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Tamim Ansary: The e-mail read around the world

Tens of thousands of refugees are believed to be heading for Afghanistan's borders
Tens of thousands of refugees are believed to be heading for Afghanistan's borders  

Tamim Ansary was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and came to the United States at age 16 to attend school. He is now a writer, living in San Francisco. A passionate e-mail he sent friends after the September 11 attacks, describing his feelings about a war between the United States and Afghanistan, was forwarded all around the world, thrusting him into the spotlight. He joined chat room from San Francisco on September 25, 2001.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Tamim Ansary, and welcome. Tell us about the e-mail. Why did you write it and what did you say?

ANSARY: I wrote it responding to comments that I was hearing on a radio talk show while I was driving around in my car. It was reactions of people to the tragedy as they called in that day. Understandably, it was coming from a place of rage, which I felt myself. At the same time, one thing that struck me was that people didn't seem to realize at all that the country and people they were talking about is completely devastated by years of war, and did not even do this act, and have no connection to it. I felt that I wanted to write, when I got back, since when I got back the talk show was over. I sat down and wrote an e-mail to 20 or 25 of my personal friends to unload the thing that was in me to say to the talk show. I guess they just went ahead and e-mailed that to a few of their friends, and it went on like that from there.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Did you ever expect your message to be heard so effectively and so globally?

Text of Ansary E-mail  

ANSARY: I absolutely had no thoughts that it would be heard by anyone except perhaps if my friends forwarded that message on. It occurred to me that it might be heard by maybe 100 people. One of my friends I wrote that to is a college professor, and he said that he was going to forward it to all the professors at his university, and I was happy to agree to that. In the aftermath, when I began to hear from people I didn't know, calling me on the phone, somehow finding my number, I began to realize that the e-mail had proliferated widely.

Then I began to hear from people, I would have to say, from a very broad stripe of opinion. I was hearing from people who were on the right, from people on the left, from people who would describe themselves as peace activists, from people in the armed forces. To me, the surprising thing is that from that range of opinion, what I was getting from people was supportive. I would think that if you tap a broad range of opinion like that, you'd get some who were angry, some who would encourage it, and some neutral. I concluded from that that there is a broad sentiment of feeling out there that I touched. And I guess if I have to put a word or phrase to that, I would say that it seemed to me that there is a broad hunger for compassion out there. And that's the thing I feel best about, having the opportunity with my e-mail to make that sentiment known, just by responding and coming to media outlets to talk.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Tamim, have you gotten any negative response from your e-mail? Any death threats?

ANSARY: No, I haven't gotten anything like that. I have gotten three or four total responses that, although they were not personal at me, they were saying that this is propaganda, and I don't agree with it. I did receive a letter from someone yesterday who said I was condescending and said that America would bomb everywhere, and we're not that kind of nation. I didn't assume anything, and I still don't. There are many ways we can go, and I don't think the matter is settled yet, which way we will go. It's up to our leaders and to us. We still have choices to make, and I think we're making them.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What will it take to get the American people to know the truth of what is going on over there?

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ANSARY: There is so much information about it. That's one of the things I was surprised about, when people wrote me about my e-mail, because I'd been talking about the situation in Afghanistan, not from a perspective of having secret information, but the things I was saying were known to many, or could have been known to many. I think it's natural for all of us to tend to not be aware of things happening outside our own local place and local lives. That's certainly true of me. I know that there are situations in the world, places where circumstances are just as bad as in Afghanistan, and I barely know about them. I only knew all this about Afghanistan because to me, that is a core interest, and when I see something in the newspaper or on television about Afghanistan, it draws my eye, and I add it to my core of information. People will now know a lot about Afghanistan, because it's no longer a distant piece of the world that doesn't matter to anyone. Now, unfortunately, Afghanistan is at the center of world news. So at least there will be information very widely available.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you feel a change in government [in Afghanistan] would be welcomed by the general population?

ANSARY: I do. I do think a change in that government would be welcomed. I do have to say, though, that when the Soviets were finally driven out of Afghanistan, and the U.S. and other Western nations helped the Afghan rebel groups fight the Soviets, Afghans like myself welcomed that support, and we were thankful that the U.S. did help. But when that was over, all the other powers withdrew and paid no other attention to Afghanistan. There was no help to reconstruct, no offer to negotiate or help build the government that would come after. So, the mixture of rebel groups that were fighting the Soviets began fighting each other. So there was another phase of the war that damaged the parts of the country that the Soviets hadn't touched. The Soviets bombed the countryside, and the rebel groups caused their trouble in the cities. Then after those two phases, when everything was devastated, both city and country, that's when the Taliban entered from the refugee camps in Pakistan. In a way, in each phase unfortunately the situation for the country and the people of Afghanistan got worse. I hope there's some way to break the cycle.

CNN: What has life been like for you as an Afghan living in the United States?

ANSARY: I want to say that I have not been harassed or targeted in any way, and I want to give credit, so to speak. I'm aware that some people have been hurt, and there have been windows broken, and someone unrelated was killed in Arizona, and that's tragic. At the same time, I think it's important to be aware that there are good stories out there, too. There was an Afghan restaurant in the Bay Area, and for three days after the bombing, it was deserted. There was nobody there. But after that, it became crowded, because so many people went there as a well-wishing move, by way of saying we know you are not our enemy. You're just living here as an American, behaving yourself, and we want to reach out.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there any part of your e-mail you would change knowing now how much attention it would get?

ANSARY: I think I might word things differently, although I imagine that the strongly-worded phrases are why it was distributed. Two parts that needed more nuance was the phrase about the Nazis and the Taliban and Hitler and bin Laden. Obviously, the Taliban have a different ideology than Nazism, and I was hoping to draw the idea that this was a distortion, a monstrous offspring of the culture in Afghanistan when I was there as a young guy. Even if you see some themes from Islamic culture in the Taliban ideology, it's that culture seen through a cracked glass very darkly and distorted, the same way that Nazism, although you can see themes of German culture going back 100 years, you don't therefore not read German literature. There's that. But in substance, no, I wouldn't change anything I said. In substance, that's what I think.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

ANSARY: Thank you very much.

Tamim Ansary joined via telephone from San Francisco. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview on Tuesday, September 25, 2001.


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