Don't bother bombing Afghanistan

An Afghan in exile remembers his home

On Sept.12, Tamim Ansary, an Afghan American who lives in the Bay Area, listened with dismay as men and women phoned in to a talk radio show, calling for the US to bomb his homeland "back to the Stone Age."

Later that day, Ansary, who has lived in America for nearly four decades, sat down and wrote an e-mail to 20 friends explaining that it would be redundant to reduce Afghanistan to rubble. The Soviet invasion, civil war, and the Taliban's brutal tyranny had already done that.

Ansary's e-mail struck such a chord that his friends forwarded it to others. By nightfall, he'd received hundreds of messages of support. A day later, there were thousands. News outlets around the world began calling.

Now, six months after Ansary's note thrust him into the limelight, he offers "West of Kabul, East of New York," a stirring memoir of his upbringing in Afghanistan. It is a raw and poignant book, one that captures a lost era, and one man's decades-long mourning of it. The story begins in 1948, when Ansary was born in Kabul to a well-to-do city official and his American wife. As Ansary describes it, Kabul was then largely untouched by the West. Families lived in sprawling compounds. Meals were taken on the floor communally, and at night elders entertained with genealogical tales.

Ansary's depiction of his childhood is moving without being sentimental. Prayer, he writes, was the "respiratory system" of these households. "We didn't spend much time pondering Islam.... Islam permeated the life of the compound like the custard that binds a casserole together." Ansary left this traditional life behind when his father signed on to lead an ambitious, US-backed irrigation project in Afghanistan's central valley. The job brought his family to Lashkargah, a remote village populated by American military families. Although Ansary drank Cokes and listened to Elvis with their blue-eyed children, he did not share a school with them.

This taste of American life tantalized him, though. And when a friend told him of a prep school in Colorado that would fund his tuition, he eagerly applied and got in. He moved to the US, and since his father had recently been demoted, his family followed.

Although Ansary thrived in America, his family splintered. His father returned to Afghanistan, leaving Mrs. Ansary behind. His brother gravitated toward fundamentalist Islam.

Spurred on by his sibling's sudden transformation, Ansary decided he must reckon with his past, too. In the late '70s, he returned to the Middle East for an extended trip. It was supposed to be a homecoming. Yet the region had changed drastically since he left; Iranian terrorists had just taken over the American Embassy in Tehran, and hatred of America was rising.

Although these events were well covered by the press, Ansary lends them a more personal perspective here. Following him through the Islamic world is to know how painful it is to lose one's past. In Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey, Ansary encountered an Islam stricter and more unforgiving than he remembered. Muslim clerics were full of rules for how to pray, and tirades about the shortness of the ankle-length skirts of Muslim women.

Feeling like an intruder, Ansary pressed on to Afghanistan, but was blocked in Turkey when two Iranian Embassy officials glimpsed his American passport and kicked him out. Frustrated and broke, he returned to the US. If he had to choose, he would forget Afghanistan and set out to become "one unconflicted soul: Tamim Ansary, American guy."

Perhaps in writing "West of Kabul, East of New York," Ansary will get his wish, and his prose will become a bridge that links his past to the present, his Afghan self to his American reality. Reading this memoir, we understand what an impossible task this is. Finishing it, we know that footbridges such as this one show the way for others.

• John Freeman is a writer in New York.

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