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20. West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story by Tamim Ansary

From the inside cover
The day after Islamic terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, Tamim Ansary of San Francisco sent an anguished email to twenty friends, discussing the attack from his perspective as an Afghan American. That message, spreading via the Internet, reached and touched millions of people around the world.

Now Ansary, gives us West of Kabul, East of New York, a moving account of a life lived in two very different cultures, Islamic Afghanistan and the secular West.

Born of the first marriage between an Afghan man and an American woman, Ansary grew up in the "lost world" of prewar Kabul. When he emigrated from Afghanistan to America at age sixteen, he thought he was leaving Afghan culture behind forever. In 1979, however, at the height of the Iranian Revolution, his unresolved identity took him on a harrowing journey through the Islamic world. In the years that followed, he struggled with the emotional isses raised by the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the growing community of Afghan expatriates in the United States, and the radical new ideology emerging in Islam and within his own family.

West of Kabul, East of New York captures the confrontation between Islam and the West as a passionate and personal story -- as one man's effort to reconcile two great civilizations and to find some point in the imagination where they might meet.

My impressions
I thought, on the whole, Ansary's story was compelling and I'd recommend the book. I felt I learned a lot more than I knew before about Afghanistan (culture, history, etc) though honestly that's not saying much. There were sections that were essentially infodumps but these never felt too dry or academic. Throughout the book, I felt that he wrote in a way that clearly showed this was his personal take and despite that it felt reasonable and relatively objective and not like he was pushing an agenda. This being a memoir, he does get into how he met the love of his life and such which didn't grip me as much but those sections were not entirely unreadable.

Some points that really struck me:
- that the way wealth is shown in Afghan culture is through generosity
- that the culture is based on this concept of being connected, really connected, through family
- the Afghan concept of family extends beyond the immediate family to all of the clan and the private spaces that ensue; that there's almost this private village or community of relatives within the larger community of people.
- not strictly related to Afghan culture but just about the relationship between siblings. Tamim talks about how close he was with his brother and sister and how that gradually (in the case of his sister) or suddenly (for his brother) that was destroyed. The memories he has of his brother are particularly poignant to me. He recounts how he believed he taught his infant brother how to laugh and then later in life how when he first met his 10-year-old nephew, his brother's son asks him something like "How did you know my father? Were you friends?"
- his shock and bewilderment of hearing on the radio that people want to "make the people starve in Afghanistan" and "cut them off" when essentially that's already been done; this was mostly through his email
-  when he travelled to the Middle East to get his story, he was trying to prove the thesis of why people were turning to Islam, namely because of poverty, etc. He wonders if that's just the West trying to impose its values/meaning because it doesn't understand especially as the people he's talking to aren't really giving him support for his thesis (!). An aside to say, that trip was really harrowing even speaking as someone who's only reading about it and not having experienced any of it.
- the points he raises about his identity and the identities of other Afghan Americans: about feeling like an outsider among Afghans in the US as they accommodate his American-ness; the feeling that as his Afghan friends and family stay in America longer, the easier it is to interact with them because they are becoming more American. 


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January 2013

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