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About Tamim Ansary
Biography in Brief
A writer, lecturer, editor, and teacher based in San Francisco. Directs the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop, teaches sporadically through the Osher Institute, and writes fiction and nonfiction about Afghanistan, Islam-and-the-West, democracy, education, history, current events, social issues, my cat, and other topics as they come up.
- He was born in 1948, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
- His father worked as a professor at Kabul University
- His mother—the first American woman to marry an Afghan and live in Afghanistan—taught English at the country’s first girls’ schools.
- The Ansaries hailed from the village of Deh Yahya.
- Their ancestor Sa’duddin, an 18th century mystic, is buried near that village and his tomb attracts hundreds of Sufi devotees to this day.
- His family also traces its ancestry further back, to a pair of Arab brothers who allegedly conquered Kabul for Islam in the 8th century. Their graves can still be seen on a hillside high above the city: two spooky 12-foot-long stone tombs, side-by-side, surrounded by weeds and tall grass that teems with feral cats and (some say) djinns.
In the mid-fifties, his family moved to the tiny government-built town of Lashkargah, in the country’s southwestern desert. Today, that area is the heart of the Talibinist insurgency. Back then, it was the nerve center for the country’s biggest American-funded development project, a vast complex of dams, canals, and experimental farms, which my father helped to run.
Perhaps it is the childhood memories that are most revealing; Ansary, who can be rather flat writing about the United States, makes the lost ways of the Ansary compound magically familiar. He evokes a virtually medieval Kabul: unpaved roads, little electricity, no running water. No garbage service because – ecologist’s dream -“we didn’t produce any garbage.”
He writes of religion unforcedly practiced: prayers by most, kneeling and facing Mecca-ward in the common room, while a few quietly occupied themselves otherwise.
It was a very different Islam, rigid and punitive, that he encountered later, in his travels. He writes suggestively and with alarmed understanding of the radical fundamentalists he talked to (among them his brother, now estranged).
In the Taliban followers he sees a generation of displaced children, their zeal armed and instructed in the Pakistan refugee camps and untempered by the social context of the prewar Afghanistan they never knew.
It is not Islam that is the threat, he writes, but Islam deracinated by poverty, war, and social and economic displacement, and finding its strength and justification in a Manichaean view of history.
Once out of his teens, the half-American boy couldn’t wait to shake the venerable golden dust off his feet and get to the United States. He is firmly planted there, but in one respect he grows a little higher than the rest of us. His book, “West of Kabul, East of New York,”, sees things we cannot make out, and need to.
When I left Afghanistan in 1964, the country was still a tranquil backwater. I finished high school and college in the United States, then plunged into the post-sixties counterculture like a dog into surf. I worked for a collectively-owned newspaper called the Portland Scribe and dreamed of building a new world, a dream which ( you may have noticed) came to nothing. Later, just as Khomeini was seizing power in Iran, I traveled in North Africa and Turkey, looking for Islam, and found Islamism instead.
Unnerved and exhausted, I returned to San Francisco, married the love of my life, and settled into a quiet life of editing and writing children’s books, textbooks, fiction, magazine articles, and a column for the late, great Microsoft learning site Encarta. Then came September 11, 2001. The day after those airplanes brought down the twin towers, an email I wrote to a few friends went viral on the Internet, and I found myself derailed from my previous career (whatever that was) into speaking for Afghanistan and trying to interpret the Islamic world for the West–because at the time there was no one else to do it. In my memoir West of Kabul, East of New York, I depicted how it was to grow up straddling these two vastly disparate cultures—Afghanistan and America. Last year, I published Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, and more recently The Widow’s Husband, a historical novel set in Afghanistan in 1841.
- please note this profile and family tree is still under construction