Tamim Ansary


Tamim Ansary was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1948, where he lived until he was 16 years old. He moved to the United States for school. In the 1960s and 1970s, he lived in Portland, Oregon, working with a counterculture newspaper collective that published weekly tabloids, titled, The Scribe. After his time with The Scribe, he joined the Asia Foundation, where he helped edit a bi-weekly publication concerning Asian culture and politics for Asian scholars in America. He dedicated time to developing his writing– publishing textbooks, writing nonfiction children’s books, writing a column for Encarta.com, and running the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop. The turning point in his career came following the devastating events of 9/11, after his 900-word email to friends about the event went viral. He then began giving talks about Afghanistan, producing a radio show about Islamic history, and writing essays and books about Afghanistan and Islam. His writing focuses on the question of what happens in zones where cultures overlap. His latest book, The Invention of Yesterday, explores whether a single global story can be discerned in the jostling of different world-historical perspectives. You can find more information about Ansary on his website.

“Afghan Identity in a Global Age: Forging Cultural Unity in an Age of Multicultural Diversity”

“Afghanistan has long wrestled with a problem that will soon loom large for the globe as a whole: how to accommodate cultural diversity while achieving cultural unity. In Afghanistan, the roots of this problem go back to geography. On the one hand, the country’s craggy landscape favors the formation of insular, culturally homogenous communities. On the other, floods of multicultural traffic have poured through this land throughout the ages, between the vast world civilizations that surround it, forcing Afghans to adapt constantly to cultural novelty. Afghans responded by forming a society radically divided into public and private spheres. Most Afghans literally lived in walled compounds that shielded them from the eyes of strangers. In these worlds of privacy, family networks could function as sovereign cultural microcosms. Afghans seated their individual identities within the communal self of their family network as a whole. Islam provided the narrative we all held in common, which enabling diverse microcosms to interact peaceably. The system’s fatal flaw was its sequestration of women, which could not endure. But when progressives worked to open the public sphere to women, they also eroded the walls of privacy that kept the many microcultures distinct from one another and let them retain their identities. Individual identity becomes problematic when the larger social story loses coherence. Wars and foreigners further fragmented any shared narrative, turning Islam from a source of harmony to a primary driver of conflict. The war it fueled of all against all eventually brought the Taliban to power. All this matters because Afghanistan provides a case study for the drama global humanity is entering. In the world as a whole, not so long ago, physical distance provided what compound walls provided to Afghans: the separation that allowed different cultures to achieve coherence through the slow intercommunication among insiders shielded from the judgments of strangers. Back then, few were exposed to the clamor of many cultures at once, because other cultures were generally far away. Technology, however, has suddenly eliminated distance. In the Digital Age, with “everyone everywhere all at once”, few can experience the sense of belonging that villages once provided Afghans. Without a sense of membership in a global village, we’ll be hard put to function as a Global We, which we need to be in order to grapple with the challenges that will be coming at the Global Us.”