by Pat Holt
Tuesday, September 18, 2001
NEW VOICE FROM THE INTERNET: TAMIM ANSARY
If you haven't heard of Tamim Ansary, hang on - chances are Americans are going to see a lot of this thoughtful and level-headed Afghan American writer, even if the mainstream press never discovers him.
(ALthough that seems doubtful - by the time I caught up with him yesterday, Tamim had just promised Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose he'd fly to New York today to discuss the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon for PBS-TV).
So let me get out of Tamim's way and let you read the email that he wrote "out of pent-up frustration to 20 or 25 friends," he says. "The next thing I knew the phone was ringing from Australia," he says.
Here's the piece he wrote:
"I've been hearing a lot of talk about 'bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age.' Ronn Owens, on KGO Talk Radio today, allowed that this would mean killing innocent people, people who had nothing to do with this atrocity, but he said, 'We're at war; we have to accept collateral damage. What else can we do?' Minutes later I heard some TV pundit discussing whether we 'have the belly to do what must be done.'
Unlike commentary on television or in the traditional press, an essay like this on the Internet has to earn its audience reader by reader, sometimes striking a nerve all over the world at lightning speed. It also picks up a certain mythology along the way. I've read that Tamim Ansary is a University of California professor, a politician, an activist. He is none of these.
"The funny thing is," Tamim says, "when people find me, many of them ask, 'Is this a hoax?' I tell them that even if my name were John Brown, the state of Afghanistan is what it is. Bin Laden is what he is. That's not going to change."
Tamim is an Afghan American (one parent from each country) who was born and raised in Afghanistan until the age of 16, when he moved to Portland, Oregon. He has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1976, writing books for school publishers such as Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Heinemann and Houghton Mifflin. By now he's written about 75 books, many of them about American history.
For example, one of Tamim's series explains the history of American holidays (Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day) with, as one might expect, an international point of view: "In the Labor Day book," he says, "I tried to describe the breadth of the industrial revolution. That's something of a challenge when you're writing for first-graders and are allowed about 25 words on a page."
He's also written a series on Native Americans ("Subarctic Indians," "Southwest Indians,"), "Cool Collections" ("Model Cars," "Dolls"), mysteries, science fiction, and one book on his native country, "Afghanistan: Fighting for Freedom," (1991). This was praised by School Library Journal as "an informative overview . . . His discussion of the lives of children and families and the role of oral tradition reads with the immediacy of personal knowledge."
Tamim says he's "been upset by the Taliban and the terrible things happening in Afghanistan for a long time. A couple of years ago I learned that land mines are pervasive in Afghanistan. The United Nations offered people the chance to 'adopt' three acres of land that the UN would then raze of mines. I felt this was a small thing to do. But the Taliban had created such a horrible landscape that nobody paid the adoption fee. I spent the summer crying over that."
He tried to go back in 1979. "By then the Soviets pretty much controlled the place. I didn't feel I could go in because it was too dangerous, but I wanted to get as close as I could to see if my father could come out and meet me. I landed in Morocco and traveled through North Africa asking everybody questions about how to get in. I wasn't a tourist or anything official - just a normal guy traveling around in the poorest possible way.
"I would say, 'Can you help me? I'm from Afghanistan and I'm trying to rediscover my Muslim roots," and they would say, "Oh, we can help you, but we hate Saudi Arabia. They're all so rich and arrogant." Elsewhere it's as if the true Islam is this obscure guy with a beard in some bazaar someplace.
"So I felt this disconnect between our government and those people over there. When the United States government says it's gotten cooperation with Pakistan, it doesn't mean the country or the people of Pakistan. It means the government, which today is five guys with guns."
As to the events of September 11, Tamim says, "I understand the blind rage that people feel. I felt it, too, when I saw those planes hit the World Trade Center. But during the aftermath I kept worrying, 'Oh, you guys! What are you thinking? You're going to start another holocaust."
Is there anything Americans can do to learn more about Afghanistan? "A book that I felt was enlightening is 'Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia' by a Pakistani journalist named Ahmed Rashid [Yale University Press; $14.00 paperback]. He was there; he talked to them. His book is astonishing."
NOTE: Thanks to the many readers who wrote in with delight upon learning that nonmainstream journalists are alive and well as quoted in #264. This flood of responses - well over 200 - also yielded wondrous new information about the alternative press on the Internet (see this Friday's column). In the space below I've run only those letters that add information to the theme of #264 or that protest against it. Negative letters, it seems to me, tell us much about the current pro-war frenzy.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your column this week seems, unfortunately, to reflect several thousand miles of (illusory) distance from the trauma that people are still experiencing here in New York City. In the class I taught last night, three students had lost family members and three more had witnessed one or more of the blasts. Others were late or absent (as they told me by e-mail) because of the disruptions in transportation. One was absent because she was among the volunteer rescue workers. For these people, and their friends and neighbors, it may be premature to have someone pontificate about the "pain" that the perpetrators are alleged to have been in. Or regard Mr. Bin Laden as a "true ideologue" and "defender of Islam" who will only cease his activities when the United States leaves the region [read: so that Israel can be exterminated]." Or for you to quote someone who uses "white male" as a racial and sexual slur. Of course US news coverage is mostly shallow. Our mass media are a sounding board for special interests. Did you expect them to do a 180 overnight? But most of the viewpoints you rummaged the Web for were expressed also on the media, if you waited. Most of the sensible cautions you reproduced could have been heard from Secretary of State Powell. But the US media also obviously felt that it was important to offer the family, friends, and neighbors of the victims the sense that they were part of a larger family that supported them. This is the sense that inspires embraces at funerals. As at funerals, the sense of unity is at the very best only a partial truth, and it is bound to dissolve in time. But at the time, it is necessary and healing. So are you, way out there, our neighbor? Or is our suffering just a distant image to be seen on TV and made into a stick to beat the press with?
Holt responds: It's hard to imagine that anyone, including and especially family and friends of the victims, should be told that "if you wait," the truth will come along when the press decides it's safe to report it. And yes, at a time of catastrophe, I think we should expect the press to raise its standards.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
A sidebar on the state of things in Washington this week: Chain bookstores such as B. Dalton in Union Station, across from the Capitol, and Borders at 18th & L were closed Wednesday, while indies such as Kramerbooks and Lambda Rising were open. At a time when newspapers were sold out, it said something about community service. Newspapers were sold on the streets the last couple of days, as racks were quickly emptied.
There were Hummers and guardsmen outside 18th & L, as well as at the Washington Post's corner on 15th St.
Before we rant about "the media" and the government we should remember that we are the media and the government. You should know that better than most.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Hindsight is such a wonderful thing. We learn now that should have known of Pearl Harbor, Kennedy's assassination and Tuesday's terrible day if only we would listen more closely to people like Beeman. In his remarks about how we hinder the right of self-determination, he seems to have forgotten about Kuwait's right of self-determination, which was the reason we got involved in the first place.
And what about Afghanistan? Did all these second-guessers forget that the United States was helping bin Laden help Afghanistan and their self-determination when Russia invaded? For helping people with their self-determination this is the way we are repaid. But I have forgotten that the press wants us to be tolerant of the most intolerant people on the face of the earth, the kind that says women are neither to be seen nor heard. We got a taste of their intolerance last Tuesday. The press seems to think we need to have a state dinner for the Taliban so we can learn more about them and what's wrong with us.
It didn't take long for our own to tell us this was really our fault did it.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your column #264 quotes Beeman as stating that 'in Laden is a true ideologue whose mission is to stop the United states from occupying the lands of Islam and will not cease his opposition until the United States leaves the region.
Question: I interpret this to mean that the United State's response to this act of terrorism that destroyed thousands of innocent lives should be:
"Mr. Bin Laden, you won! You whipped us! We agree to walk away from the Middle East and leave you and your cohorts to claim the victory you wrested from us without mercy. You, bin Laden, can then rightfully boast to have restored the region to the former glory of the Islamic Empire– and whether the people of your newly won Islamic Empire agree to live under your brand of Islam or not, they will have no choice?"
Do I understand correctly?
Holt responds: I think Beeman was trying to understand the mentality of terrorism so that we can see the bind we're in. A true ideologue would want nothing better than for the U.S. to go to war with Islam.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I don't think I'll ever get used to the idea that racism stops at "middle-aged white guys," as you gleefully quoted in this week's newsletter. In a community where we are careful, and rightfully so, to protect our language from the creep into degradation of people, this one remains as a banner, as if it was virtue itself to denounce a large group of men whose crime against humanity is being born white.
Racism is racism, and an article that depends on racism for its point should be tossed in the round file. Rewrite this article with "middle-aged African-American women" or "Chicano" and you wouldn't have considered running a quote from it.
Holt responds: The writer whom I quoted was making the point that we need to hear a variety of opinions from people who are different than the ones in charge . When business and government are run by African American women, I'll still hope for many different points of view.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am dismayed that you, who praise yourself on being so open, offered only the anti-government point of view. Do you not have any feeling for the innocent people who died?
The column was critical of the traditional press, but I'm not sure what about it was anti-government. I felt that because innocent people died, journalists should seek open debate and wide-ranging commentary.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The savagery of your response to this tragedy and verbal appeasement of the monsters who did this is beyond comprehension. It suggests that you might have been one of those who would have urged us to understand Hitler, understand his anger and hostility to the civilized world and through reaching out to him find some common bond of brotherhood. Remember Mein Kampf. That monster had also laid out his plan for world order. Words are cheap. Prognosticians are brittle and almost always are wrong. Your defense of a mad, unfeeling, ruthless terrorist is unseemly. I wonder how the victims and their loved ones would react to your untimely remarks.
A little patience and consideration rather than vituperation, misplaced anger from someone with your intelligence. Frankly, you owe us all an apology for this inappropriate column.
Holt responds: One of the first lessons I was taught in junior high school was how important it was to understand why a person like Hitler emerged and gained such immense power so quickly. Why doesn't the same hold true with Osama bin Laden?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
While I have criticized American foreign policy in the past, and while it is true that Osama bin Laden received assistance from the West before he "turned on it", Gary Zukav's response to the September 9 bombings is - to put it simply - full of it.
I quote your quote: "Zukav points out the neglected fact that the terrorists "who committed these acts of violence were in extreme pain themselves," and that in the act of attacking American buildings, "they were fueled by the violent parts of ourselves - the parts that judge without mercy, strike in anger, and rejoice in the suffering of others. They were our proxy representatives. If you can look with compassion upon those who have suffered and those who have committed acts of cruelty alike, then you will see that all are suffering. The remedy for suffering is not to inflict more suffering." "
In other words, we are encouraged to "feel their pain." This comes off as a parody of a politician's phony compassion. What about "feeling" the pain of my Swedish countrymen who were ALSO murdered in the World Trade Center?
Perhaps next, Zukaw will suggest we "feel the pain" of the Nazis that "drove them" to genocide? What is this, Mad Magazine?
"Well, he had a bad childhood you know. Charles Manson, I mean."
It's one thing having a critical eye pointed at the establishment. But to delude yourself with touchy-feely New Age mumbo-jumbo when the Western World is under attack, is just pathetic.
I shall remember his words next time I meet Gary Zukav; I might slap him in the face and shout: "There - feel MY pain, a**hole!"
Holt responds: Goodness, such language! And thank you for showing "the violent parts of yourself," as Zukav put it, for all to see. Your letter is quite a lesson for us all.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Thanks for your "Press under Scrutiny" column. Another point to make would be the lack of coverage of effects of US policy, and the double standard imposed by mainstream media. This from Michael Albert, of Z Magazine and ZNet:
"There could be about 5,000 deaths from the horrific events in NYC. If so, some relevant context is that the same level of human loss would have to happen in the U.S. once every month, all year long, for over fifteen years, for the death toll to match what U.S. policies have imposed on Iraq. This grisly accounting doesn't make the pain here any less, but it may help reveal that the pain elsewhere, induced by U.S policies, is even greater, perhaps opening the way to compassion and solidarity.
"If there is a moral principle that ought to apply to bin Laden or the Taliban or to anyone who may commit or abet acts of terror, shouldn't that principle also apply to us? If so, a relevant bit of context is that to employ terror was our stated policy in Iraq and Yugoslavia, where in both cases we admitted and even bragged that we were attacking the population to collapse the governments. So who brings us to justice? And do we really think being brought to justice ought to mean suffering terror, in turn?"
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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