In the mid-18th century, my great, great, great grandfather, the poet Sa'duddin, was living in a little village north of Kabul. Sheikh Sa'duddin was a pantheist who claimed to see God in everything, and little boys would tease him by presenting him with the humblest of material objects — a clod of dirt, perhaps, or an old discarded shoe — and asking, "Is this God?" My ancestor would always answer, "Yes, boys, when I look at that clod of dirt, I see God."
Eventually the man's mystical spouting so offended the orthodox clerics of the time that they reported him to the emperor. "There's an infidel in Deh Yahya," they complained. "He's worshipping rubbish and teaching little boys that clods of dirt are God. He must be punished."
The emperor summoned the Sheikh to his palace in Kandahar to account for his blasphemies. As my ancestor saddled his donkey, his devotees begged him not to go, but he laughed and said: "After all this time, don't you know who I am?"
His accusers were waiting for him at court, but when he entered the chamber they sensed a shift in the wind, it seems. Suddenly, one after another, they began recanting, each claiming he'd never slandered the Sheikh; it was the guy next to him. And when Sa'duddin finally reached the throne, the emperor stood up to receive him and kissed his hand: for he knew Sa'duddin's poetry, and it turned out he was a fan.
Well... the kissing of the hand was probably a detail we Ansarys added over the years. In fact, this story may never have been told outside a compound inhabited by Ansarys, but the Sheikh was real enough, his poetry is still read, and his grave near Kabul is a shrine that still attracts devotees by the hundreds. As for the emperor, he was real too: he was Ahmad Shah Baba, the colossal conqueror who forged the empire that eventually congealed into Afghanistan.
One of the eerie pleasures of writing my book Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan was catching constant glimpses of my own family threaded into the history. Mind you, we Ansarys were not major players; we never made a pivotal difference. But at many crucial moments one of us was somehow on the stage somewhere: a Forest Gump–like observer of the action, or one of the extras filling out a scene, or a face in the crowd being trampled in a stampede. The stories I heard growing up and knew from a purely private perspective had a public side to them as well, it turns out: they were threads in the fabric of Afghan history.
When we pop up again in the late 1800s, the stories have lost their folkloric flavor — but so has the history: this is the era of Abdur Rahman Khan, a grim king whose 20-year reign of terror marked the first consolidation of an Afghan state. In his latter days, Abdur Rahman waged a brutal war to subjugate the Hazaras, an autonomous ethnic nation within his borders. He eviscerated their region and briefly legalized the enslavement of this ethnic group alone. Then he died and his son inherited the throne. The new king sent his finance minister out to see what taxes might be wrung from the conquered region. That much is public history.
The textbooks don't mention it, but my grandfather happened to be the finance minister's personal physician, and he went along on the trip. Somewhere along the way, he had occasion to treat an ailing big shot who, as a token of his gratitude, gave my grandfather a Hazara girl he "owned." My grandfather brought her back to his village and she grew up within the family. Eventually my grandfather married her, and she bore him five children, one of whom was my father.
What we Ansarys experienced as dramatic moments in our family's life were actually close-ups of history. Pull back for a broader view and those private moments dissolve into a larger picture, like dots in an impressionist painting. In the 1930s, for example, the Afghan government sent a small group of young men abroad for the first time, to study in Western universities. One of them was my uncle. Winning a government scholarship — a great moment for him, a proud moment for the family! But that moment was just one iota of a larger historical event unfolding, a process that would ultimately tear Afghanistan apart: The country was starting to swing back and forth between two extremes. One set of forces strained to modernize the country and open it to the world; the other sought to close it down, turn it inward, and restore the ancient ways.
What was happening to the country was happening to us as well, but we were on both sides of the equation. Ours was an old, conservative family with religious and cultural prestige rooted in the soil of Old Afghanistan. Ironically, this very prestige moved my uncle, and later my father, to the head of the line for those coveted government scholarships, which ultimately put (some of) us smack-dab in the heart of the country's modernizing, Westernizing demographic.
When my father married an American woman and brought her back to Afghanistan, my family saw it as an idiosyncratic act by a reckless fellow deviating from the norm. Actually it was just part of an emerging historical pattern. What my father did first, many others would do soon. If Twitter had existed in Afghanistan at the time, pundits would have said: "Trending now: foreign wives."
Around the time I was born, the United States got involved in the country for the first time, funding and sponsoring a huge project to dam a major river and build farms and power plants in a remote desert. And there we were, the Zeligs of Afghanistan, living in the small town built to serve as the headquarters of the American project. To me, this was a thrilling period of my preteen/early-teen life: my days were all about that wonderful river and the heavily wooded island in the middle of it teeming with jungle cats and wild boar, and the desert all around us romantically replete with bounding gazelles, and the nearby ruins of a thousand-year-old city where I played with my new American friends. But when I look at those adventures from a historical perspective, a much larger picture comes into focus: that town, that life, my father's job — it was all part of America's Cold War competition with the Soviets in Afghanistan, an elephantine struggle by which many around the world would be trampled and whose stakes could not have been higher.
We weren't shaped by history, nor did we shape it; we were history. When the Afghan Communists seized power and triggered the Soviet invasion, the losses suffered by my family were just a particular instance of a general catastrophe; and when the tribal guerillas styling themselves the Mujahideen rose out of the hills to fight the Communists, the chasm that opened in Afghan society spread through my family too, sparking tensions that still crackle decades later.
I was living in San Francisco by the time the Taliban stormed into Kabul. I remember Clinton going on TV to confess his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and I remember fuming about the Ken Starr prosecution that was hobbling a president and domestic program I supported; but that month I was also puzzling over a mysterious videotape I received from a cousin of mine who had never gotten out of Kabul. The tape had no soundtrack and came with no explanation; it simply showed the view from a second-story window of a near-deserted street patrolled by a few men in black turbans: Taliban, I would realize later, men who were even then inviting al-Qaeda into the country and setting in motion the events that would culminate with the destruction of the Twin Towers.
Writing this book brought home to me again the fact that history is not some separate thing, unfolding over there while our individual lives flow forward over here. It's nothing but the strands of our innumerable lives weaving and interweaving. And when I think about my own life twined into the history of my family, and the story of my family woven into the warp and woof of the Afghan epic, I realize that the Afghan saga is itself just one strand in a larger tapestry wrapped around the world: a story in which — for better or for worse — everything is connected to everything else.
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Tamim Ansary is the author of Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, and West of Kabul, East of New York, among other books. For 10 years he wrote a monthly column for Encarta.com, and has published essays and commentary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Alternet, TomPaine.com, Edutopia, Parade, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Born in Afghanistan in 1948, he moved to the U.S. in 1964. He lives in San Francisco, where he is director of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.
Books mentioned in this post
Tamim Ansary is the author of Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan