Tamim Ansary: West of Kabul, East of New York

I finished reading this book the day an article from the New York Times came into my inbox: “Afghanistan Has Become the World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis.”

A passage from page 59 immediately came to mind: “We just shared the towering profundity of our loss, tasting that resignation to fate that came to us from our Afghan soil, for even as children, we knew that loss would deepen us. That’s what it means to be an Afghan.”

Published after 9/11 when it was Osama bin Laden and the Taliban that put Afghanistan on the map of the majority of Western consciousness, and during a time when the world was angry and calling for the bombing of Afghanistan as retribution, Ansary felt an urgency to let the world know that the Taliban and Bin Laden are not Afghanistan. 

“It’s not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators… Some say, Why don’t the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is, They’re starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering… There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets.”

“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.”

Make the Afghans suffer? They’re already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did that.”

And yet, this memoir gave room to a heart-warming aspect of Ansary’s writing. From his childhood in Kabul and Lashkargah to adulthood in the United States, there was still space for life, love, friendship, and even for travel.

Unfortunately, 20 years after this book’s publication, the dam is breaking in Afghanistan once more.

History is like a river, except people can only live in lakes, so they dam the current and build villages by still waters — but the dam always breaks.”

Tamim Ansary: Destiny Disrupted

“Destiny Disrupted is neither a textbook nor a scholarly thesis,” goes the preface. “It’s more what I’d tell you in a coffee house.” 

Isn’t that how we’d rather have history presented to us anyway? Wasn’t it just days ago when supposedly smarter people bashed a purported Nadine Lustre account for tweeting a derogatory remark about history as a subject in school? “Stupid. Go back to being an actress,” they said.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that history is “a waste of time,” but don’t you agree to some extent that most teaching methods and a majority of the curricula need some overhauling for the study of history to become more engaging and internalized? To be so effective that hardly anyone becomes apologists for an evident human rights violator? To have a healthy amount of eastern perspective to balance the overwhelming eurocentrism?

For most students, history has been reduced to a series of unfortunate dates and names that they have to memorize for an exam. So, yeah. Don’t coffee house conversations stay with us longer and give space for our own thoughts? More space to consider one view alongside another?

If the answer is yes, there is a huge possibility that you will find this book well-organized, entertaining, and illuminating. Perhaps not all-encompassing, but that is why it is accessible. Frankopan’s The Silk Roads is a panoramic view, Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes focuses on a specific sequence of events, Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted zooms in and out so that it does not only provide particulars but also a bird’s eye view. All eye-openers, but among the three, I find this to be the most well-written.

I started 2021 with The Silk Roads, 2022 with Destiny Disrupted. This will make a good reading tradition — new year, new eyes. We can use a pair every now and then. 

Happy new eyes, everyone! 

Qais Akbar Omar: A Fort of Nine Towers

“I know of no other book in which the complex realities of life — and death — in contemporary Afghanistan are so starkly and intimately portrayed,” says Jason Elliot, a favorite travel writer who has written about Iran and Afghanistan, of this autobiography by Qais Akbar Omar.

I wholeheartedly agree. It is the first published memoir about growing up in Afghanistan. So beautifully written, it describes an extraordinary life and country, its marvels, its fascinating ethnic groups, the history of its conflicts, and the horrors of three tempestuous decades.
“Pain was our way of life now,” Omar writes. The book brims with pain and loss, but it is also full of life. To have been written by someone who found solace in literature during the darkest times, and who suffered but endured the cruelty and futility of wars, makes “extraordinary” an understatement.

I read from and about these places of conflict to learn, but I have been asking myself why I have also grown to love and seek out their literature. This book illuminates one of the answers: I am drawn to how their sensitivity to beauty is commensurate with their heightened awareness of the fragility of life.

And if it is this that their lives and words constantly teach me, among a hundred other things, then I will continue to read from this part of the world.