Tamim Ansary Interview
Tamim Ansary Interview
Growing up bicultural: An interview with Afghan-American Tamim Ansary
By: Alexis Menten
Date: July 10, 2002
Source: Tamim Ansary was interviewed for Asia Source. The interview is available online at: <http://www. asiasource.org/arts/tamimansary.cfm>.
About the Author: Tamim Ansary was born in Afghanistan and moved to America to study when he was just sixteen. He settled in Portland, Oregon and made his living writing children's books. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Ansary sent an email to friends suggesting that the Taliban should be removed from power by American ground forces. Ansary has become a regular figure on talk shows and in newspaper columns throughout the United States. AsiaSource is an online publication of the Asia Society, a nonprofit international organization headquartered in New York and dedicated to strengthening relationships and understanding among the peoples of Asia and the United States. Alexis Menten, a writer and media producer specializing in near Eastern issues and archaeology, contributed this interview to AsiaSource in 2003.
In September 2001, Tamim Ansary was in a prime position to comment on the events that unfolded in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Ansary's Afghan roots and American schooling gave him an almost unique insight into both worlds. Ansary's response to the crisis was a short email to his closet friends, in which he outlined his intention to "tell anyone who will listen how it all looks from where I'm standing." He went on to explain that "the Taliban and Bin Laden are not Afghanistan. They're not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant psychotics who took over Afghanistan in 1997. Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan. When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think Bin Laden, think Hitler." Ansary made his thoughts clear regarding the removal of the regime, rejecting the idea of "bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age" and instead, advocated that "the only way to get Bin Laden is to go in there with ground troops." His email was quickly circulated on the Internet and was soon read by millions of people all over the world.
The events of September 11th and the attention his subsequent email brought, affected Ansary deeply. Not unsurprisingly for an author, his response was to turn to the written word and the construction of a memoir of his life in Afghanistan. Ansary insisted that the book, West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story, was planned prior to September 11, 2001, but the events served to convince him that the time was right for him to examine his own "bicultural identity." Ansary attempted to portray the peaceful Muslim society of his youth, and therefore, show the American people how the majority of Muslims lived.
Alexis Menten: . . . You describe your September 12 email as a time when you "spoke for Afghanistan with my American voice." But due to the volatility of the period immediately after September 11, and also due to the immediacy of the Internet, your email addressed a very specific moment in time that has now passed. What was a clearly stated analysis of a situation in Afghanistan that few Americans knew about now reads as common knowledge. Do you see this book as an extension of this "American voice speaking for Afghanistan" from your email?
Tamim Ansary: To some extent that certainly is true. In the whole first part of the book where I describe my childhood in Afghanistan, I'm speaking in my American voice about not just my Afghan self, but also the context that gave rise to that Afghan self. I feel that the culture of Afghanistan in those days before the war was something that nobody had been situated to describe in a way that could make Americans really see it. One reason was, those who experienced it didn't speak English, and beyond that, even those who did experience it, while being very literate like my father, had literary impulses that expressed themselves through poems that were epic or lyric but not through a descriptive evocation of a time and a place.
I think I am using whatever voice I have to speak for not just Afghanistan, but also for a certain kind of cultural and social coherence that has passed away in a lot of places, especially in the parts of the world we now describe as the developing world. I think it is only recently that secular Western civilization, thoroughly industrialized and technology-driven, has come in contact with cultural frameworks that are much more traditional and more ancient. I was using what voice I had to describe that older culture and what it was like to experience it, and maybe to try to evoke what was lost.
But having written this book, I discovered two things are true: Afghans who talk to me say, "Oh yeah, that's really how it was. You got it." They like what I said and they like me for having said it. So I'm discovering to my own delight that I did speak for Afghans in that way. And then I have also heard from many Americans who have read the book that they are very interested in this portrait and that it shows them and tells them something about Afghans and Afghanistan they find likable. Then I think, "Wow, I did speak for Afghans." So surprisingly enough to myself, the answer is yes.
Alexis Menten: Despite America's strong desire and need to learn more about Afghanistan's history and culture, we have heard from relatively few Afghan writers. How do you think other Afghans will be able to start to speak for themselves?
Tamim Ansary: I think you're going to see that coming. One of the reasons I say that is because now that I've published a book and I've been reading from it, I've been meeting lots of Afghans who are interested in writing and who are writing here in America.
Afghans came here relatively recently; most of them came 20 years ago or less, and most of these people spent maybe the first 10 years just trying to figure out how to survive. Now, for the first time in the last couple of years, there are Afghans who are articulate in their second tongue, or they're young Afghans for whom English has become their first language. There is a large enough pool of such people that sophisticated writing can begin to emerge.
Alexis Menten:The difficulties you describe in growing up bicultural are resolved differently by each of the Ansary children. Your younger brother embraces an orthodox interpretation of Islam, while your older sister settles into a wholly secular American life. You, the middle child, try to "straddle the crack in the earth" between both cultures, although, as a non-practicing Muslim, you remain more firmly on the American/Western side. Do you think that your siblings' struggles to reconcile themselves with the differences between both Islamic and Western ways of life mirror the struggles many Muslims feel about this issue?
Tamim Ansary: Definitely. I think that the Islamic world has been going through a period of self-examination for at least a century or more that has to do with its encounter with the West, in a way that the West hasn't been doing because of its encounter with Islam. I would say that most of the West as an overall entity has been almost unaware of Islam. It has over-whelmed Islamic civilization and barely noticed it was there. But Islamic civilization is very much aware of the West, and has been asking for these several centuries, "Wait a minute, what's going on here? We're the world's civilization, what are we doing wrong? No, it can't be our fundamental premises that are wrong, so what is it?"
They've been going through this, and there have been movements arising in Islam that at some times said, "Okay, we can be Muslims, but we have to accept technology." And then other movements have said, "The problem is all the new social ideas, let's smash those and get rid of them." I think that going back and forth and trying to figure out a stance is certainly a part of what's been going on in the Muslim world and also of what has ended up generating these troublesome sects.
Alexis Menten: You write in your book of the difficulty in growing up between Islamic and Western lifestyles; "When you're in two worlds so different, your mind is forced to say that one is legitimate and the other is a crock." Do you think it is possible to live in both cultures in a way that is simultaneously acceptable to both, without necessarily declaring one a crock?
Tamim Ansary: I think that is a difficult question. I want to say, "Yes, of course." I don't want to say it isn't possible. I think where I come down is that in terms of the world, it is important for the West to be able to somehow step back and let go, and let societies whose overall impulse is to discover their own way become Islamic societies. We in the West have to allow some societies to be Islamic if they want to be, and many do want to be. And what that would mean in some places, possibly in Afghanistan, is that they wouldn't be pluralistic and kaleidoscopic societies, because I think there is something in the vision of Islam that demands that a society have a certain uniform pattern; Islam is not solely about personal conduct.
It's a different question when you come to Muslims living in America, however. America has its own vision, one that I subscribe to, and if a Muslim comes here, they have to find a way to satisfy their religious life and also become part of America's pluralistic, multicultural society, with tolerance for all others and without demanding anything of the society that's special for Muslims. I think they have to be able to accept that you might go to a restaurant and the guy at the next table might be eating pork while the guy at the table after that might be drinking martinis. I think the two systems ought to be able to coexist in the world, and there also has to be a way for purely Islamic societies to exist in the world.
Alexis Menten: A reviewer wrote that your book was "highly useful for anyone seeking to understand the Muslim world's hatred for the West" It could be said, however, that your book could be more useful in helping the West understand the peaceful and benevolent Islam of your youth, before the growth of extremist Islam in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries. What understanding of Islam did you hope to bring with your book?
Tamim Ansary: I think I wanted to bring both, because I see that there are two angles to this. I think that in portraying the peaceful Muslim society of my youth, I did want to bring this vision of Islam to Americans and show that this is how a lot of Muslims live and want to live. At the same time, I became aware that there was an emerging political ideology in the world that had its roots in Islam. That is to say, it was finding in the myths and narratives of Islam a way to justify and to rally people for a political purpose. Because this political ideology has been emerging in the Islamic world, I think it's important to see the people that are behind it and how they're managing to construct such effective propaganda. It's important because, in my view, we are actually in competition with that Islamist, extremist point of view. And the competition is for the minds and hearts and allegiance of most of the Muslim world.
I would say we're not at war or in conflict with the Muslim world; it's not a done deal whatsoever. I would not even say of fundamentalists that they are our enemies. Because when you speak purely of religious fundamentalism, of somebody who wants to pray five times a day and live exactly as the Prophet Muhammad and not wear western clothes and so on—well, so what? Let them. Why would we have to go kill that guy? And we would be wrong to assume that someone who does all those things is a militant, much less a terrorist. But the militant and the terrorist are busy trying to convince the religious fundamentalist that you cannot do those things without being against Americans, because they're not going to let you do them. So we're in competition with somebody who is trying to tell millions of fundamentalists such a thing. Not to mention all the Muslims who are devout but not fundamentalist, or who are secular but not devout. I wanted to probably speak about both of these things in my book.
Alexis Menten: There is much discussion about the need for the return of the intellectual middle-class to Afghanistan during this time of rebuilding. Do you think that is what the country needs, and if so, do you have any plans to return?
Tamim Ansary: I'm about to take a trip that's going to end up, I hope, in Afghanistan. I personally don't plan to go back to Afghanistan to live because my life is here in the West. However, since September 11, it has become clear that my life is very much involved with Afghanistan. This wasn't a one-shot deal. I think for the rest of my life I'll be heavily concerned with what happens in Afghanistan.
I know that lots of people who have been living in the West are talking of going back. And I think one of the things that I'm going to be interested in seeing for myself when I go there is how things are going between the people who stayed and the people who are coming back. I think it's an interesting dilemma that the country desperately needs the skills and the sophistication of those who have been living in the West, and yet, when they go back to try to contribute their skills (with very idealistic and warm impulses in all instances I've seen), they will instantly be the upper class because they'll be running things. And will the people who have been there all along be able to take orders from people who didn't suffer?
Right now, from all I've heard however, there's nothing but tenderness and warmth between those two groups. When I went to Pakistan two months ago to distribute aid in the refugee camps along the border, I was bringing blankets gathered by the American Friends Service Committee. That was my first visit back, and I felt that the people in the camps would very justifiably look at me with a certain hostility. They would say, "Wait, where were you all this time? We've been here in these camps, and yeah, now you bring some blankets, great." But it wasn't like that at all. Their attitude was, "You didn't even have to come back, you were in the States. And yet you came back; you didn't forget us. Oh, you're so good." It was a very heartwarming experience.
The interview with Tamim Ansary helps to illuminate the complicated issue of bicultural identity. This is an issue that is further compounded by the state of conflict that exists between the two cultures and ignorance in the West of much of the Islamic world and experience. The events of September 11th have forced many citizens to look outside their boundaries and examine the motivations of a world alien to them. Ansary argues that the Afghan culture did itself few favours in helping to bridge this gap. He explains that the tendency for Afghans to use cultural expressionism—such as epic or lyric poems—makes their culture less accessible to Western minds.
Ansary notes that only in the last twenty years have significant numbers of Afghan people moved to the United States. However, for the first ten years many young Afghans where simply trying to survive and adjust to Western life. It is only now that they have found the confidence and voice to be heard. Importantly, Ansary identifies the recent emergence of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism as an extreme reaction to the meeting of Western and Islamic worlds. However, he recognizes that both worlds must find a way to co-exist.
Ansary, Tamim. West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story. Picador USA, 2003.
Tamim Ansary. "Biography." <http://www.mirtamimansary.com/index1.php?p=3> (accessed July 7, 2005).