By Tamim Ansary
The year I turned fifty, I thought my active life was over, and this pleased me greatly. I was satisfied with how things had turned out, and if nothing more happened, that would be fine: I could spend the rest of my days in a rocking chair, dispensing sage advice to the young with sentences that began, “When I was your age…”
It didn’t work that way. Time and history really are relentless. When my wife Debby and I got together decades ago, I was just launching on a risky trip across the Muslim world to find out what this Islam-stuff was all about and whether it meant anything to me. Before I left, Debby and I vowed to meet in Greece at the end of my trip… It was the ultimate romantic plan. But the expected future never seems to come true. The Iranian revolution broke out, Khomeini’s minions took American diplomats hostage, the world went up in flames, and the ensuing turmoil warped my journey into unexpected channels. I ended up back in SF, married, quiet, and happy.
We never stopped intending to make that trip to Europe, though, Debby and I. Every year we said, “Next year.” Finally, in the summer of 2001, Debby said: “No more maybes. Next summer, come hell or high water, we’re going.”
We made the vow but sure enough, two months later hell and high water arrived: terrorists crashed hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the world turned upside down. Man, history never stops, and it never stops interweaving with personal lives, erasing the border between public and private, inner and outer. The events of 9/11 pushed lots of lives into new channels, and one of those lives was mine. True to our pact, Debby and I did go to Europe the following summer, taking along our younger daughter Elina, but for me, Europe was just an appetizer. Debby and Elina returned to California after the vacation, but I climbed on an another plane and headed further east, to Afghanistan. It was the first time I had set foot in the place in 38 years. I had an assignment from a magazine to tell everyone (in 1500 words or less) how it felt to go “home.”
The weird thing was how much it did feel like home. I thought my psyche had separated from Afghanistan definitively long ago. I thought that going there now would be like traveling into a horror-story version of those H. Rider Haggard novels. I assumed I would feel like a total stranger. I thought disabled orphans and starving widows would storm me when I landed and that every person I met would resent me for having lived comfortably in America while they suffered through hell.
In Kabul, just about everything created by man looked so damaged it made me gasp, but the mountains looked the same, and something below the surface of social life felt unchanged. When my cousins and I stopped by a stream out in the countryside one day, ten or twelve locals wandered along, sat down to chat, and six hours passed as if time had stopped. I remembered that timeless quality, which had always dwelt at the heart of Afghan life. It was there right alongside a strand of dreadful violence: somehow, both themes coexisted.
One day a bunch of my cousins decided to take me to the shrine of my great, great, great grandfather Sa’duddin, somewhere north of the city. I said okay, and we set off. We had with us a qari, a chanter/singer of religious texts and poetry. Our route lay through the heart of downtown Kabul, and there we got stuck in a traffic jam, because the city was crowded with automobiles and because, as far as I could see, not one driver gave a fig about rules of the road or quaint conventions such as lanes. I saw no traffic cops that day, and I asked who was going to unsnarl the traffic. No one seemed to know—or care. God would provide. All around me, people started getting out of their cars to sit on their hoods and socialize with their neighbors. Apparently no one felt harassed, because no one had expected to get anywhere at a particular time in the first place.
My cousin jumped out of the car and said she was going to buy some candy to distribute at the shrine. Her husband went with her, leaving me alone with this qari we had brought along, this Muslim cantor, so the speak. The qari began to talk religion with me. He confided that his own religiosity was “20 % external, 80 % internal.” Then he told me a story.
In his youth, he said, he fell in love with a girl. But her family did not look upon him favorably and barred the girl from seeing him. The war came, and the girl moved to America. He wanted to write to her, the qari said, but no one would tell him her address. He wanted to leave the country and go to America to find her because he felt that he would die if he didn’t: but he learned that Arizona was a big place, and no one would tell him where in Arizona she might be. So he didn’t go, and that was the hinge of his life, he said—because if he had been able to go to his girl, he would have gone, and they would have found some way to get married, and the rest of his life would have been conventional. Instead, he said, he redirected the passion he had felt for the girl into a passion for God and this turned out to be—he claimed–“the flame that ignites the universe.”
My cousin came back with a bag of candy and soon the traffic spontaneously unsnarled and started moving again. I never figured out how that happened. We left the city and struck north, over a dusty, ill-defined road, which shrank to a mere goat track, and finally even that petered out. We drove over unmarked hills and alongside waterless gullies, and I had no idea how we were finding our way,
Suddenly a large, reddish-brown structure topped with a dome rose up ahead,: my ancestor’s shrine! It was a complex of buildings in a good-sized yard that was enclosed by a mud-brick wall. Over the gate hung an inscription in Farsi, apparently from my ancestor’s poetry. It read:
From the desiccated vines of our native soil wine comes flowing out.
Soul is the aroma wafting from our moist and dusty mud…”
Inside the compound walls at least 50 or 60 men, women, and children were milling about. We made our way into the chamber that contained the grave itself. The roof above the large grave had an opening so that rain could come in to nourish the vines growing up the sides of the tomb. The qari joined a group of men sitting in an alcove. I was told to go ahead, go: pray by my ancestor’s grave. I felt awkward about doing this: it was so foreign to my ways—kneeling by the side of some ancient grave and holding my hands out as if to receive water. I didn’t want to adopt this posture, because it felt false, and some part of me felt it would be disrespectful.
But the social pressure was too intense to oppose; I had to do the expected. I kneeled by the grave and held up my hands. I wasn’t praying, I was merely thinking random thoughts, but no one could tell what was going on inside me, only what, from the outside, I seemed to be doing. Behind me, I heard someone asking, “Who is the farangi?” and someone whispering back, “He’s not a farangi, he’s the son of Mir Amanuddin Ansary…He’s one of Sheikh-sahib’s descendents…” Then this unknown person behind me recited a list of names, the chain of genealogy that connected me to the guy who had been buried here some 200 years ago. Sitting by the grave, I felt the lyrics of a rock and roll song sound in my mind—from Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s:
Will the moon still shine in the sky when I die?
My thoughts began to take the form of a one-sided conversation: I was addressing my great, great, great grandfather: “How strange that I am your direct descendent. It’s like we’re from different universes. Your whole life was this village. And when your great grandchildren made the move to Kabul, how huge that must have seemed at the time: to Kabul! But their children moved again, and so much further—to America! How could one line travel so far in just four generations? How could I have become so different from you?”
Behind me, the men in the alcove were chanting/singing verses from the Qur’an The suddenly familiar musicality of scriptural qira’ut resonated for me, evoking formless memories from long ago, some history of funerals, this haunting, wrenchingly beautiful vocalization that can’t really be called singing.
Then I realized something startling. I could understand the words being chanted. How could this be? I speak no Arabic at all. How could I understand what these men were singing? The answer was simple and not supernatural. They weren’t singing Qur’an. They were singing, in the Qur’anic style, my ancestor’s poetry, which was written in Farsi. The lyrics they were chanting were all about the pervasive totality of love. The poem was arranged as couplets, and while the first half of each couplet said something new, the last half was a refrain, the same phrase repeated again and again. I heard the man singing
Any road you take, whatever landscape it runs through
It all has the coloring of Love.
In the mosque, in the church, and in the temple too,
It all has the coloring of Love.
The wine, the cup, the tavern, and the one who pours for you,
It all has the coloring of Love.
It went on like that, couplet after couplet, “it all has the coloring of love…” the guy kept chanting. And I was still thinking how strange it was for me to be in this place, to have come from such a distant and different place, at which moment—
Look, I’m not a superstitious guy. I don’t go in for hocus pocus of any kind, I don’t believe in magic, or an afterlife, or ghosts, or whatever: I really am just about the most hard-headed, cynical realist you’ll ever encounter. But I did have this one small experience: at the moment that the chanting welled and I thought “How could one genetic line travel so far away in four generations” a voice interrupted the conversation in my mind to say, “We’re not so different, my boy. You haven’t really traveled so far away from me.”
And it wasn’t my voice. I didn’t look around because it wasn’t back there either. The voice was closer than in-my-ear. It was in my head. I was having what I thought was a one-way internal conversation, but it wasn’t one-way after all. Someone else was in there, and that someone else spoke. That’s how the experience registered. I offer no theories about this, I attribute no meaning to it, I claim no status for it. I only report what happened and how it felt.
And there was no follow up. The voice did not speak again. My thoughts went back to being mere thoughts inside my own head. We stayed at the shrine for a while longer and then went home. I only mention this whole episode by way of pressing the point. There is at the heart of the Afghan experience a certain peaceful something. But maybe I shouldn’t say “is”. Ten years later, when I returned to Kabul I found a different city. Money had changed something that bombs had not been able to touch. But that’s another story for another time.