April 28, 2002

'West of Kabul, East of New York'


In 1948, when I was born, most of Afghanistan might as well have been living in Neolithic times. It was a world of walled villages, each one inhabited by a few large families, themselves linked in countless ways through intermarriages stretching into the dim historical memories of the eldest elders. These villages had no cars, no carts even, no wheeled vehicles at all; no stores, no shops, no electricity, no postal service, and no media except rumors, storytelling, and the word of travelers passing through. Virtually all the men were farmers. Virtually all the women ran the households and raised the children. Virtually all boys grew up to be like their fathers and all girls like their mothers. The broad patterns of life never changed, never had as far as any living generation could remember, and presumably never would. People lived pretty much as they had eight thousand years ago.

    That was the countryside. The big cities, such as Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif, were living in the fifteenth century or so. And the biggest city, Kabul, where my family lived, had made it to the twentieth century, but just barely. Cars were few, roads were unpaved, and public transportation consisted mostly of gadis—horse-drawn two-wheeled carriages. Electricity was scarce, too. Most of us used kerosene lanterns at night. There was no running water. We all had wells. There was no garbage service. We didn't produce any garbage. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in the city, but the houses had no numbers and the streets had no names. If you didn't know where you were going, you probably had no business going there. A postal service existed, but it didn't deliver to private homes unless the mailman felt like it, and he felt like it only if he knew you or had heard of you. Yet even with hundreds of thousands of people in the city, the postman very possibly had heard of you. Oh, not you in particular; you were just a leaf, a bud. He'd know the branch, the trunk, the tree itself: your people.

    Everybody in the city lived in a compound, a yard surrounded by walls that divided the world into a public and a private realm. That's the main fact I want to get across about the lost world I grew up in: It was not divided into a men's world and a women's world; the division was between public and private. Visitors never really knew us, because they never saw the hidden world inside our compounds. Those who came from the West didn't even know our private universe existed, or that life inside it was warm and sweet. And in a way, we Afghans didn't know we had this realm either, because we didn't know it was possible not to have it.

    In the compounds, people spent all their time with the group. As far as I can tell, none of my Afghan relatives was ever alone or ever wanted to be. And that's so different from my life today, here in the West. Because I write for a living, I spend most of my waking hours alone in my basement office. Oh, I jog, do errands, see people I know—but mostly, it's just a man and his thoughts in a blur of urban landscape. If I'm too much with other people, I need to balance it with some downtime. Most of the people I know are like this. We need solitude, because when we're alone, we're free from obligations, we don't need to put on a show, and we can hear our own thoughts.

    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. The reason for this is hard to convey, but I'm going to try. Namely, our group self was just as real as our individual selves, perhaps more so.

    I don't know what term properly applies to this type of group. Family doesn't cover it. Even extended family feels too small. Tribe, however, is too big. I'm inclined to hijack the term clan from anthropology, although even that is not quite right, because the type of group I'm talking about was not a formal entity, had no organization, no name, no recognized chief, and no exact boundaries. It was more like a loose network of extended families tied together by a mutual sense of having descended from a great someone in the past—or a string of great someones.

    Our group, for example, looked back to Sa'aduddin, a landowner who lived in the nineteenth century and wrote mystical poetry under the pen name Shuri Ishq—"Turmoil of Love." He was my great-great-grandfather. Of course, Americans too might have a sense of identity based on a famous ancestor, but the Afghan experience differs from the American one, because Afghans prefer to marry their relatives. In America, hardly anyone actually seeks to date their kin, but in Afghanistan, the ideal marriage is between first cousins. Therefore, in Afghanistan, the lines of descent from an important man tend to keep curling back toward the center, endlessly weaving a coherent entity through intermarriage. And that's the entity I'll call a "clan" from now on, because "network of extended families descended from a great someone" is too cumbersome.

    We tended to feel more at home with others of our own large group than we did with strangers, and the Afghan tradition of living in compounds deepened this tendency. Once we stepped into one of our compounds, in those days, each of us had a different name from the one we used outside. These names were called luqubs and were all constructed of the same few words—flower, lion, sugar, lord, lady, sweet, and so on, combined with uncle, aunt, papa, mama, and the like. My mother's name, for example, was Khanim Gul, meaning "Lady Flower."

    In a compound, the old, young, and middle-aged—men, women, girls, and boys—all shared the same space. Living quarters weren't divided into your space and his space and my space. People didn't have places to keep their possessions—few, in fact, had much in the way of possessions: it wasn't a thing-centered world. By day, thin mattresses arranged along the perimeters of the rooms served as furniture. At night, blankets were pulled out of closets and those same mattresses were rearranged in the center of the floor as beds.

    At mealtime, any room could become the dining room. A tablecloth would be spread on the floor. Everyone would wash their hands thoroughly and eat with them from a common platter, packed together so tightly around the food on the tablecloth that their oneness was a physical experience, a circle of people who were all touching.

    Instead of television, we had genealogy. The elders, the white-headed ones, spent endless hours with one another or with us youngsters, tracing connections. So-and-so married so-and-so, and then their progeny got sorted into these other branches through marriage, so actually your cousin Saliq is your second cousin through Sweet Daddy—and so on. It might not sound exciting, but remember that genealogy was the warp and family stories the woof of the fabric that made us one entity.

    We didn't spend much time pondering Islam. We didn't have to. Islam permeated the life of the compound like the custard that binds a casserole together, hardly separable from ordinary daily life. Five times a day, some of us did our ablutions and moved into the prayer ritual, one by one, at our own pace. Prayer divided a day into five parts and gave a sort of rhythm to the household, like breathing in, holding for quiet, and then breathing out, releasing back into noise and activity. There was no Ministry of Vice and Virtue. No one was under the gun to pray; it was not an obligation, just a custom and a way of life. At prayer call, those who didn't pray lowered their speaking voices out of respect for those who did, and we youngsters learned not to be doing our naughtiness near a person who was praying, so that we wouldn't embarrass them by seeing the undignified sight they presented when they got on their hands and knees and touched their forehead to the floor.

    In winter, the intervals were shorter; in summer, longer. Some men went to the mosque on Fridays, but that wasn't the locus of Islam in old Afghanistan: It was everywhere. The rhythm of prayer suffused the city, the whole society, all the villages, all the world, as far as we were aware. 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 calming down at intervals in a rhythm set not by any clock but by the light of nature.

Now let me place my family in this scene. We were an exception of sorts, because my mother was American. She met my father in Chicago, where the Afghan government had sent him to acquire Western knowledge. My father, Amanuddin, was the fourth of five brothers and the second of the five to be sent abroad for such an education. He learned to read and write from the village mullah and entered the government school as a sixth grader, and it was just about then that the royal family decided Afghanistan needed Western know-how. My father's elder brother Najmuddin got one of the first of the government scholarships to a university in the West, but the year after he left, a terrible event cut the scholarship program short, an event that my father witnessed. Indeed, this event almost cost my father his life.

    He was in seventh grade at the time. He and other worthy students from several Kabul high schools had been called to the palace for an awards ceremony, during which, one of my father's classmates stepped out of the ranks and shot the monarch dead. This king, Nadir Shah, a stern, skinny figure with small round spectacles, had ruled for only a few years. Although his clan had owned the throne for some 150 years, his particular family had been an outlying branch until the third Afghan-British war, from which Nadir emerged as a war hero. A few years later, a bandit known as "the Water-Carrier's Son" led a revolt against the monarchy and drove King Amanullah out of the country. Nadir, however, took the field and routed the rebels. But instead of handing the throne back to Amanullah, he claimed it for himself. Some families in the royal clan regarded Nadir as an usurper. The boy who killed him belonged to one of these.

    As soon as the bodyguards saw the king fall, they locked the courtyard gates and prepared to shoot down all the students. But the king's son, the teenaged prince Zahir Shah, who had flung himself upon his father's warm corpse in shock and grief, had the presence of mind—and humanity—to take command and order the guards to hold their fire. My father owed his life to that prince, and I guess I do, too, indirectly. Perhaps this is why I have always felt such affection and respect for Zahir Shah, who was king of Afghanistan throughout my years there, the same king who was called out of exile after the Taliban collapsed, to preside over his country as a symbol of unity.

    My father was one of five students sent to the United States the first year the scholarship program was resumed. He got his bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois and then studied at Stanford for a couple of weeks, but when he tried to find housing on the West Coast, landlords slammed their doors on him, snarling, "We don't rent to Japs!" This was during World War II, and my father's Mongolian blood showed somewhat in his features.

    This contempt for his bloodline must have shocked him. In Afghanistan, no matter what reversals he might suffer or how low he might sink, one distinction could never be taken away from him—his bloodline. He was an Ansary, descended from one of those families in seventh-century Arabia who helped the Prophet Muhammad escape from Mecca to Medina. The Arabic word ansar means "helper," and descendants of those families have been known ever since as Ansarys.

    Having encountered no racism in the Midwest, my father returned to the University of Chicago to pursue his Ph.D. in education. He lived in a boardinghouse with his hometown buddies, Shalizi, Taraki, Kayeum, and Asghar.

    Downstairs in that same boardinghouse lived a shy first-generation Finnish-American girl named Terttu Palm: brown sausage-curl bangs, plump cheeks, a Clara Bow mouth, and the modest clothes of a girl who didn't consider herself pretty. She had grown up in the Finnish community of Chicago, speaking nothing but Finnish until she went to school, and even then her social world remained mainly Finnish, with a smattering of Russian in the mix. As a teenager, her idea of fun was attending dances at the Finnish community hall, where she waltzed and fox-trotted with Finnish boys (although I get the impression that she was mostly a wallflower, alas). Her dreamboats were never the athletes or the fast-talking boys who smoked and drank, but the boys who could trip the light fantastic.

    She had just finished teachers college and was living on her own for the first time, free from the shadow of her domineering father, supporting herself as an elementary school teacher, and hungering for life, when my father moved in upstairs. She idolized artists, bohemians, and all things exotic, and the Afghan boys attracted her like honey. She told me once that she didn't single out my father; she just wanted one of those Afghan boys, she didn't know which one.

    My father looked like a skinny Gregory Peck, with a touch of the Mongolian horseman in his features. Stylish in his wide suits, big ties, and snazzy hats, he had a devil-may-care, artiste air about him. But he really emerged from the pack when my mother discovered that he could tango. The next few chapters of my parents' story are shrouded in mist, and when the fog lifts, they're married.

    Their wedding took place in the sixth year of my father's American adventure, and it got him in trouble. Before he left Afghanistan, he had signed a contract not to marry a foreigner, an act already prohibited by the Afghan constitution. As soon as he married my mother, the government recalled him, cutting his education short.

    Afghanistan shocked my mother deeply at first. She did a lot of crying that first year. She could not be reconciled to living only in the world behind the walls. She wanted to go home—but not without my father.

    The royal government wanted her to go home, too—but not with my father, whom they had spent a fortune educating. They ordered my father to send her back, but the Ansarys got together and decided they could not let outsiders dictate to them in this matter of their womenfolk, so they defied the royal family's order. I'm not sure what my mother thought about this bravery on her behalf, since she was longing to leave Afghanistan, but in any case, she stayed.

    With my grandmother leading the way, the family took her in as the Permanent Guest, always to be honored, loved, and cared for. Afghan society settled on treating her as an exception to the rules of gender: She was considered neither female nor male, but American. She never wore a chad'ri (the body-length veil now commonly known as the burqa), and she soon began to work outside the compound. The government had just started the country's first girls school, and my mother set about teaching Afghan girls to speak English. Since the role of teacher was an honored, almost sacred, one in Afghan society, she carved a place for herself as "teacher-sir" to a generation of women.

    I have to say that in the Afghan context, the government cut her a lot of slack. Once, she flunked a couple of girls in her class. The principal came to her, shocked and concerned, and said, "You can't fail those girls; they're high up in the royal family."

    My mother replied sassily, "Well, in that case, I don't need to teach the class. Just tell me the rank of each student, so I can give her the appropriate grade, and we can all go home."

    My father came in afterward to settle the ruffled feathers and smooth things over. I imagine he did a lot of that. He was a patient man, quietly humorous, prone to sudden enthusiasms, but usually distracted by ideas going on his mind—much the same impression my children have of me, I think, except for the part about patience. He liked to putter in his elaborate garden far more than he did mixing it up in the rough-and-tumble of political life. His passion was literature, and he wrote poetry. So did all my uncles, but my father went a little further down this road, perhaps, since he taught literature at the brand new Kabul University and eventually served as dean of that college.

    It took him a few years to get his career started. The government punished him at first for marrying a foreigner by refusing to employ him in any official capacity. But then the four other scholarship students in his class came back, and three of them brought home foreign wives (they cannily put off marrying their girlfriends until they had gotten their doctorates). The government gave up, forgave them all, amended the constitution, and gave my father his first teaching post.

    Around that time, a new quarter of the city was opened to development, and a lottery was held for the right to buy parcels there. By some amazing coincidence, as my mother put it thirty years later, all four of the men with foreign wives won that lottery. The words were halfway out of her mouth before she realized that coincidence probably had nothing to do with it.

My sister Rebecca was born in 1946, and I came along two years later. Like my mother, we had a special place in the clan. We were right at the heart of it, although contained somewhat in the nuclear household my mother maintained within the Ansary social universe. At home, we didn't sit on the floor like other Ansarys; we had tables and chairs. We ate odd things like spaghetti, and we did so with silverware, not our hands. So when dining with other branches of the clan, we came in for some affectionate jesting, because eating with one's hand is, in fact, a refined and difficult skill, and we couldn't do it very well.

    Rebecca and I shared a bedroom, and I have a cellular memory of our whispering together after the lights went out. When she fell asleep and left me alone in the dark, three feet away, I sometimes saw monsters on my eyelids and had to wake her up with my screams. She took care of me like a peppery, pint-sized mommy, and between us, there was never any question about who was boss. And I liked it that way. She was our envoy to the adult world, marching out there to get the information we needed to know and then bringing it back to share with me. Apparently, we could communicate with each other before I could officially talk. I believe that early on I didn't have a clear sense of where I ended and she began. I'm told that if I was ever given candy, I automatically saved half for her. "What a sweet, unselfish boy," grown-ups said. But really I was only saving half the candy for my other mouth. Nothing unselfish about it, once you knew who the self was.

    My mother stocked her nest as best she could with American items, which included canned foods, cocoa, classical music records, and books. One spring, when I was five or six, my sister taught me the English alphabet. By that fall, when my mother sat down to teach me phonics, I could already read every word in the third-grade reader except sugar and enough. I think I learned to read because I had such a hunger for stories. My cousins drank their fill of these from my grandmother and other family storytellers, but since Rebecca and I lived somewhat separately from the others, I had to make up the deficiency with books. Soon, in addition to Afghanistan, I had a rich, imaginary, English-speaking world to live in. For a time, the grown-ups nicknamed me "Professor."

    Our compound at the edge of the city was pretty typical for progressive Afghans of our social status in that day: an acre or so surrounded by a mud-brick wall about nine feet high, which kept strangers from peeking in on us and kept us from looking out, too, at ground level anyway. In the most traditional compounds, the buildings were attached to the perimeter walls, and these walls and buildings surrounded and protected an inner courtyard. Each compound had a front room for entertaining male visitors unrelated to the family. The visitors could be brought to this room without giving them any glimpse of the inner courtyard, the private world. In our compound, however, the main house was in the middle of the yard, because we were moving away from this preoccupation with keeping our women hidden from strangers.

    We did, however, have buildings along our perimeter walls. A long row of rooms lined one outer wall, and each of them opened directly onto the yard—the outhouse, storerooms for extra bedding, wood and coal, onions and potatoes (which we kept buried in mounds of soil for freshness).

    There were other buildings, as well, all made of sun-baked brick. We had a sizable separate one-room building for any poor relation who might be living with us at any given time (and there was almost always someone). We had a two-room suite with its own little kitchen—a room with a smoke hole and a fire pit—where a succession of families unrelated to us lived. They were our kinar-nisheen, "those who dwelt in our corners." They were like vassals in a feudal system, poor people who depended on my father's patronage. As often as not, the father had some job of his own out in the world, but the wife and older children worked for us.

    Although not strictly traditional, our compound was still a world apart. From the strawberry patch at the center of our yard, I could see nothing beyond the walls except mountains and sky—far to the south, the Safid Mountains, a jagged row of broken teeth, snowcapped all year round, the whites as sharp against the blue rocks as if etched with a needle point, a testament to the purity of Kabul's (then) unpolluted air. To the east, looming hulks spilled in from two directions, pinching the city almost in half. The Kabul River cut a narrow notch through this "Lion's Gate Mountain," and beyond the notch lay the busy chaos of downtown. Our side was mostly residential, and closer to us was a rock that looked like an enormous dinosaur—so close that its shadow blanketed our yard at certain hours, with Kabul University nestled between its flanks.

    Our compound had two doors. One opened onto a plain, where boys from around the city came to fly their kites on Fridays and bands of nomads camped with their sheep, camels, and dogs. The other door opened onto an alley that wound among thirty or forty compounds before reaching a main thoroughfare. In that alley, we boys from the various compounds would play soccer and a form of cricket. Our bat was a stick carved from a tree branch, and our ball was a wad of rags wrapped in twine.

    This alley, a dirt lane without pavement or sidewalks, was flanked by two continuous nine- or ten-foot-high adobe wails, which were punctuated by doors, each one decorative and different.

    Much of urban and even village Afghanistan had the narrow, hemmed-in feeling of this lane. Everything that made life worth living was private, and the splendid secret was there behind every door along that lane, behind every compound wall. The Kayeums lived about eight doors down from ours, and if you made it into the privacy of their compound, voilà—cherry blossoms, vegetables, flowering acacia trees, family, relatives, and retainers—just like ours. The same was true of both Shalizi's compound and Taraki's.

    We knew these compounds well because Shalizi, Kayeum, and Taraki were three of the four men who had gone to America with my father, and all had foreign wives. The Kayeums were especially close to us because my father and Kayeum were best friends, Kayeum and his wife, Joan, had five children, including Rona, a girl about my age. The Kayeum children were almost like siblings to Rebecca and me.


Excerpted from WEST OF KABUL, EAST OF NEW YORK by Tamim Ansary. Copyright © 2002 by Tamim Ansary. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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