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West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story    by Tamim Ansary order for
West of Kabul, East of New York
by Tamim Ansary
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

When I found out that the author had written an Email on September 12, 2001 that 'spread like a virus throughout the United States and across the world', I immediately opened the back of the book to read it, and was very sorry that it did not wend its way to my corner of the web last year. In it, the author speaks up for the people of Afghanistan ... 'We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that's been done. The Soviets took care of it already.' He also illuminates the goals of the terrorists. If you did not already see this email, I highly recommend it to you.

Tamim Ansary grew up in Kabul, child of a feminist American mother and an Afghan father (who had been educated in the States). He describes a childhood in 'the lost world' of pre-Soviet Afghanistan, when people lived in walled villages, inhabited by families linked by many intermarriages. The private world was a series of walled compounds (scattered across city and villages), in which a 'loose network of extended families' lived closely together. He describes the many 'unintended consequences' of various intended reforms in the country, and the decision to attend high school in America, which eventually split his family.

In the United States, the author finished college and 'plunged into the counterculture in Portland, Oregon', which he found surprisingly similar to the communal lifestyle of an Afghan clan. He moved to San Francisco, worked as an editor, and then felt the urge to travel, driven partly by the desire to better understand his younger brother who had just 'embraced an orthodox interpretation of Islam.' Ansary travelled in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey, as a 'lapsed Muslim looking for his roots.' On his return, while fundraising for Afghan refugees, rivalry between local groups fit well the Afghan proverb 'Me against my brother, me and my brother against our cousins; we and our cousins against invaders.'

This is a fascinating read from an author who is open and articulate about the experience of growing up bicultural, with a foot in both Afghan and American cultures and siblings solidly in each. He describes his relationship with a father 'whose thoughts and works and spirit permeate' his life, and the sadness of a breach with his fundamentalist brother. He concludes that 'surrendering to diversity is probably the only plausible path left to attaining unity' for the Afghan people. This and the notion of the emergence of the Taliban from damaged childhoods in refugee camps, are unfortunately just as relevant to other fractured peoples around the world today. Read West of Kabul, East of New York for a clearer view of Afghanistan and Islam, and of 'unintended consequences'.

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