Tamim Ansary is the author of the new book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes and the memoir West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story. He is also the facilitator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop, the oldest continuous free writers’ workshop in the country. His novel The Widow’s Husband is available for download through scribd.com.
James Warner: In your memoir West of Kabul, East of New York, you memorably evoked the emotional warmth of traditional Afghan family life. A common thread between that book and your new work of history, Destiny Disrupted, is your trying to convey to Western readers a sense of what being part of or having been part of the Islamic community feels like. What reactions have you been getting so far, from Western and from Moslem readers?
Tamim Ansary: West of Kabul was about how it feels to be part of this other culture. Destiny Disrupted is not so much about feeling. It’s more about trying to convey a whole different conceptual framework that exists in the world and that shapes how some people make sense of events. My premise is, if you’re standing on one mountaintop, you see a certain landscape. If you’re standing on a different mountaintop, you see a different landscape. The two landscapes may overlap, but they’re not the same, even though the two mountains are perfectly visible to each other.
JW: You also say in West of Kabul, East of New York that militant Islamists typically never experienced traditional Islamic life, and are trying to recreate something they haven’t experienced. If you yourself could escape from history and return to a Golden Age, when would it be? You seem to sympathize to some extent with the Mu’tazilites, and with Sufism…
TA: That statement was not about militant Islamists in general. It was about the Taliban cadre in particular, which were a very particular subset of militant Islamism. And I didn’t say (or if I said it, I didn’t mean to say) that they never experienced “traditional Islamic life,” but rather that they never experienced traditional Afghan life. For one thing, I don’t know that there is any single thing that can be described as “traditional Islamic life.” As Islam has spread across the world, it has mingled with local customs, local ways of life, and so Islam has a somewhat different texture in each particular place. It’s true that Islam permeated everyday life so thoroughly in the old Afghanistan that there was no distinction between Islam and life in general. But in fact what rural Afghans thought of as Islam was always some mixture of Islamic precepts and local folkways. In any case, these fellows who formed the rank-and-file of the Taliban were typically boys or young men who had grown up in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Their family roots went back to Afghanistan, but their families had been shattered by the war, their fathers and older brothers had gone back into the country to fight the Soviets, the boys were growing up in these distorted artificial environments with the womenfolk and the old men of their clans, often in tent-cities (and later in rabbit-warrens of sudden village-like but tiny compounds made of the mud people happened to be living on), vast “refugee cities” where strangers were forced to crowd together and everyone including the womenfolk were cut off from the inviolate privacy of clan and family life that is at the core of the Afghan social system. In other words, these rural Afghans were not living the traditional life of rural Afghanistan. The boys in these camps were then drawn into “madrassas,” religious schools run by elements in the Pakistan military and taught a “curriculum” that consisted of the ideology of apocalyptic Jihadist Islamism that emerged over the last 100 years out of the impoverished slums of the Arab world, largely in response to colonialism. These kids who became Taliban were like blank slates, on which anything could be written.
As for myself, if I could escape from history, I’d come right back to where I am. The Mu’tazilites were an early movement in Islam that tried to understand the religious revelations from a rational point of view. I’m all for reason, so I approve of the Mu’tazilites. Sufism is an ancient and enduring movement within Islam that consists of an attempt to experience the One directly. When I say The One here, most Muslims would use the word God (or Allah). Sufis were mystics. I come from a long line of mystics, and I approve of Sufism because I have had, in fact, experiences that I would describe as direct experiences of the unity of all existence, and those have been overwhelming and profoundly shaping experiences for me. But I would remain in this present moment because I am fundamentally a secular person. My devoutly religious brother says that I “place my faith in reason and Enlightenment philosophy” and that’s pretty accurate, although I’m not comfortable with the word “faith” because it implies believing something without proof and with me, all beliefs are contingent. When further facts come into evidence, I am prepared to amend my beliefs, and I think that willingness to always amend is somehow incompatible with the concept of “faith” as the word is usually used.
JW: How is finding a story arc for a civilization like finding a story arc for an individual, and how is it different?
TA: Good question. Well, you know, a memoir is not the facts of a life arranged in chronological order, it is a selection of facts arranged and expressed in such a way as to reveal the deep narrative that is vested in that life and gives it meaning. I draw two implications from this. First, many different memoirs could be written about the same life, covering the same period, all equally “true.” Second, the narrative arc actually exists. It is there in the life, there to be discovered, not a thing to be invented. The premise of memoir is that fiction is gripping only because it imitates and evokes and makes us aware of an essential quality of real life. In fact, I’ll go further and say that the story-like essence, that deep narrative structure, is the thing that is most true about a life. Writers who make up additional facts or change the facts in order to make of their memoirs “a better story” are breaking faith with the proposition that the story-like essence actually exists. They’re like prospectors who add pyrite to the ore they bring to an assayer’s office because it makes their land a better mining prospect. It doesn’t; it obviates the whole point of digging up ore and bringing it to the assayer’s office. I’ve heard that when Michelangelo looked at a block of marble, he actually saw the David inside it. His task was then to chip away everything that was not David, and thereby to make visible what was already there. Writing memoir us something like Michelangelo’s task and so is writing history. The first job is to “see” the meaningful narrative in the welter of facts. And then, in the writing, deciding what to leave out is just as important as what to include. I notice that you asked about the “story arc for a civilization.” A civilization exists in space, it doesn’t have a story arc. History unfolds through time, so that’s what has an arc.
JW: Your account of the rise of Islam in Destiny Disrupted differs from Western accounts I’ve read in the emphasis you put on the social egalitarianism of early Islam. How original is this emphasis?
TA: Not original at all, from the Muslim point of view. Social justice and egalitarianism has been at the core of allegorical stories told about Islam from the time of the First Community onward. Historically, Muslim sources constantly press the claim that the egalitarian community, in which the Khalifa was indistinguishable from any other member of the community, was the vision Muslims brought during their expansion.
In the 1950s, Nasser preached this idea of Islamic socialism: the idea that Islam offered the same vision of egalitarian social justice as Marxism, but without basing it in class-conflict. And Nasser’s arch-enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief ideologue Syed Qutb preached much the same sort of message in his Social Justice in Islam.
JW: You told me once that your experience of the movements of the 1960s influenced your understanding of early Islam. Is this something you dare expound on?
TA: I do dare to. I think that we counterculture visionaries of the sixties and early seventies felt passionately convinced that we were part of some unique phenomenon: the world was finally going to be made right and we were going to be the ones to do it, because we were forming a new type of community on Earth, fueled by an almost mystical force that was bigger than any of ourselves. And we thought we would make this new world by simply beginning to live and operate as members of a different sort of community, powered by an unprecedented new set of values, which revolved significantly around respect for everyone’s rights and dignity by everyone. In our brave new world, all the “isms”–sexism, racism, capitalism, imperialism, et al–would be eliminated. One of the evils we most prominently thought we were going to eliminate was the treatment of women as sex objects. Had we prevailed, you would never now see a billboard with a beautiful semi-naked woman draped over a shiny new car. That moment of fervid countercultural enthusiasm and conviction lasted only a few years. Then the contradictions began to show. Our inspiring new values rotted into political correctness. Everyone respecting everyone deteriorating into every judging everyone, and savagely. Disapproval of sexism got confused with a disapproval of sex. Today, few even remember that earlier time when the values we founded and espoused actually felt liberating, visionary, and good. It’s pretty clear from all the stories about the early Muslim community that those folks thought they were onto something big, in the same way we did (although probably more fervently). They thought the world was about to be fixed and that their community, the experiment they were a part of, was the seed of that flawless future. Now, of course, the specifics of the values we sixties counterculture folks embraced and the ones that prevailed in the first Muslim Community were different. For one thing, we were enchanted by the notion of better living through chemistry. The Muslim were inspired by the vision of everyone giving up drinking, or at least drunkenness, and living lives of purity and discipline (although, I should mention, that purity-and-discipline vision was also present as a strand in our counterculture moment). I could go on and on about this but the point is: the vision we countercultural revolutionaries brought into the world was so shallow it faded out in just a few years. What the Mohammed and his companions created set off ripples that are still resonating. But that one too has gone through distorting transformations as people have tried to apply and reify it in the hurly burly of actual history.
JW: Any tips for people rash enough to write world histories?
TA: Go to it. Long ago when my daughter heard that I was going to write a history of the world (not this one, another idea for a world history) she said, “Didn’t they already write that one, Daddy?” Yes they did, but there’s always room for another.
JW: I just read The Widow’s Husband, your thrilling novel about the disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan in the early 1840s. We get both the Afghan and the British points of view, and the two sides completely fail to understand each other. Would you say British soldiers in Afghanistan today are doing any better?
TA: I don’t know much about the British in Afghanistan today. I’m more aware of the Americans and some of the other foreign troops over there, most notably the Canadians. I think those guys want to win the Afghans over, they know their success depends on winning hearts and minds, but they just don’t know how. For one thing, few of the American soldiers on the ground over there have any clue about the culture and few if any speak the local languages; most of them are stationed along the Pakistan/ Afghanistan border, where hardly any of the locals speak English. They arrive at outposts already under attack, and it’s hard to make friends with people you can’t talk to when the bullets are flying. I heard some soldiers interviewed on TV who described their mission over there as "helping all the good people" and "killing as many bad guys as possible." Unfortunately, it isn’t actually a conflict between "good guys" and "bad guys." It’s more complicated, and the situation doesn’t lend itself to learning about the complications.
JW: Of your characters, Alexander Burnes is the Englishman most interested in Islamic spirituality, but also the most sexually adventurous– hence his actions go a long way to discredit the English in the eyes of ordinary Afghans, and precipitate revolt. How many liberties have you taken with the character of the real-life Alexander Burnes?
TA: I’ve imagined the details and flavor of Burnes’s personality, but the outer facts of his life and death conform to the historical facts. One of my readers said I should not have “killed off Alexander Burnes” because he was an interesting character. Well, I had no choice because that’s what happened in history–a crowd of men, many of them supposedly cuckolded by Burnes, gathered around his house to rage at him and the raging turned into rioting. Burnes did affect native dress, did travel in central Asia and did write a celebrated book about it. He did fancy himself an expert on Afghan life and culture, it’s true that sexual interactions between British men and Afghan women during the occupation contributed to the disaster, and there are indications that Burnes was among the leading offenders. I read a journal by a British soldier in Afghanistan during the second Anglo-Afghan War referring to the sexual tensions of the first war–apparently even forty years later it was still common knowledge — and this guy wrote that the British soldiers were helpless to resist the Afghan women because those women were "almost frighteningly willing."
JW: How hard was it to get inside the mindset of the Afghan villagers, and how much did you draw for this on your own childhood memories?
TA: I wrote Char Bagh into existence with my own ancestral village of Deh Yahya in mind. We used to go there for weddings and funerals and just to relax on occasional weekends, and I drew on some of those childhood memories to imagine village life. Deh Yahya, however, is probably five times as big as Char Bagh. In my last year in Afghanistan, my family made a journey up into Nuristan, a really remote, rugged valley in Afghanistan, and along the way we stayed in tiny villages clinging to rocky slopes hanging over these thundering rivers, and I got some of the landscape of Char Bagh from those memories.