April 26, 2002

Straddling a Fault Line Between Islam and the West


In the weeks after Sept. 11, when the television screens were filled with the certainties and chiseled uncertainties of the talking heads invariably in upper case a round-featured and bespectacled head would occasionally pop up. It did not so much talk as question and remember: in lower case.

For those moments, Tamim Ansary delivered us from text into context, from crisis into history, from isolation into geography, from a world shattered to one that, having lived through millennia of shatterings, stays mournfully round, and around.

Born and brought up an Afghan, he could tell of a country that was something other than a cause and a target. A longtime American, he could speak to a country that never thought much about anywhere else, until anywhere else flattened part of Manhattan.

His college basketball coach, observing an oddly inflected movement or two, once demanded: "Where have you been all your life, Afghanistan?" Having thought to suggest the figurative moon or ultima Thule, the coach was taken aback to hear: "Yes."

Mr. Ansary, a California writer and editor, has put this and much else into "West of Kabul, East of New York," 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. Mr. Ansari loathes Osama bin Laden and fears what he stands for, something lucidly set out at the end. But it is part of himself that our bombs hit, as well. No windy feeling, this, but as homely as his reaction to a talk-show caller who suggested nuking:

"I saw my grandmother K'Koh, elfin soul of the Ansary family. Oh, she died long ago, but in my mind she died again that day, as I pictured the rainfall of bombs that would be coming."

"West of Kabul" is Mr. Ansary's effort to ponder and set down what he had improvised in those post-September television interviews: "The dissonance between the world I am living in now and the world I left behind." 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.

The beginning depicts Tamim's first 16 years, spent in the Afghanistan of the 1950's where his father, member of a distinguished family, was a poet and literature professor and later a government official. He'd met Tamim's Finnish-American mother while studying in Chicago, and taken her back to live in the Ansary family compound in Kabul.

The second part tells of Tamim's move with his mother and sister to the United States in 1964, of his counterculture years at Reed College in Oregon, and of settling down as an editor in San Francisco, and marrying.

In the early 1980's the Iran revolution awoke memories of his Islamic childhood; he took a kind of roots-seeking trip through North Africa and Turkey, talking to fundamentalists and painfully discovering how alien they were, not just to his adult American life but also to the Islam he remembered from prewar Afghanistan.

There is humor and perceptiveness in the pain, as there is in the last section telling of efforts to organize the splintery Afghan community on the West Coast to assist refugees from the Soviet invasion and the civil wars that followed.

A committee was formed; a larger rival committee was formed. To match it, the first group sought recruits, only to find them reluctant because, already seeing themselves as some future government, they complained that the good posts were all filled: president, vice president (premier, that is), treasurer (minister of finance), secretary (foreign minister). Finally, two were brought in by naming them ministers of defense and interior. The account comically and disastrously prefigures today's nation-building.

Perhaps it is the childhood memories that are most revealing; Mr. Ansary, who can be rather flat writing about the United States, makes the lost ways of the Ansary compound magically familiar. He evokes a virtually medieval Kabul: unpaved roads, little electricity, no running water. No garbage service because ecologist's dream "we didn't produce any garbage."

Each compound was a world of its own; an extended family that lived communally once within its walls. "To hear our own thoughts," he writes, Americans require moments of privacy. "My Afghan relatives achieved this same state by being with one another. Being at home with the group gave them the satisfactions we associate with solitude ease, comfort and the freedom to let down one's guard."

He writes of religion unforcedly practiced: prayers by most, kneeling and facing Mecca-ward in the common room, while a few quietly occupied themselves otherwise. "With so many people praying at once, at home, in the courtyards, in public buildings, five times daily, prayer became the respiration of a whole society."

It was a very different Islam, rigid and punitive, that he encountered later, in his travels. He writes suggestively and with alarmed understanding of the radical fundamentalists he talked to (among them his brother, now estranged). In the Taliban followers he sees a generation of displaced children, their zeal armed and instructed in the Pakistan refugee camps and untempered by the social context of the prewar Afghanistan they never knew.

It is not Islam that is the threat, he writes, but Islam deracinated by poverty, war and social and economic displacement, and finding its strength and justification in a Manichaean view of history.

No doubt Mr. Ansary's family memoir displays an element of nostalgia for a peaceful and something of a privileged time. Nostalgia can be as truthful as memory, though. It is optimism toward the past, and perhaps less deluded than optimism toward the future.

Once out of his teens, the half-American boy couldn't wait to shake the venerable golden dust off his feet and get to the United States. He is firmly planted here, but in one respect he grows a little higher than the rest of us. His book sees things we cannot make out, and need to.

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