The story of Afghanistan — its history, its culture — is a narrative writer Tamim Ansary says he "carries in his bones." Ansary was born there to an Afghan father, educated in the United States, and an American mother.
He spent much of his 1950s childhood in the town of Lashkar Gah. There, his father worked on a massive irrigation project, funded by the U.S. and aimed at turning a dusty valley into fertile farms.
Though Ansary's adult life has been here in America, his writing reflects his deep Afghan roots. His new book, Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan, details the past 200 years in the life of Afghanistan, a history "often interrupted" by invasions from outside powers like Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.
The title — Games Without Rules — references both the political game played for control of Afghanistan and a popular sport there. "There's a game in Afghanistan called buzkashi," Ansary tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "This is an ancient game, and its mounted riders grab a goat carcass off the ground and try to get it to a goal post and back again. ... As it was played originally, the field of play had no lines, there were no referees, there were no fouls, and there were no teams — riders played for their own glory or for the landowner or tribal chieftain that supported them."
Over the course of Afghan history, Ansary continues, various elites have tried to centralize power and "impose rules on a game without rules." Invading powers, particularly, did not mix well with Afghan culture and society. "When the British came, they lived ... in compounds separate from the Afghan people, and they brought their British life with them, they brought the chandeliers, they brought polo matches, they brought cigars and after-dinner liqueurs, and the two societies pursued their lives completely in isolation from each other."
The British — like the Americans who came after them — weren't intending to stay in Afghanistan. "When the Mongols conquered, they wanted the place," he says, "but in the last 200 years, there's been something different going on." That approach hasn't helped Afghanistan, Ansary adds, but it did trigger a desire among the Afghan elites to develop the country and build it up to Western standards, "not to supplant Afghan culture, but to enable Afghans to have more of the things that Western societies enjoyed."
And that aim fitted well into the Cold War struggles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — Afghanistan pulled in a great deal of development money by playing the two sides against each other.
Ansary was partially raised in an area of southern Afghanistan known as "Little America," where he lived two lives, going to Afghan school during the day and hanging out with his American friends in the evening. "We did American things, we read Mad magazine, we'd have square dances — I learned how to cha-cha," he says, laughing. "The peacefulness of that era is so dramatic now when we look back through the fog of war."
The Soviet invasion of 1979 was a turning point in Afghan history, wiping out the place Ansary knew as a child. "The crucial point of that war was when the Soviets decided that the way to win the war was to depopulate the Afghan countryside, and then there was this campaign of carpet bombing, driving people from the villages, and that really destroyed the fabric of Afghan society and it opened the way for all these buried resentments, contradictions, struggle between the old and the new to just come roaring up."
Ansary describes the country now as a mix of the 21st century and the 12th — but, he adds, there's something new emerging. On a recent visit to Afghanistan, he encountered villagers in remote areas with solar panels on their houses, powering television sets and satellite dishes. "Technology will not be held back; if you ask any man you see on the street, 'should girls go to school,' and some of these other traditional ideas, they would say 'oh yeah, yeah, we're firmly for that.' They're probably not completely aware of how the influx of information is wearing in on the attitudes they had held, and who knows how the mixture will produce in the years to come. But it's not going to be the way it was in the past."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The story of Afghanistan, its history, its culture, is a narrative Tamim Ansary says he carries in his bones. The writer was born there to an Afghan father - educated in the U.S. - and an American mother. He spent much of his 1950s childhood in the town called Lashkar Gah. There, his father worked on a massive irrigation project funded by the U.S., aimed at turning a dusty valley into a place of swaying grain and cotton.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Though Ansary has lived his adult life here in America, his writing reflects his deep Afghan roots. His new book details the last 200 years in the life of Afghanistan, a history often interrupted, as he puts it, by invasions from outside powers: Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.
MONTAGNE: The title, "Games without Rules," is reference to both the political game for Afghanistan and a popular sport there - think polo, with a goat.
TAMIM ANSARY: There's a game in Afghanistan called buzkashi. And this is an ancient game, and its mounted riders grab a goat carcass off the ground and try to get it to a goal post and back again. And when they do that, the other people in the game try to wrest that goat carcass away.
As it was played originally, the field of play had no lines. There were no referees. There were no fouls, and there were no teams. Riders played for their own glory or for the landowner or tribal chieftain that supported them. The impulse of Afghan history has been the attempt by various elites to try to centralize the country and impose rules on a game without rules.
MONTAGNE: And that metaphor illustrates, says, Tamim Ansary, what makes Afghanistan so difficult for outsiders to understand or to conquer.
You describe the relationship between Afghanistan and - over the couple of last centuries - these great powers that moved into Afghanistan as oil on water.
ANSARY: There's a culture very much in place and very much embedded in Afghanistan. And you can see that when the British came, they lived in Afghanistan in compounds separated from Afghan people, and they brought their British life with them. They brought the chandeliers. They brought polo matches. They brought cigars and after-dinner liqueurs, and so on, and the two societies pursued their lives completely in isolation from each other. One hardly saw the other. There was not a propensity for those two cultures to blend and merge.
MONTAGNE: Or the Soviets, of course, or the Americans.
ANSARY: Right. And, you know, the Soviets might be a different case, but the British and the Americans were not intending to stay. We have some reasons for being there, but we're not actually out to, say, occupy Afghanistan and turn it into the next province of the United States.
When the Mongols conquered, they wanted the place, you know. They wanted to live there and keep it and collect taxes from it and just be there forever. But in the last 200 years, there's been something different going on.
MONTAGNE: But there's something different, still puts Afghanistan in quite a bind. The previous waves of conquerors who did, as you say, actually conquer Afghanistan, they also melded into the place that these new great powers didn't want to actually live or be in Afghanistan, didn't really help out Afghanistan.
ANSARY: Well, it didn't help Afghanistan, although it did set in motion a sort of an impulse in part of Afghan society - in the more urban, the more sort of elite part of Afghan society - a desire to develop Afghanistan so it would be more like the Western powers that were coming in. And, you know, in the 40 years after 1930, the project of the ruling elite was to send Afghans abroad, educate them in universities, bring Western culture back - not to supplant Afghan culture, but to enable Afghans to have more of the things that Western societies enjoyed.
MONTAGNE: And that fit in rather nicely during the Cold War, because the Cold War battle between the Soviets and the U.S., as it played out in Afghanistan, was - the term you used is a bidding war, put into motion partly by the king and the government of Afghanistan.
ANSARY: Yeah. They thought if two powers wanted to come in, and so they saw the opportunity to tell each one, hey, we're kind of leaning towards this other guy. You want to give us some money? And they'd say yeah. They'd get the money. And then they'd say, hey, we're leaning towards this first guy. They'd get money from the other side.
And so in that way, they built highways. They built factories. They built airports. They did all that stuff in the course of that 40 years.
MONTAGNE: You actually experienced this Cold War effect - that is, you were partly raised as a child in a place that became known as Little America, in southern Afghanistan. Tell us a little about that.
ANSARY: Well, Little America was a tiny town built on the banks of the Helmand River, which flows through the flattest, hottest part of Afghanistan. And the project was to take the water from that river and irrigate the surrounding lands and turn this area into a breadbasket. So, during the day, I went to Afghan school and I mingled with Afghan kids and I lived an Afghan life.
When I came home from school and during the evenings, I hung around with my American buddies. We did American things. We read Mad magazine. We'd have square dances. I learned how to cha-cha. So I was living an American life and an Afghan life. The peacefulness of that era is so dramatic now when we look back through the fog of war.
MONTAGNE: Not to simplify Afghanistan's history, but one could say that the turning point towards what we know of Afghanistan today was the Soviet invasion in 1979 - at least in the 20th century.
ANSARY: I'd say in Afghan history. And the crucial point of that war was when the Soviets decided that the way to win the war was to depopulate the Afghan countryside. And then there was this campaign of carpet bombing, driving people from the villages. And that really destroyed the fabric of Afghan society, and it opened the way for all these buried resentments, contradictions, struggle between the old and the new to just come roaring up.
MONTAGNE: So bringing us up to today, one thing you say is that Afghanistan is, at this point in time, the 21st century lying directly on top of the 12th, but where there is also a new blend emerging.
ANSARY: When I went to Afghanistan this spring and we went out into the countryside, I was amazed to see that even in distant villages that were very hard to get to by car, there were villagers that had solar panels mounted to their houses. And those solar panels were providing electricity that enabled them to run their TV sets, and they had a satellite dish.
Technology will not be held back. If you ask any man you see on the street should girls go to school and some of these other traditional ideas, they would say oh, yeah, yeah. We're firmly for that. They're probably not completely aware of how the influx of information is wearing in on the attitudes they had held, and who knows how the mixture will produce in the years to come. But it's not going to be the way it was in the past.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: Tamim Ansary is the author of "Games without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.