Between two worlds

Tamim Ansary delves for the meaning of 9/11 in his own life.


by Tamim Ansary (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $22) University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400 7 p.m. Thurs., May 16

ON SEPT. 12 of last year, a San Franciscan named Tamim Ansary was driving to work as talk-radio callers demanded, among other things, a nuclear assault on Afghanistan in retaliation for the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Ansary was as shocked and aggrieved by the event as any other American, but his perspective was a little different. Though Ansary was born in Afghanistan and lived there until his late teens, he had spent most of his subsequent 35 years avoiding his so-called heritage. But listening to the maenads on his car radio shrieking for revenge, he discovered that he had something himself that needed saying.

"Too shy" to call the show, he vented quietly, by way of an e-mail to a few personal friends. Some of those friends forwarded his 700-word free-verse rant to further friends. Four days after pressing the send button, Ansary found himself a celebrity, a spokesperson, an expert on Afghan matters, "putting World News Tonight on hold to talk to Oprah's people."

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.

ONE OF THE WIVES was different. While studying at the University of Illinois—one of the first Afghanis to do so—Ansary's father met and married a left-wing feminist Finnish-American girl and took her home to the mud-walled family compound in Kabul. She didn't like it there, but she stuck. So young Tamim grew up in two mental worlds at once—three, counting the CIA-sponsored school he attended when his father was assigned to a grandiose, fruitless engineering project to turn a raging salt desert into the Afghan equivalent of the Imperial Valley of California.

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.

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