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Through the eyes of an Afghan-American

Tamim Ansary is 'West of Kabul, East of New York'

Tamim Ansary
Tamim Ansary  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- On September 12, 2001, Tamim Ansary was driving around San Francisco and listening to radio talk shows. With emotions running high in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks the day before, the conversation was less educated comment than ugly invective, with people demanding Afghanistan -- base of al Qaeda and the terrorist-harboring Taliban government -- be bombed back to the Stone Age.

Ansary went home and wrote a plaintive, emotional e-mail. "Trouble is, that's been done. The Soviets took care of it already," he wrote about bombing Afghanistan.

"Make the Afghans suffer? They're already suffering," he continued. "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."

He sent the note to a few friends. The next thing he knew, he was hearing from people halfway across the world. Strangers called his house. The networks got in touch. Ansary, a columnist for Encarta, had struck a nerve.

"People had no idea Afghanistan had been so trampled," he says in a phone interview from San Francisco. "And so many came to me and asked, 'Is this a hoax?' "

Ansary, 54, found himself a spokesman for all things Afghan. A somewhat unwilling spokesman, however, because even though he grew up in Afghanistan, his mother was American, and he has lived in the United States for more than 30 years. He has poured his bicultural story into a new book, "West of Kabul, East of New York" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

"Because I grew up bicultural, I've been able to ponder that theme throughout my life," he says. "Because of a historical accident, I couldn't help but focus on growing up with a foot in two different worlds."

Tightly knit families

The first world was that of Kabul in the 1950s and '60s, a city Ansary describes as having "made it to the 20th century, but just barely." (Cities such as Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif "were living in the fifteenth century or so.") His father was a college professor who had shocked his family -- and the Afghan government, which had paid for his U.S. education -- by coming home with an American bride.

Ansary's family lived in a newly opened quarter of the city in a compound consisting of a main house in a yard and several buildings along a nine-foot wall, an updated, but fairly traditional, way for Afghan families to live.

Tightly knit families

The clan, like most Afghan families, was tightly knit. People spent time with each other, telling stories, teaching, learning, sharing the same space.

It's that warmth that descriptions of Afghanistan often miss, says Ansary.

"I do think that my book gives a picture that most people don't have," he says. "[I say], here's how we used to live. Here's how the texture of life was different."

When Ansary was a teen-ager, his family moved to the United States. He became a student in Colorado; his father took a job at the Afghan Embassy in Washington. But when the Afghan government underwent a change, his father was ordered to come home. "In the end," Ansary writes, "he chose the larger family," and returned to Kabul.

Ansary and the rest of his family coped in different ways. He became part of the counterculture, sharing a house in San Francisco with several roommates, before settling down as a free-lance writer and marrying a Jewish woman. (He and his wife consider themselves secular.)

His older sister married a business professor and taught theater at a small Southern college. His younger brother became a fundamentalist Muslim and moved to Pakistan. His mother found a job teaching elementary school in the Washington area.

Ansary's father, who fell from favor as new governments took over Afghanistan, muddled through and died in 1982.

'Optimism is a medicine in itself'

Ansary tried to return to Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979, but the closest he got was the border with Pakistan. He made the trip again about three months ago to distribute supplies with the American Friends Service Committee, and was struck by the changes in the country.

He visited four camps. The first dated back to the late '70s, and though it was "still terrible, it was still a town. It had a semblance of life," he says. "It had the Afghan courtesies and it was filled with children."

But as the camps got newer, he says, they became rawer and filled with more misery. He'd see teen-agers with nothing to do and nowhere to go, a classic breeding ground for trouble. Refugee camps are "defined as 'not home,' so more of life is meaningless," he says. And at the final camp, a mere six months old, he met a little boy who'd lost both parents and contracted malaria.

"He asked me, 'What did you bring us?' and I said blankets," Ansary recalls. "By then, the sun was already too hot. He said, 'I hope you brought paper and pencils.' It was a sad experience."

He still has hope, however. The invasion of Afghanistan that drove out the Taliban has had the effect of opening Westerners' eyes to the country, he says. They realize the country isn't a backward graveyard, but a place that once had structure and society. "There was an ancient culture there, and it still exists," he says.

Moreover, although he's concerned with Afghanistan falling victim to anarchy -- as it did after the Soviets were forced out -- "there's a chance it won't happen now," he says. "If it can be negotiated properly, the interim government has a chance to establish order. Optimism is a medicine in itself."

The reaction to "West of Kabul, East of New York" has made Ansary optimistic as well. Word has been positive, he says, and he's glad to tell people his story. The next step for him, he says, is to keep writing.

"One door that I'm wanting to open," he says, "is to not write only about Afghanistan. I'd like to write about all sorts of things."


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