Interview with Mir Tamim Ansary, conducted by Leila Nadir.
Mir Tamim Ansary is the author of Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan, Destiny Disrupted and West of Kabul, East of New York, among other books. For ten years he wrote a monthly column for Encarta.com and has published essays and commentary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Alternet, TomPaine.com, Edutopia, Parade, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Born in Afghanistan in 1948, he moved to the US in 1964. Ansary lives in San Francisco, where he is director of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.
Images from Mir Tamim Ansary’s collection. These photos were found in an album of his mother’s after she passed away in 2006. She had hoped to include them in a memoir she was writing about her early days in Afghanistan, a memoir she never finished. Handwritten captions are written by her; typed captions are added by Tamim.
Leila Nadir: When I read about your memoir, West of Kabul, East of New York, many years ago, your bicultural childhood reminded me of my own in some ways. Both of us grew up with an American mother and an Afghan father, and we both had childhoods shaped by the United States’ presence in Afghanistan during the Cold war. Our fathers were educated in the States and had American-funded employment in Afghanistan. Can you describe your experiences growing up in a bicultural home, and how you felt the U.S. playing a role in your childhood in Lashkargah, the site of a massive U.S.-funded irrigation project?
Tamim Ansary: When I was growing up in Afghanistan, I didn’t think of myself as mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity or anything like that because there were no other people like us. We had our household that included my mother, my sister, and me, and my father was also there but he was somewhat on the periphery. That tiny little household, that little core, was America, and everything else outside was Afghanistan. In that little core we spoke English. At Christmas we had a Christmas tree. There was no Christianity but there was the cultural Christmas with Santa Claus, the tree, the gifts, and all that, and everything outside of that was Afghanistan. And there were rings to that. There was the Ansary ring. Outside of our little household was the rest of the Ansary clan, and that was really cool. Then outside of the Ansary clan was the rest of Afghanistan. When I went to school I experienced the idea that I was a farangi, that I was from somewhere else, and I experienced some alienation. In Lashkargah, which was made up of half Afghans, half Americans, my sister and I both felt alienated from the Americans although, in the end, less so than we did with Afghans outside the family ring. Initially, anyhow, the Americans in Lashkargah looked at us as Afghans and didn’t see us as Americans. I’ve gone into some of this in West of Kabul, East of New York.
As far as the U.S. funding part of it—I didn’t think about it that way back then. My father initially was a professor at the university. Were Western funds coming in for that? I guess so, but we didn’t really think about that. When we went to Lashkargah, then it was definitely true that we were part of the American project in Afghanistan, and a project of which I approved because it enabled me to live in a privileged place. I didn’t actually see myself as privileged then. I just saw it as normal life. It’s only in retrospect years later that I look back and realize what an idiosyncratic, weird microcosm that little Lashkargah was.
LN: Have there been moments in your life when you realized that something you took for granted as normal or natural or random has been revealed to you to be distinctively American or distinctively Afghan?
TA: The experiences I’ve had recently have brought home to me that I’m not exactly Afghan-American. My mother was an immigrant and she came from an immigrant family in America. They were first generation in the U.S. She grew up speaking Finnish, and I have been struck by the Finnish part of my American-ness. Finnish culture, which I’ve never known much about, is totally the opposite of Afghan culture. Afghan culture is so robust, sociable, big-group-oriented; Finns are very restrained, inward-turning, solitary. And during my mother’s growing up, she and her family were isolated from American culture, and within that they were isolated from other Finns. My mother grew up as a very alienated, single individual in the universe. Some of that came into my experience of life growing up in Afghanistan. I was simultaneously experiencing this totally individualistic, solitary cultural orientation that came through my mother and an effusive, expansive, our-group-against-the-world sociable clan-thing that was the experience of Afghanistan. I find that even now at my advanced age I am still sorting out what Afghan culture is and I am still discovering what Finnish culture is.
There are similarities between the two sides though. From what relatives in Finland tell me, my grandmother’s husband was a bizarre Finnish immigrant who might have sneaked into the United States illegally, and sometime in my mother’s early childhood it turned out this guy had another whole family in Wisconsin. That was, of course, weird in American culture. Then I look at the Afghan side, and my grandfather had four wives and there was not any scandal about that. Yeah, of course, he has four wives, why not? When I go to my village in Deh Yahya, I think back at the stories I know about my family, and about how when my grandfather died, my grandmother, being the youngest wife, was sort of kicked out by the others. They closed ranks against her. And she made the daring, incredible move to go to Kabul with her five kids. Relatives thought, “Oh my god, Where are you going? You are going out in the world! You are leaving home and family!” Then, when my father got to be of age, he did something that was incredible in his environment. He went to the United States, the other end of the world, in 1937 or 38. I look at all these different people in my ancestral background, and they are all riven with this story of little localities that exploded into everybody getting mixed together.
I could think of myself as being of one ethnicity, but I never thought of myself as one anything because I was alienated from the start. There is some sense in which Afghanistan, even though it’s such a mixed bag of a culture, there is still some cultural monolithic coherence that made it, from my American mother’s point of view, when she moved to Afghanistan with my father in 1945, not a melting point. When she arrived, the family thought, who is this strange, alien, foreigner in our midst? But the family did the family thing. They were polite, they were gracious, they were extravagantly generous to the permanent guest, but it was always a question of absorbing this oddity into the culture. That became my experience too. No matter where I was, until I was well into my twenties, I was the guy who when I came into the room people got a little awkward and shut up because this guy was not one of us. And that was no matter where I was and so I developed a sense of myself that way. But now I look at my ancestry—my rough tough weird, somewhat scary grandfather on the American side, who was always getting in fights, he was a Finn but he spoke Russian because he from the Russian-Finnish border. There’s even a thought that maybe he or his family were Russians who had escaped into Finland. So there I have this Russian connection through my mother’s side. And through my father’s side I have a Russian connection because the Russians came and trashed Afghanistan.
LN: In West of Kabul, East of New York, you explain that September 11awakened you to your roots in Afghanistan. This transformation was played out in public with the post-9/11 email you wrote defending Afghanistan from people’s calls to bomb the country into the Stone Age. Between that moment of awakening and your childhood, what was going on for you?
TA: It’s true that 9/11 changed who I was in the world, and it wasn’t my choice. I wrote that email and then nobody would let me not be a spokesperson for the Afghan community. That was absurd in some ways. I was the guy in my family who was the least part of the family. I hardly ever went to Afghanistan. A few weddings and funerals here and there but basically, I was the American guy. For some reason I always wrote about it though. Most of the 1990s I was working on a novel that was a thriller about a guy who was bicultural like me, alienated from Afghan culture, living in the U.S. Then his father dies and he has to go back to Afghanistan and solve the murder amidst the chaos of the communist takeover. I had an agent for that book and she was about to go pedaling it. It was about a week before 9/11, and she called me and said, “When is this book of yours set?” I said, “1986,” and she said, “Well, now they’re talking about these Taliban, whatever they are, and I’m wondering, how about if you take a minute or two and reset it in 2001? Have it be about the Taliban instead of the communists?” Basically, do a global search and paste. I was shaking my head about that.
Then 9/11 happened. She called me right after 9/11 and said, “I need a proposal for a nonfiction book from you. Anything, just put it on a sheet of paper, one page is all I need.” As it happened, I had also been working on a memoir—I had been for several years—and that memoir had started out being mainly about journeys that I had taken in the United States. I was just free-writing. I had not structured it at all. At some point it occurred to me that my journey from Afghanistan to America when I was sixteen was a big one: why was that not one of the iconic journeys I chose to write about? Well, I didn’t remember anything about that journey. It was a white-out. You don’t realize you don’t remember something until you have the occasion to try to remember it. So I got curious, what do I remember from before that trip? What do I remember about Afghanistan? So then, for a couple years, I was free-writing, drinking a martini each day, and writing everything I could remember. All of that was in my computer. I had never even looked at it. I never reread any of it. Probably 1,000 pages. So I told my agent, I think I can pull something out of there and just write a book about being bicultural, about Afghanistan and America. I wrote up a proposal—one-page, seriously—she took it around to the editors in New York, and there was not one who said they didn’t want it. I interviewed with them over the phone. Each person I talked to—Random House, Farrar Strauss—the editor would say, “I’m really excited about this book. I’m really looking forward to it. What is this book?” They were just buying the book by the guy who wrote the email. In conversation with each of them, the book I was describing changed. Who I was talking to influenced what kind of book I was describing. The guy I talked to at Farrar Strauss, Paul Eli, my editor there, we had a long conversation and I found myself responding to my own ideas of what I wanted to say. And that’s the book I wrote. But I took out many pages that I had. West of Kabul East of New York wasn’t the book I was first planning to write.
LN: What happened to all the material about your journeys within the United States?
TA: I’ve just finished that book. That book is not about Afghanistan actually, and it’s not really about being bicultural. It’s about ten years I spent being a hippie and counter-culture guy before I rediscovered my Afghan roots. My experience in publishing has been that everybody wants me to talk about Islam and Afghanistan. As soon as I say I have something else, they say, Can you give it an Afghanistan slant? How about focusing on your Afghan adventures?
The book is provisionally called Road Trips. It’s about three road trips. When I was 19, I left the house with $5 in my pocket, wondering if I could just hitchhike across North America, give in to the universe, be a life spirit. Maybe good things will happen to me. So I set off and I made it to the East Coast. That was 1969. Then, a few years later, some things happened, and I was suicidal. At a particularly bleak moment I decided I had to hit the road and get to the East Coast right away, and I did. It cured me. I have never been depressed like that again. The third trip is many years later, the year I turned 50, I went back to Reed College for a reunion. That’s the road trip, but the content is about gradually remembering a period after college in Portland, in the 1970s, when I thought the world was ending, and I was part of this experiment in the new world. We were building what was going to come after. That’s what I thought, and so it was kind of like remembering that that even existed.
LN: When hyphenated American ethnicities are brought up, they are usually imagined with an emphasis on the non-American part, which can seem like an exotic supplement to a normative “American” backdrop. Yet here, despite starting out with an emphasis on the Afghan side of your life, but we’ve arrived at the quintessential American experience of the Road Trip, of finding freedom and renewal on the open road.
TA: I never thought of myself as an ethnicity. I was just negotiating my life. Part of what I have tried to do in my work is to talk not about culture and ethnicity and race but rather about actual subjective experiences. The flip side, though, is that we are individuals within social constructs and realities and that’s a lot of who we are. In the middle road trip of my new memoir, I was in trouble that I thought was individual and personal. I was inside my head and I was going crazy, and I realized that the world exists and I’m made of the world, that what’s inside me is actually what’s outside me. These experiences that I think are so individual and unique—they are actually how the unfolding of the history of the universe feels at one local place, reflecting on me. That helped, and I got a handle on things, looking outward instead of just looking in.
LN: With West of Kabul and your books since, you have made a substantial contribution to thinking about the tension of ethnic encounters. How does your mixed ethnicity affect your perspective when writing about Islamic history and Afghan history?
TA: What being ethnically mixed does most profoundly is give me a sense of relativism and then also a comfort with relativism. I find that many people who come from a monocultural childhood have a need to find an absolute that won’t be susceptible to being seen through or changed or falsified. I grew up realizing that when you’re in one environment, this is right and this is wrong. And then when you’re over there, this is right and this is wrong. Everything’s different. I didn’t have a way to think, that’s what they think and that’s what they think, but here’s what’s really true. There was no really true. There was only “true” in this or that context. My perspective is that there is no actual, absolute floor. We’re floating.