collateral damage. What else can we do?" Minutes later I heard some TV pundit discussing whether we "have the belly to do
    what must be done."

    And I thought about the issues being raised especially hard because I am from Afghanistan, and even though I've lived in the United States
    for 35 years I've never lost track of what's going on there. So I want to tell anyone who will listen how it all looks from where I'm standing.

    I speak as one who hates the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. There is no doubt in my mind that these people were responsible for the atrocity
    in New York. I agree that something must be done about those monsters.

    But the Taliban and bin Laden are not Afghanistan. They're not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant
    psychotics who took over Afghanistan in 1997. Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan. When you think Taliban, think Nazis.
    When you think bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think "the people of Afghanistan" think "the Jews in the concentration camps."
    It's not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators. They would exult
    if someone would come in there, take out the Taliban and clear out the rats' nest of international thugs holed up in their country.

    Some say, why don't the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is, they're starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering.
    A few years ago, the United Nations estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan -- a country with no economy,
    no food. There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows alive in mass graves. The soil is littered with land
    mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets. These are a few of the reasons why the Afghan people have not overthrown the Taliban.

It's impossible to measure how many people this missive reached or the effect it had upon American opinion.  It seems fair to say though that it did serve to demonize the Taliban (deservedly so) and helped Americans to distinguish between the oppressive government and the down trodden common people of Afghanistan.  Perhaps most importantly, at a time when it might have been easy for an angry and frightened nation to take out its fury on its own Muslim population, this message showed that Muslim Americans were just as horrified by what had been done in the name of Islam as anyone else.  At a moment when the visceral American reaction was inevitably to see Muslims as profoundly "other", the e-mail was a reminder that no matter how different some aspects of their culture, Islamic immigrants were, and are, Americans too.

In this memoir, Tamim Ansary tells the story of growing up in Afghanistan and of the culture shock he endured moving from a traditional Muslim culture to modern America.  Improbably enough, Mr. Ansary's mother was American--his parents may have been the first Afghan man and American woman ever to marry.  His father was a government official, so the family was reasonably well off by Afghani standards, living in comfortable houses in Kabul and sending the kids to good schools, but they were still very much connected to the customs and rhythms of ancient Afghanistan, a way of life that is dominated by the extended family, the clan, and Islam.  Mr. Ansary's depiction of this world he grew up in is, I think, the most useful part of the book.  He moves Muslim life beyond the caricatured way in which we currently perceive it, with its angry mullahs and its suicide bombers, and reveals a very appealing face of Islam, in which the aspiration is to peace and justice and where the communality and regularity of  the daily prayers are more important than anti-Zionism and anti-Westernism.  The Afghanistan of his childhood featured an Islam that still defined itself and was sufficient, rather than measuring itself against the West and failing the test.

At age sixteen, Mr. Ansary left Afghanistan for high school in America and has lived here ever since.  He became a writer and, oddly enough, a part of West Coast counterculture.  But when his brother, Riaz, became something of a Muslim extremist himself, Mr. Ansary undertook a long journey through the Islamic world, just as it was being radicalized in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution.  The middle portion of the book describes his experiences in this transformed world and is futile attempt to return to his occupied homeland.  He found, traveling mainly from Northern Africa to Turkey an Islamic world that was increasing focussed not just on the comforting and familiar Muslim traditions and observances, but on the strict observance of sharia:

    'The sharia,' I said. 'Yes, that's what people have trouble with.  It seems like such a harsh legal code.  The cutting off of hands--'

    'You have to understand that the sharia is much more than a legal system,' he said, interrupting me.  'All the elements of the sharia--the rules
    of inheritance, the punishments set down for different crimes, the proscriptions about food and dress and all the rest of it--are like markers.
    They show where the road is.  That's what sharia means--it is the way.  The rules are not restrictive, as people think, because within the sharia,
    a Muslim is free.  So long as the people of a community stay on the road, they progress toward the light.  When they stray from the road,
    that's when they get into brambles and thorns.'

Confronted by this much more legalistic and authoritarian form of Islamic life, Mr. Ansary realized that there was no longer any place for him in the East and he returned to the West for good, becoming "Tamim Ansary, American guy".

Or so he thought, but then the events of last September intervened, and he found himself caught between his native and his adopted lands and between two cultures in conflict.  His email expressed some of his angst over the dilemma, this book--though not always astute in its analyses of situations; rather elliptical, even opaque at times, in its storytelling; and not particularly distinguished in terms of style--further adds to our understanding of what it must be like to be caught between Islam and America.  As Mr. Ansary says :

    Growing up bicultural is like straddling a crack in the earth.

Whether intentional or not, this seeming metaphor cuts awfully close to the reality of September 11th, when the earth swallowed the Trade Centers, but it also captures the sense of how this outrage divided the soul of Mr. Ansary and folks like him (or revealed the divides that already existed).  There's more than enough anguish to go around in the wake of that awful day, and many people were affected much more directly than Mr. Ansary--specifically the dead and those they left behind--but West of Kabul is an important reminder that many of our fellow citizens were affected in a unique way, as one culture they love suffered grievous harm at the hands of another culture they love.  Perhaps they can also serve as a unique source of healing as we try to close the divide between the two.  At the very least, they can teach each culture something about the other, and about the good they see in each.


Grade: (B)


Tamim Ansary Links:

    WAR WILL NOT END TERRORISM: Reducing functioning societies to anarchy by destroying their infrastructure and killing great numbers of their citizens is likely to increase whatever legacy of grudge and grievance is already in place. (Tamim Ansary, AlterNet)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : West of Kabul, East of New York (Written Voices)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of West of Kabul
    -EMAIL : An Afghan-American speaks : You can't bomb us back into the Stone Age. We're already there. But you can start a new world war, and that's exactly what Osama bin Laden wants. (Tamim Ansary, Sept. 14, 2001, Salon)
    -EMAIL :   Bomb Afghanistan to Stone Age? : It's Been Done (Tamim Ansary, Published on Wednesday, September 19, 2001 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune)
    -URBAN LEGEND? :  Claim:   A writer named Tamim Ansary penned an essay from the perspective of an Afghan-American.  Status:   True.
 Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2001] (
    -PROFILE : Afghanistan on His Mind (Bob Minzesheimer,  4/10/02, USA Today)
    -PROFILE : Author spans American, Afghan gap (Heather Knight, Chronicle)
    -ARCHIVES : "tamim ansary" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "tamim ansary" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of West of Kabul, East of New York (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW : of West of Kabul (Richard Eder, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of West of Kabul (Gelareh Asayesh,Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of West of Kabul (Joanna Smith Rakoff, Village Voice)

    -REVIEW: of 'The Lion's Grave: Dispatches From Afghanistan' By Jon Lee Anderson (Claire Splan, SF Chronicle)
    The Kabul Express: In the sixties and seventies it was the hippie trail that brought foreigners to Afghanistan. Two decades of war and terror later, Kabul is a nonstop rave of C-130s, NGOs, soldiers, and spooky nation-builders. The freaks are back on Chicken Street—where everything old is new again. (Patrick Symmes, December 2003, Outside Magazine)