“For all of us, surrendering to diversity is probably the only plausible path left to attaining unity. The international community is supposedly committed to helping the country rebuild, but the lost world will not be constituted. Whatever rises from the rubble, will be something new…”
The author wrote the above about Afghanistan, presumably after 9/11.
The Book of the Week is “West of Kabul, East of New York, An Afghan American Story” by Tamim Ansary, published in 2002.
Born in Kabul in Afghanistan in 1948, the author, who had an older sister and much younger brother, lived a childhood typical for his time and place– primitive living conditions, but in a communal space with multi-generational households of extended families.
In the mid-1950’s, the author’s father, through his former classmate, got a job on a U.S.-sponsored irrigation project, helping to further Afghanistan’s technological advancement. The goal was to “…sell the harvest for cash abroad, and use the currency to buy machines.” The author’s family lived in a corporate village with American expat families. They had Western leisure facilities– tennis, swimming, bicycling, square dancing, American music.
However, the project failed because the Helmand river branches changed their courses, so salt contaminated the water. Later on, water shortages, rather than lack of know-how or aid, caused crops to fail, when land reform (alleged equitable re-distribution of land among the peasants) was instituted.
In 1959, royal-family females were allowed to doff their veils, and coeducation was introduced at the local high school: about one hundred boys and four girls. Ironically, it was the Communists who forced the schools to educate the females, but (Muslim) Afghan leaders with old-school tribal and clan sensibilities got angry at that. Religious zealots (mullahs) in Kandahar incited a riot, in which some people died. “Within hours, the government put tanks on the streets [in Kabul] and jets in the air.” It had actually been a planned anti-Western campaign, but luckily, it failed.
Grades at the school, in a rural village, were based on only exams thrice every year in each of eighteen subjects. A few men (in their twenties) from the Soviet-trained military were sent there to get educated. Schools in Afghanistan’s cities got aid from the West.
The author’s mother was an American citizen, so when political turmoil flared in Afghanistan, and the author was awarded a high school scholarship as a sophomore in America, he, his mother and siblings moved to the United States. The author’s father was a citizen of only Afghanistan, but he could have become a college professor in America. Nevertheless, he chose to stay in his native country.
In the early 1970’s, the author found a community that mirrored his childhood’s– with an extended counter-culture “family” in Portland, Oregon. In 1979 (the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan), while in Morocco, he met Sunni Muslims who didn’t pray in the mosques.
One of them explained that, “Because the religious scholars have sold themselves to the governments… When the people are lost, the gangsters are safe.” There must be the right balance of power and integration between a nation’s leaders and the people, politically, economically and culturally (including religion). If the government acquires too much power, the people become lost. If the people acquire too much power, there’s revolution.
Individuals’ mentalities are shaped by their experiences. The author’s much younger brother, Riaz, when he became an adolescent, apparently had a bad experience of culture shock after the family moved to the United States. Riaz’s early Afghani childhood in the late 1950’s must have been a comforting, happy experience. For, in early adulthood, he turned to radical Islam in finding his identity.
Read the book to learn how the author coped with reconciling the cultural clashes he encountered in his life.