January 2009

Tamim Ansary: Afghan American, world traveler, keen observer, and writer. His name leapt off the shelf at the bookstore where his latest book, East of New York, West of Kabul, was featured. It recounts his journeys through Islamic countries and the passion and fundamentalism he encountered--a shock from which, he says, it took him 14 years to recover.

Born in Afghanistan to an American mother and Afghani father, he grew up in Kabul. His father taught science and literature at Kabul University and his mother taught English at the first girls school in Afghanistan. Later the family moved to Lashkargah, a small town in southwestern Afghanistan, in the midst of a vast American-funded project to make the desert bloom.

In 1964, Tamim got a scholarship to an exclusive private school in Colorado. He discovered to his dismay that he was one of three scholarship students among a student body of children of the very rich. It was culture shock in many ways, and at first he had difficulty having conversations with anyone. But he persisted and went on to graduate and go to Reed College in Portland.

After college, he tried various lifestyles of the counterculture and soon quit his job to travel. When he returned to the States, he was a textbook editor for Harcourt Brace and then started writing children's books. After 9/11, he returned to Afghanistan to see the refugee camps and to visit Kabul.

His great love is writing. He runs the San Francisco Writers Workshop and is a regular columnist for Microsoft's learning site, Encarta.com. He has published a literary memoir, several novels, and a series of educational comic books called Adventures Plus. His next book is Destiny Disrupted, History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. He has a terrific website on which he publishes his views of the world's situation and his philosophy of life (www.mirtamimansary.com ).

In response to questions about the future of Afghanistan, Tamim is frank and not optimistic. He recounts the dismal history of American involvement in that country. Money poured in to rebuild the infrastructure after the Russians left, and that was spent unwisely. There was no real investment in the country, and while a few earned high salaries as translators, most local workers were paid $10 per day. The cost of rent and food skyrocketed and the general quality of life deteriorated.

He feels that there is an injurious perspective of the west toward the status of women in Afghanistan. He says it cannot be viewed separately from the culture, from the tribal and family structures that have existed for centuries. While there was a period in the 1960's of social change, rising educational levels, and more freedom for women, this has shifted backward. And now, as long as there is a foreign presence, even if that power is promoting progressive movement, there will be opposition.

His class for OLLI, which he has taught previously for the SF State OLLI, will focus on various areas of unrest in the Islamic world: Pakistan, Iran, Iraq the Arab World, and Palestine and Israel. He will look at what is going on in each area that has given rise to extremists, and to what extent these violent groups have succeeded.