West of Kabul, East of New York An Afghan American Story

Tamim Ansary




Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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Shortly after Islamic terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, Tamim Ansary of San Francisco sent an e-mail 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 American 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 issues raised by the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the growing community of Afghan expatriates in the United States, and the radical new ideology emerging from 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.


Praise for West of Kabul, East of New York

"In the weeks after September 11 . . . Tamim Ansary delivered us from text into context, from crisis into history, from isolation into geography, from a world shattered to one that, having lived through millennia of shatterings, stays mournfully round, and around . . . Mr. Ansary, a California writer and editor, has put this and much else into West of Kabul, East of New York, a book that steadies our skittering compass. Pointing east and west, it signals not galactic opposites but two ends of a needle we can hold in our hand . . . [This book] is Mr. Ansary's effort to ponder and set down what he had improvised in those post-September television interviews . . . It speaks with modesty of tone and is all the more resonant for that reason; it searches by sifting. Its unforced findings . . . glitter at times . . . Perhaps it is the childhood memories that are most revealing; Mr. Ansary makes the lost ways of the Ansary compound magically familiar . . . His book sees things we cannot make out, and need to."—Richard Eder, The New York Times

"Poignant . . . His book is part memoir, part exploration of militant Islam, with a smattering of contemporary Afghan history [and] an underlying core of reflection and unacknowledged pain."—Gelareh Asayesh, The Washington Post

"Before September 11, Ansary had thought little about the country in which he had spent his first fifteen years. But as he began to look back over his early childhood, he decided to write a book about the two different worlds in which he had lived. West of Kabul, East of New York is at its best in his description of life in the family compound in Kabul, a city which up to the 1960s had very little electricity or running water, playing cricket with other half-Afghan, half-foreign children with a stick and a wad of rags wrapped in twine. Later, the family moved to the remote countryside, where his father worked on reclaiming the desert through a vast new dam. Not long after Zahir Shah took charge, they moved to the United States, his mother's country, though his father soon left them to return to live in Kabul. In 1980, Ansary, then in his thirties, tried but failed to visit Afghanistan. He settled in the U.S., got married, had children, and became a writer, intrigued by but distanced from his past. His sister chose to become wholly American, his brother wholly Arab, moving to Dubai to teach and translate Arabic. West of Kabul, East of New York is Ansary's lively account of his own attempt to straddle the two cultures, 'one toe in one world and nine in the other,' and the legacy of the events of September 11 on his own life."—Caroline Moorehead, The Times Literary Supplement

"Impassioned and informative . . . Ansary possesses a rare talent . . . his prose is subtle and addictive."—The Village Voice

"Brilliant . . . Ansary gives us a living, breathing, never-pedantic cultural history from his perspective as the son of a good-hearted Afghan government official and an equally altruistic Finnish-American mother . . . Ansary's colorful account of his childhood in the twilight of Old Afghanistan, where Islam wore a humane face, is compelling."—Brian J. Buchanan, First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, The Tennessean

"There are many lives now in our melted world as complicated as Tamim Ansary's. The wonder is that this son of Afghanistan and America moves between the competing pronouns of his life with a graceful pen; he is never less than curious and generous toward the various chapters of his life that claim him."—Richard Rodriguez, author of Days of Obligation

"[Ansary] blends wit and sad irony . . . Yet the author's wry humor, telling images, and dashing prose in no way obscure the poignancy of loss, or the rational person's frustration in trying to make sense of ideology in blinders, or the immigrant's sometimes tenuous relationship with the adopted society . . The book would be insightful, provocative, and enjoyable reading for high school and college classes concerned with cultural interface and the thoughtful person's search for authentic self."—Elsa Marston, The MultiCultural Review

"[An] emotional and moving memoir . . . Ansary recalls a pre-Taliban Afghanistan of peace and beauty, an enchanted childhood of sorts, exotic to Western eyes, not without its troubles, to be sure, but with far more good than bad. He grew up the cherished son in a large and enlightened family, the son of an Afghan father and an American mother. He makes us understand the Afghan concept of the extended family, paints a vivid portrait of what it means to live surrounded by your people and the rituals of Islam, relaxing into prayer at certain times of the day . . . He guides us through Islamic history, from Mohammed to the present, all in beautifully written prose . . . West of Kabul, East of New York casts much light on how the gap between East and West became a gaping chasm."—Susan Lason, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

"A must-read . . . In his exploration of the Afghanistan he knew as a youth and the practice of Islam to which he was exposed there, he opens vast horizons of understanding . . . It can reasonably be argued that any sensitivity the United States and other Western governments showed Afghan civilians was in no small part a byproduct of Ansary's efforts."—John Nichols, The Capital Times (Madison)

"[A] powerful, timely book, written with clarity and eloquence."—San Jose Mercury News

"Ansary's book is part memoir, part travelogue, and it does a good job of explaining the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Growing up Islamic in Afghanistan gave Ansary a vantage point for evaluating trends in the Muslim world. He finally left the faith, but he documents his struggles with accepting his younger brother's extremism. Looking back on his pivotal email, which he includes in the book's epilogue, Ansary theorizes that it packed such an emotional punch, because, for the first time in his writing career, he was able to 'speak for Afghanistan' with his 'American voice.' This book helps bring the average Westerner up to speed in understanding the upheaval occurring in the Eastern world."—Christine Pappas, The Daily Oklahoman

"[This] is Tamim Ansary's soulful process of sorting out his American mother and his Afghani father, in all their grand mythological and tender personal complexities. It is also one American's best attempt to deal responsibly with being suddenly Afghani and unexpectantly thrust into our media's intense and inevitable passing focus on an exotic folk, mindful that national interest will last only as long as these far-away subjects impact our harried lives."—The Asian Reporter

"A raw and poignant book, one that captures a lost era and one man's decades-long mourning of it."—John Freeman, The Santa Fe New Mexican

"This powerful, illuminating, three-part memoir is a fast and enjoyable read, richly embedded with stimulating insights. In a friendly and often humorous style, Ansary charms readers with colorful stories of his life in Afghanistan and America, and shows what it is like to belong to two very different cultures."—Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, Virginia, School Library Journal

"This reportage is highly useful for anyone seeking to understand the Muslim world's hatred for the West, and it adds much to an already thoughtful consideration. Lucid, often surprisingly funny: a very welcome contribution to our understanding of this tragic nation."—Kirkus Reviews

"Utterly compelling."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Tamim Ansary

  • Tamim Ansary, who has written numerous books for children, is a columnist for Encarta. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and their two children.

  • Tamim Ansary Copyright Martin Klimek