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.
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.
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.
There were no rules. By manifesting their great qualities, they would acquire followers and bound their followers through a complicated unwritten ritual of being generous and incurring obligations.
Q: How does that contrast to the way things are done in places like the US?
From the very beginning, and in a way it continues to this day, the West has evolved toward a civil society with a bureaucracy.
In our world, the things that count are the titles that people hold. If you take a guy out of the job and put some other guy in the job, then he plays that role.
Q: Like when we change from one president to another. To borrow a phrase from history, "The king is dead, long live the king," right?
Yes. The assumption of the people from the outside is that if you establish one man on the throne and make him king, you can control the country.
But he's not king because he wears that crown. It's only if he's gone through that leadership process, which is never settled because people rise a little and drop a little. One day they are more of a leader, and one day they are less.
Q: What does this tell us about Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan?
A: The foreign community treats him like he's the ruler of Afghanistan.
To me, it seems that even as all the elections are going on, as cabinet ministers are being appointed, there's a whole other system, a kind of alternative universe. He's not just discharging his duties. He's busy politicking in the old Afghan way, building his network. He's trying to establish himself as a leader in that other sense.
Q: What do Afghans misunderstand about us?
There is some sense in which Afghans don't understand that the West has values.
They see how Western people operate: that they have money, they're efficient, they get things done and they don't squander a lot of time managing social relations in every interaction.
But they don't get that the West has all these unwritten hidden rules that we don't even think about.
There are do's and don'ts, and we know what they are. But when a man from that society comes to this society and sees women on the streets, not being covered up and dressed to be attractive, they think that means they're available and there are no rules. We know that's not the case.
Q: What's behind that perception of women?
Our sense of gender relations is based on a long evolution of a concept of individuality. We have ingrained in our deep psyche that every individual is a person and has rights.
Afghanistan has a psyche that you're only an individual within a collective, a family, a clan, a tribe.
Q: What would you tell President Obama if you had his ear about Afghanistan?
The way they have been operating, people shuffle in and out of Afghanistan maybe on a six-month basis. I feel that something is lacking. There should be a reliance on people who have a longer term commitment to working with Afghanistan.
And when they do cultural training, it should acquaint people with the broad framework of Afghan culture.
I've been asked to do some workshops with soldiers, who really wanted a list of rules. I say, "You'll never learn enough of these things to pass as an Afghan. They'll give you a pass on shaking with the wrong hand. But you need to know what's private and public, and the underlying basis of all of these ideas about men and women."
Q: What's an example of things people should understand?
You need to understand what people think of the Koran.
The Koran is not religious material, it's not a book. It's completely different from the writings of a saint or of a prophet: It's incarnation of god in the material realm. If you understand what they think that is, you don't have to memorize all the rules. You can act toward it in the way that seems appropriate.
Q: What do you see in Afghanistan's future?
When Afghanistan finds its way to its national identity, it's probably not going to be a modern secular country in which there's a separation of church and state.
But it's much more important for that country to have a stable daily life for the people, a sense of cultural sovereignty over its own fate, and a system of governance, rule and law that people can embrace as their own.
As long as one faction pushes against the foreigner, it disrupts the process. But I believe when Afghanistan gets to that, if it gets to that, then we'll actually see the progress that we'd like to see.