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E-mail thrusts S.F. writer into spotlight


September 23, 2001

The message machine is already full, but that doesn't stop the callers, all of them looking for Tamim Ansary, the normally quiet writer whose impassioned note about his native Afghanistan — intended for friends — has now traveled around the world. "I went from being a very private person to being known," said Ansary, 52, retreating to the small garden of his Bernal Heights home to escape the bleating phone. "For three days, I'll be someone a lot of people know about. I feel so exposed."

Usually found in his basement office writing texts for children and plugging away at a novel, Ansary has been fielding calls from major networks and commentators.

It all started with a little flick of the finger, the one that hits the "send" button for e-mail. Ansary, horrified by the terrorist attacks, listened obsessively to television news the day afterward.

His wife phoned from work to tell him that radio callers were saying the United States should "bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age." She urged him to call in, but Ansary, his mind a confusion of thoughts, sat down to do what he knows — write.

He sent his cascade of words to about two dozen people, edited it a bit and mailed it to perhaps a dozen more. Those three dozen sent it to their friends, and so on down the cyber-chain.

Within a few days, his words were published by the Africa News Service, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Evening Standard in London, papers in the United States and on Internet bulletin boards and Web sites.

"What I'm saying I believe is useful to say," said Ansary, dressed in a professorial-looking tweed jacket and pulling at his goatee. "That it's gone everywhere is a good thing. The most important point is that the suffering in Afghanistan is so deep that people who'd be harmed by a carpet-bombing approach aren't those responsible for terrorism."

So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, he said. He's heard from friends he hasn't talked to in more than a decade. Salon.com, which posted the e-mail, was still getting hundreds of letters a day last week, 99 percent favorable, said news editor Joan Walsh.

"We usually get such nasty mail," she said. "The level of respect and gratitude from people is really noteworthy."

Even so, being in the spotlight has made Ansary so nervous that he doesn't want the names of his wife, an events planner, or his daughters to be used. The curtains on his front windows are closed, and Ansary feels uneasy, both for being so outspoken and so publicly identified as Afghan at a time ripe for backlash.

"I'm nervous because it was written in a fit of passion and maybe if I'd thought longer I wouldn't have put it that way," said Ansary. "But I realized it's out of my hands, in the public domain. Whatever it is I said, it's out there now."

Ansary said he has always known he belonged to two cultures, but for a long time lived apart from his Afghan heritage. His father went to college and graduate school in Chicago, where he met and married Ansary's American mother, then returned to Kabul University as dean of the literature department and later worked at government jobs.

Ansary and his two siblings were born in Kabul. At 16, after meeting an American from a private high school in Colorado, Ansary applied and was accepted. His mother, brother and sister came, too, though his father stayed in Afghanistan.

In a book for kids about his homeland, Ansary once wrote that "children have the easiest time" in an immigrant family, that those born here or arriving young "swim right into American society like a fish into a lake."

It took him a while to realize growing up with two cultures can be more complicated. He was born in a developing nation where people had no television and it was "unthinkable" to move abroad. He went to Reed College in Oregon, became a hippie and lived in a commune. He later moved to San Francisco, where he edited a publication for the Asia Foundation.

In 1979, growing curious about his past, he set out to travel the Islamic world, but had to quit after U.S. hostages were seized in Iran and anti- American sentiment spread in countries he'd meant to wander.

Back in San Francisco, he followed news of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Relatives fled to the Bay Area, living mostly in the Little Kabul section of Fremont, and they connected him more to his past. Ansary began helping raise money for refugees.

He worked as an editor for Harcourt Brace Javonovich and eventually began writing books for kids, more than 40 in all, none controversial. He got married and had two kids. And he started a novel about a young man who goes to Afghanistan to uncover the life of his father and to discover the mystery of his own identity.

When the calls subside, that is what he's hoping to finish — as well as a column for the online encyclopedia site Encarta on how to talk to your kids about the latest events. He's ready to reclaim his old life.

"I'm kind of hoping this will just pass," he said. "I kind of like the line I was on."

by Katherine Seligman, Chronicle Staff Writer. Copyright © 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


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