Chances are that in the days following Sept. 11 you received an e-mail from a stranger named Tamim Ansary. An eloquent call for compassion for the Afghan people, the succinct missive was forwarded from inbox to inbox; by week's end it had been reprinted in local and international papers and quoted by political pundits debating foreign policy. The Afghan-American author, who's based in San Francisco, wrote the e-mail in response to Ronn Owens' KGO radio talk show, which he heard while driving to work the day after the attacks. Dismayed by enraged callers, Ansary argued against "bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age" as some listeners had suggested -- his point being that after years of civil unrest, the Soviet takeover, and the Taliban's iron rule, the country was already there. "Make the Afghans suffer?" he wrote. "They're already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done." Originally, Ansary sent his letter to about 20 friends, but his message of restraint resonated with millions of people around the world. Literally overnight, the 53-year-old found himself juggling interview requests from Oprah Winfrey, Bill Moyers, and Charlie Rose, having become an impromptu spokesperson for a war-torn country that he'd last seen when he was 16.
Ansary's gift for speaking from across the cultural divide was evident in that fateful e-mail, and it's even more clear in his recently published memoir, West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story. The book is a poignant account of his struggle to reconcile two cultures "built (and lived) on a whole different set of premises." Born in 1948 to an Afghan father and an American mother, Ansary lived in a prewar Kabul virtually untouched by the West. Still, he had one foot in each of those worlds, and as such was an outsider in both. In his community of walled compounds and extended families, he prayed five times a day, but "ate odd American things like spaghetti." When he and his family left Kabul so he could attend boarding school in Colorado, he felt "relieved of the discomforts of a divided self." He was "free to roam the world as just one person: Tamim Ansary, American guy."
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In the West, Ansary's family members took different paths. His father eventually moved back to Afghanistan; his sister married a conservative Republican and renounced much of her Afghan background; and his brother returned from a trip to Pakistan as an Islamic fundamentalist. Ansary "tried to straddle the fault line," the middle ground on which he found himself on Sept. 11, when his two worlds literally collided. A freelance writer and editor, Ansary has seen his career take off in part because of the tragedy, but his mission is still a personal one. This summer he plans to return to his homeland after a 36-year absence. As he notes in the memoir, "I spoke for Afghanistan with my American voice, and while I was writing, my two selves were fused."