Ansary's gift for speaking from across the cultural divide was evident in that fateful e-mail, and it's even more clear in his recently published memoir, West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story. The book is a poignant account of his struggle to reconcile two cultures "built (and lived) on a whole different set of premises." Born in 1948 to an Afghan father and an American mother, Ansary lived in a prewar Kabul virtually untouched by the West. Still, he had one foot in each of those worlds, and as such was an outsider in both. In his community of walled compounds and extended families, he prayed five times a day, but "ate odd American things like spaghetti." When he and his family left Kabul so he could attend boarding school in Colorado, he felt "relieved of the discomforts of a divided self." He was "free to roam the world as just one person: Tamim Ansary, American guy."
In the West, Ansary's family members took different paths. His father eventually moved back to Afghanistan; his sister married a conservative Republican and renounced much of her Afghan background; and his brother returned from a trip to Pakistan as an Islamic fundamentalist. Ansary "tried to straddle the fault line," the middle ground on which he found himself on Sept. 11, when his two worlds literally collided. A freelance writer and editor, Ansary has seen his career take off in part because of the tragedy, but his mission is still a personal one. This summer he plans to return to his homeland after a 36-year absence. As he notes in the memoir, "I spoke for Afghanistan with my American voice, and while I was writing, my two selves were fused."