Saturday, September 10, 2005

West of Kabul East of New York: An Afghan American Story

The E-mail

September 11 happened. Enraged radio listeners called radio stations demanding the US Government nuke Afghanistan, the birth place of the writer, Tamim Ansary. He wrote an e-mail to a few friends and the next thing he knew, within days his message had reached a worldwide audience. What did he write? Who is Tamim Ansary?


The Man behind the E-mail

Tamim wrote that the Taliban were a bunch of ignorant psychotics and Bin Laden was equal to Hitler. Suddenly the writer was called upon to be spokesperson for Afghanistan, a country he left at age 16.

This book is Tamim's way of explaining who he is and what he percieves Islam is all about. And what a story this Afghan American, writer of children's books, ironically married to an American Jew, has to tell.

This book reminded me of other books we have selected for our book club discussion, specifically Inside the Kingdom by Carmen Bin Ladin, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. This does not make Tamim's story less interesting. He has his own unique life story with vivid descriptions of his travels and meaningful lessons on the Islamic way of life to pass on.

I noticed that Tamim's mother and Barack's mother have some things in common. Both were educated American women who were attracted to the exotic, so they married outside their culture. They both relocated to extremely underdeveloped countries, birth places of their husbands, then suddenly it dawned on them that they wanted to raise their children with American values. Both women home schooled their children using an American curriculum.

Both Tamim's mother and Carmen bin Ladin spent their married life pining after the western lifestyle to which they were accustomed.

Tamim and his siblings were exposed to American food, records, books and families so for all of Tamim's sixteen years in Afghanistan he lived in two worlds. He chose the American world yet could not quite separate from the Afghan world. In America, Tamim chose the hippie lifestyle of the sixties which allowed him to live in a commune similar to his old communal life with the clan in Afghanistan.


What I liked

The writing was good and some of the stories taught important life lessons. The book made world history come alive for me.

I found Tamim's early life in Afghanistan interesting. He stated that the ideal marriage in that culture was between first cousins. Ironically, he married a woman who he was so close to that he thought they had a relationship similar to that of cousins.

The cultural aspects were interesting. Love for the clan in Afghanistan, as in the Saudi Arabia described by Carmen Bin Laden, reigned supreme. When Tamim's father was faced with the choice of his wife and children and living in America versus the clan and living in an oppressive Afghanistan, he chose the clan.

I enjoyed the account of Tamim's travels to the Islamic world: Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Turkey. The encounter with fellow American Jake and his experience at the Iranian embassy were fascinating.

It was interesting to read what Muslims in other countries had to say about Islam. In Tunis, one said the core of Islam is the separation of the sexes. In Morocco, one opined that European ways rule Muslim lands: Algeria follows France, Egypt follows America. In Turkey, a Puerto Rican Muslim explained Islam in a single phrase: Greet the guest, feed the stranger.

Final Comments

What happened to Jake? Jake was like a tick on Tamim's back during his travels then suddenly he disappeared from the story.

I would have liked to see photos in the book of the family.

It was just coincidence that we chose this book for discussion so close to the anniversary of September 11. This in itself reminded me of the book we selected last month called Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. That book made a big deal out of coincidences.


Just this morning I heard President Bush saying we need to learn more about the language and cultures of the Middle East. Our book club selections covering Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Afghanistan are certainly giving me a good education on the culture of the people in these countries.

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