A passionate personal journey through two cultures in conflict
Shortly after militant Islamic terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, Tamim Ansary of San Francisco sent an e-mail to twenty friends, telling how the threatened U.S. reprisals against Afghanistan looked to him as an Afghan American. The message spread, and in a few days it had reached, and affected, millions of people-Afghans and Americans, soldiers and pacifists, conservative Christians and talk-show hosts; for the message, written in twenty minutes, was one Ansary had been writing all his life.
West of Kabul, East of New York is an urgent communiqué by an American with "an Afghan soul still inside me," who has lived in the very different worlds of Islam and the secular West. The son of an Afghan man and the first American woman to live as an Afghan, Ansary grew up in the intimate world of Afghan family life, one never seen by outsiders. No sooner had he emigrated to San Francisco than he was drawn into the community of Afghan expatriates sustained by the dream of returning to their country -and then drawn back to the Islamic world himself to discover the nascent phenomenon of militant religious fundamentalism.
Tamim Ansary has emerged as one of the most eloquent voices on the conflict between Islam and the West. His book is a deeply personal account of the struggle to reconcile two great civilizations and to find some point in the imagination where they might meet.
Any carping about this being an instant book should be quelled when readers actually encounter Ansary's considered prose prose he himself contrasts to the e-mailed commentary he fired off on September 12 that found its way to millions of readers around the world (including FSG editorial). The e-mail, printed here in an appendix, included such comments as "When you think 'Taliban,' think 'Nazis.' When you think 'Bin Laden,' think 'Hitler.' And when you think 'the people of Afghanistan,' think 'the Jews in the concentration camps.' " Ansary, the son of a Pashtun Afghan father and Finnish-American mother, lived as a Muslim outside of Kabul until the early '60s, when he left on scholarship to attend an American high school, eventually going on to college and becoming an educational writer ("if you have children, they have probably read or used some product I have edited or written") with a family of his own in San Francisco. This book chronicles, with calm insight and honesty, Ansary's feelings at all points: his childhood spent within his "clan" ("our group self was just as real as our individual selves, perhaps more so"), a narrative of his often fascinating 1980 trip ("Looking for Islam") throughout the Muslim world that makes up the bulk of the book, and dissections of the differing paths taken by his sister, brother and himself. While Ansary's political insights can be detached or perhaps purposefully aloof his descriptions of having lived in and identified alternately with the West and the Islamic world are utterly compelling.