by Keith Taylor
From the May, 2002 issue
On September 12, 2001, Tamim Ansary, a freelance writer and editor from San Francisco, sent an e-mail message to the people in his electronic address book. An Afghan American, Ansary felt the need to separate his people from the terror they were now associated with. "It's not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity," he wrote. "They were the first victims of the perpetrators." His friends copied their friends, who copied more people, and within a matter of days Ansary's message had gone around the world. Because his e-mail message went to so many places and because the major media had so few sources to interview, Ansary had his small moment in the media sun, explaining Afghanistan between video clips of smoking and crumbling buildings.
And now Tamim Ansary has written West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story, a memoir about his life as the son of an Afghan father and an American mother. In it he describes the gentle protectiveness of Afghan family and clan relationships, and the creative cultural power of an Islam that is not a prod to holy war.
As a teenager Ansary came to America and made his life here. His elder sister completely abandoned her heritage, melting easily into a small Protestant town, even forgetting the language she grew up with. His younger brother became a devout Muslim, abandoning his American citizenship and moving to the Mideast to work for a religious publishing house. Eventually Ansary attempted to return to look for his father and his roots, only to be blocked by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After talking with a few Islamic extremists in North Africa and Turkey, he returned to his mother's country to start his own family. It was not until after September 11 that Ansary spent much time remembering his own past. Now he is able to cherish it, to lament the loss of that Afghan world,
even as he loves the life and the family he has created here.
A few years ago we were inundated with memoirs of personal pain and family tragedy. Many readers grew tired of the genre. But here is a memoir that I might almost call necessary at this time. Tamim Ansary, an Afghan American, a Muslim married to a Jew, has written a quiet but unforgettable book that reminds us that our national strength lies not in armies or technology but in our merged identities.
Tamim Ansary reads from West of Kabul, East of New York at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Thursday, May 9.
[Originally published in May, 2002.]
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