An Interview with Tamim Ansary

Aysegul Savas

In 2001, Tamim Ansary sent his friends an e-mail in response to the September 11 attacks and the ensuing attitudes towards Afghanistan in the U.S. His friends passed it on and soon the e-mail was read by millions of people. Ansary’s first book West of Kabul East of New York, which includes the e-mail, is a memoir about growing up in Afghanistan and traveling to the Middle East as an adult to “search for Islam”. The memoir, Ansary says, chronicles one of a series of “road-trips” that were seminal in his life. Ansary’s second book, The Widow’s Husband is a novel set in 19th century Afghanistan, around the time of the British invasion. The story is told from both British and Afghan perspectives. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, which won the 2010 Northern California Book Award, presents an alternative and complementary narrative of history that begins from the time of Mohammed and runs parallel to the Western narrative of civilizations.

The enchanting storyteller in Ansary’s novels—“Let me take you across the miles and down through the years to a tiny village in Afghanistan” begins The Widow’s Husband— is very much like the author himself. He is a strikingly kind and smiling man. When he speaks, humbly yet with conviction, he leans forward and looks you right in the eyes, squinting and pausing between sentences as if to understand the effects of his words. Perhaps this level of empathy is what makes Ansary the astute historian and political observer that he is, with the ability to re-inhabit history through human narratives. He writes about Mohammed and the Caliphs as if they were his friends—the Caliph Omar, for example, is “dashing and irresistible”, Abu Bakr is a “wise elder”—and characterizes the Taliban as the troubled young boys they used to be, growing up in refugee camps. Ansary’s observations in West of Kabul East of New York about North Africa during his travels in 1980 are remarkably foretelling of the current changes in the Middle East. (Ansary mentions in his memoir that the story he was asked to write for his travels was given to him after he pitched a story idea about the fall of Iran a year before the Iranian revolution.) During our time together in a sunny café, after he laughingly dodged my attempt to get his coffee, Ansary talked generously about politics, religion and writing fiction, covering a vast array of topics as he does in his books. 

Switchback: You’re a very political writer, but religion always makes its way into your books. Are the two strongly intertwined for you?

Tamim Ansary: I myself am not a religious person. I’m only interested in religion because it’s part of the politics of today, and also because I grew up in Afghanistan, where you could not separate religion from circumstances of life.

I recently went to Portland to do an event for the Muslim Educational Trust. They wrote to me and said, “While you’re here, would you give the fatwa in the mosque on Friday?” I said, “You don’t know what I am. You better wait till you see me!” Anyway, I’m not religious. But my brother is very religious. He is a fundamentalist.

SB: How did your brother respond to West of Kabul East of New York?

TA: My brother didn’t say anything to me directly, but he told my sister he found some of the parts moving. My sister liked it, I think. One of my cousins called up and said, “You know our ancestor Sheikh Sa’aduddin, you shouldn’t have said what you said about him. You said he was a poet and a landlord.” I said, “He was a poet, and he owned land. What did I say wrong?” My cousin said, “He was a saint. You should have said he was a saint.” Then my cousin also said, “You said your father taught literature at the Kabul University… but he also taught psychology and biology. He was a scientist.”

My father was not a scientist. In those early years, if you knew anything, you would be teaching. The Kabul University had just started. The faulty was about twelve men. The student body was about twenty or thirty guys. I think my father had gotten his BA in biology, but in Afghanistan it did not matter what you had studied. If you came back with a doctorate, then you were eligible for a high government job. The fields of knowledge in the Kabul University were ranked. Engineering was the most prestigious thing to study. Next after that was medicine, and so on down. And the native, most indigenous bodies of knowledge were down at the bottom. So if you were middle ranked in your class, you got into literature. And if you were in the bottom of your class you got into theology!

SB: You seem less critical of religion in your novel than in your memoir. Is this a difference between fiction and non-fiction? Or is it because you are writing about a Sufi in the novel?

TA: I am favorably disposed to Sufism as it developed in Afghanistan and Central Asia. That was the Sufism of Pantheistic tolerance. Those guys were heavily into the idea that it doesn’t matter whether you are a Buddhist or a Hindu, everybody is basically talking about the same stuff.

But there is another side to Islam, which I experienced quite a bit growing up in Afghanistan-- the rigid and oppressive dogmatism of the group. Islam has one aspect of it in which the idea of the community is the dominant preposition. That translates into the idea that the community owns you and if you are not compliant, you will be punished. So in Afghanistan, growing as the only foreign looking person in the universe, at a time when modernism was first starting to creep in, I was the target in most places, of mullahs and theology teachers who were out to get me and humiliate me. I didn’t like that face of Islam.

On the other hand, my whole ancestry is tied up with poets and Sufis and they seem to be indistinguishable, at least in Afghan culture. All Sufis seem to have been poets and all poets Sufis, and I have a religious orientation towards the world that is based on a mystical attitude and ideas.

SB: But at the same time you are very rational, and a believer in individualism.

TA: I really do believe in individualism.  And politically, I must say, Islam has to find its way to a doctrine that allows each person to interpret the teachings of religion for themselves and not be subject to the impulse of the group to have everyone on the same page. It has to do that or it won’t survive.

SB: Do you think any religious culture has achieved that?

TA: Yes, I think most have. Judaism has. Christianity has. Buddhism has. In Judaism, for example, there is no idea that if you are an apostate you have to be punished or killed. In Islam, there is.
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