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of Kabul, East of New York
An Afghan American Story
By Tamim Ansary
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
292 pgs. US$22/C$35.00
An exploration of a soul
By Steven Martinovich
Although he has been a writer for decades, Tamim Ansary only burst into the consciousness of many people after the September 11 terrorist attacks thanks to an impassioned e-mail he wrote and sent the next day to a dozen friends. Over the coming days and weeks, that email was forwarded to as many as 250 000 people around the world, probably their first contact with the thoughts of an Afghani.
An incredible rage was directed at Afghanistan because Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida terrorist movement, and his protectors the Taliban were based in that nation. Ansary's email pleaded with its readers to remember that the Afghan people were not unlike Jews in Second World War concentration camps, that bin Laden was little different from Adolph Hitler.
West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story, written after the terrorist attacks, is Ansary's bitter sweet exploration of his Afghan past and his struggle to reconcile it with his American lifestyle. As he relates, he was born the son of a Pashtun father and an American mother outside of Kabul to a moderately well off family. In the 1960s, at the age of 16, he left that nation to attend high school in the United States, eventually going to college and becoming a campus radical.
Although much of the book is taken up by his failed 1980 attempt to return to Afghanistan in part to rediscover his roots, a trip that included journeying through the Muslim world in Africa and Turkey, the most compelling portions of his book are the fond recollections he has of traditional Afghani life. It is a world that most Westerners have little knowledge about and yet one that until the Soviet invasion in 1979 had existed for centuries, a world that is also likely gone forever.
It was a life where the clan, essentially an extended family, was the most important aspect of a person's life. As Ansary relates, "[O]ur group self was just as real as our individual selves, perhaps more so." It is a fluid yet timeless existence where the bonds of family meant everything.
"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 and mama, and the like. My mother's name, for example, was Khanim Gul, meaning "Lady Flower."
At its heart, Ansary's effort is an attempt to reconcile the two disparate worlds that he lives in, a difficult task that anyone of bicultural heritage can appreciate. Although he identifies himself as an American, he makes it clear that he still has one foot in Afghanistan. A painful break with a brother who chose the path of militant Islam, a father he left behind in Afghanistan and a mother who came back to America to discover she had little left in the West all serve as elements in Ansary's exploration of himself.
What many lost sight of, or perhaps didn't even know, is that Afghanis were as much the victims of the Taliban and al-Qaida as anyone. Repression courtesy of the Soviets and militant Islam destroyed a unique culture that was tolerant of outsiders and served as the gateway between the East and West. His moving and compelling search for a meeting place between his two worlds provides an insight into a people, whether they live in the United States or Afghanistan, that most Westerners have only experienced through newscasts. Perhaps out of the tragedy that was September 11 we can take some time to learn a little more about our fellow human beings and ourselves. Ansary's elegant effort is a beautiful start on that path.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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