Overnight Sage

When terrorists last Tuesday turned commercial airliners into bombs, Mir Tamim Ansary, 52, was in the middle of writing a novel, Buried in Kandahar, about a young man who returns to his native Afghanistan just as the Taliban takes power. The subject proved eerily relevant: Mere hours after the disaster, Saudi terrorist venture capitalist Osama bin Laden, who is reportedly being protected by Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, had been accused of orchestrating the attacks. The next afternoon, Ansary, who left Afghanistan in 1965, when he was 16, heard callers on the Bay Area radio station KGO talking to host Ronn Owens about bombing Afghanistan “back to the Stone Age.” He went home and sent out an e-mail to 20 friends about the pointlessness of such thinking: Afghanistan, he argued, had already been flattened by decades of internationally sponsored war. “I speak as one who hates the Taliban and Osama bin Laden,” he wrote. “But the Taliban and bin Laden are not Afghanistan. They‘re not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant psychotics who took over Afghanistan in 1997. Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan. When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think ’the people of Afghanistan,‘ think ’the Jews in the concentration camps.‘ It’s not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators. They would exult if someone would come in there, take out the Taliban and clear out the rat‘s nest of international thugs holed up in their country.”

Ansary’s message traveled with unusual speed. By Friday, Salon was running the piece online ( newsfeature20010914afghanistanindex.html), and Ansary, who makes his living writing nonfiction for children, had a new vocation: educating his fellow Americans about a part of the world they suddenly want to understand. I spoke to Ansary by phone on Monday morning.

L.A. WEEKLY: Do you have any idea how many people have read your letter?

MIR TAMIM ANSARY: I have no idea. I only know that I wrote it on Wednesday, and by Friday night I was hearing from people in the Netherlands and Australia, even Thailand.

Some people are forwarding it as a letter from “my friend Tamim,” or “my Afghani friend” even though they‘re not the original recipients, but several links down the chain of transmission.

Yes. Well, it’s nice to have friends you‘ve never heard of.

There are also rumors going around that you’re not a real person, that you‘re fictional.

I’ve heard that too. I‘ve also gotten a lot of e-mail asking, “Is this a hoax?” And I have to ask, first of all, what is hoaxlike about this? What I wrote isn’t about me. It‘s not a personal story, or an anecdote. It’s simply information, and a view on Afghanistan a lot of people share. I haven‘t been back to Afghanistan for 36 years. What I know about this situation, what I bring to the table, is just from media and books -- the only way it has to do with me is that, because it’s a core personal concern of mine, I read everything I can find. I probably pay more attention to what‘s happening in Afghanistan than other people. But it’s a 22 all out there, all this information. Anyone can confirm it, even if they don‘t believe I exist. Hoax-shmoax!

When you sent this out, did you anticipate the impact it would have?

Absolutely not. I was just shocked. That it did have such impact only says to me that this sentiment is pervasively out there. I just happened to do something that made it appear. It’s easy to believe that everybody‘s on a war frenzy and in a blind rage. And of course everybody is angry -- I’m angry too. But there‘s more going on here. I think the way people forwarded this so quickly speaks to how many people want a better understanding of the situation.

Did you leave family behind in Afghanistan?

My father stayed. He came out for about a year. But he was in the embassy -- he was a press attache there, and when politics changed, he went back. After the Soviets invaded, however, he couldn’t get out.

In your letter, you wrote about how Afghanistan‘s public services had all been ruined during the 10 years of Soviet occupation, which began in 1979: “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 infrastructre? Cut them off from medicine and healthcare? Too late. Someone already did all that. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs.” The country has had such a tragic history.

Yes, and you know it‘s an emblematic tragic history because it’s clear that similar things have been happening in other places around the world. The particular tragedy of Afghanistan is that the fabric of the society there was utterly, utterly destroyed. You had wars in the past in which families were uprooted, but still there were families. And there were traditions, customs, jokes, narratives -- all the things that bind people together. But in the last war, against the Soviet Union, so many were uprooted and so many were killed that now you have a generation that grew up without antecedents. They‘re not expressing any deep cultural thing, because they have no culture left.

This is something we have to think about with respect to other countries -- Liberia, for example, sounds like it’s going through a similar thing. It‘s now a stateless society, a society atomized down to its suffering individuals.

I worry about that. In the long run, that’s the big threat -- for us. Any response that says “We‘re going to smash that place” only creates another and larger zone of people who threaten us. It’s a little late to be talking about it now. But maybe not. There has to be reconstruction and rebuilding. You can‘t walk away from these places that are so devastated. You can’t be global and isolationist at the same time.

What about our country‘s involvement with the Taliban? The U.S. government was the Taliban’s ally against the Soviets.

There‘s a great book about the Taliban by a Pakistani journalist named Ahmed Rashid called Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. It has the details on all of this. According to what Rashid writes, there was some pretty direct involvement between the U.S. and the creating of the Taliban, and it had to do with the American impression that the Taliban had what it took to secure the country for an oil pipeline that was supposed to run through Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf. I’m sure the Americans had no idea what was going to happen. They were careless.

There‘s also a great connection between the Pakistanis and the Taliban. What the details are I don’t know. I do know that many Afghans feel the Taliban is a faction of Pakistan that‘s taken over Afghanistan.

Because of various things that I’ve read, including Rashid‘s book, it dawned on me, probably a year ago, that the Taliban potentially have a great deal of power, but not because of any weaponry or anything like that. They potentially have a lot of power because they wield an ideological club. There are a lot of rootless people looking for a way to make sense of their lives in the world. There are devastated people in Islamic countries, living in absolute poverty, and they flock to the people who have an uncompromising ideal. The Taliban has that. It gives them hope.

Pakistan brought the Taliban into being, but I don’t think it‘s in control anymore, because Pakistan itself has a huge, dissatisfied, restless mass of poor people who are Islamic. Fundamentalist Islam has the government of Pakistan afraid of its own people, certainly. So if the U.S. makes a deal with Pakistan about controlling terrorism, it may not amount to much.

Do you think people in this country are capable of grasping the complexity of this situation -- that the people of Afghanistan are held hostage by their government?

I’m hoping the decision makers are capable of grasping the complexity, and I‘m hoping they can educate the people a little about what they have to face. But we private citizens are not going to be in a position to decide what to do here. We have to rely on the sophistication and nuanced wisdom of our leaders.

Do you have any fears for your personal safety with your e-mail having gone out to so many people?

I certainly do. But let’s not go there. Let‘s not stir that pot.

When will your novel be finished?

Very, very soon. Much sooner than I thought.

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