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'Games Without Rules' dominate Afghanistan's tangled history

Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary tracks the past of his native country

By Randy DotingaContributing writer / January 25, 2013

Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary helps Americans make sense of Afghan culture and politics.

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Tamim Ansary was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, to a father believed to descend from Arab brothers who conquered the city some 13 centuries ago. According to legend, their bodies remain to this day in a pair of hillside tombs where they have company in the form of spirits known as djinns. Considering that history, it's perhaps fitting that Ansary has spent much of his life trying to understand the ghosts that haunt the foreigners who endlessly try to run things in this great land. Ansary, who became an American author and educator, explores the tangled history of his home country in a gripping and enormously readable new book titled Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan. I called Ansary in San Francisco, where he runs a writers workshop. We talked about Afghanistan's crucial role in the world, the unique ways of its culture and his advice for a president who will spend another four years trying to understand this most foreign of faraway countries.

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Q: Why has Afghanistan been a hot spot for so long?

 The geographical reason is because it's in the way for people for people going from one major spot to another. That was what defined Afghanistan: You had a Turkish civilization to the north, India to the south, Persia to the west. It was the place where all this overlapped, the place you had to pass through.

In many periods of its history, other cultures have gone through and dropped things off. They've found buried cities near Kabul with glass from Egypt, artifacts from China and carvings from Siberia, all these different things.

Q: How did Afghanistan lose its importance over time?

After the 1500s or so, when the West began its rise, the oceans became the highways of the world. Places like Afghanistan were far away from anything.
After becoming a really cosmopolitan place, it transformed into this remote spot that no one ever went to until the British and Russians showed up over the past 200 years. Then it was back in play again.

Q: It's like Grand Central, isn't it?

It's a Grand Central that it's everyone has to pass through to get somewhere else. That's been both a blessing and a curse.

Q: Kipling came up with the term "The Great Game" to describe the battle between Britain and Russia over the fate of Afghanistan. That makes it seem like such a fascinating story, doesn't it?

It sounds like a whole lot of fun: "It's lighthearted, a great game! Ah! Good game, old chap!" It has resonance.

Of course, it wasn't fun at all.
 

Q: You write that another game, called Buzkashi, provides insight into an Afghanistan culture that's so mystified outsiders. It's still immensely popular today. How was this ancient game, which requires men to push a goat carcass across a goal, played in the past?

It's a game of northern Afghanistan and across the river into the lower states of Central Asia.

Sometimes the field would stretch for miles, or it might be a few hundred feet. There was a goal post at one end and another at the other end. There was any number of players, and there weren't teams. No place was out of bounds, and there were no spectators.

It's not exactly about winning. Nobody was counting how many times they'd won a game.

Instead, it was a platform for individuals to gain prestige, manifest their charisma and gain followers. It was about how you'd handled yourself during the game, manifesting your manliness, your courage, your honor.

Q: What do the ancient ways of Buzkashi tell us about Afghanistan culture?

In Afghan society, there was a similar process going on, in which people who emerged into power positions and became authorities and leaders as if they were playing a game of Buzkashi.

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