Rhys Lindmark: Hello, listeners. Today, I'm excited to chat with Tamim Ansary. Tamim is an Afghanistan-American author and public speaker. He's the author of the excellent books, Destiny Disrupted and Games Without Rules. Thanks, Tamim for being on the show, and welcome.
Tamim Ansary: Well, thank you for inviting me.
Rhys: And we're here in person, which is fun, Tamim. Just I biked up the hill, one of the various hills in San Francisco, and he has given me tea and I am happy about that. And so I'm sweaty but happy to be here.
Tamim: I should have given you iced tea.
Rhys: You should…
Tamim: I have some iced tea.
Rhys: Maybe after the show, maybe after. Yeah, so today, Tamim and I are going to chat about, I mean, he has this. He's Afghanistan. He's Afghan-American, you know, and he wrote this beautiful, amazing book, Destiny Disrupted. I just went to Egypt, and so I was like, wow, I don't understand the Middle East at all. And so I was trying to find out how can I understand the Middle East and how can I understand Islam. And I just feel, you know, grateful to have found your book because it was such an amazing dive into that.
So we're going to chat about that side of things. And we're also going to chat about the kind of Afghanistan side of things and how it connects to the modern-day. So let's start with the Destiny Disrupted side, and you're kind of the world history of these two parallel worlds, the western world and then the kind of Middle Eastern or middle world narrative. Could you say a little bit more about the thesis of that book and what that, you know, Islamic narrative looks like?
Tamim: OK, well, the thesis of the book, let's step back a little bit from the Islamic narrative per se and just go back to the founding, the launching idea that got me into writing that book, which was, we have been accustomed to thinking of the history of the world as if it is a natural fact. It is some collection of facts about events and the only, you know, thing we have to do is to simplify and get away, you know, clear away the unimportant details and then the important details that remain will be a certain edifice.
But actually, you know, my perception as my premise is that every history of the world is actually the story of how we got to here. And so embedded in that, in that narrative, there's always an assumption about who the we is at the center of the story. And then also, where is the here? So, you know, it was obviously the, after 9/11, there was a certain spur to just thinking about Islam and Islamic history. And I had been invited to enlighten my friends and…
Rhys: People like me who were like, oh, I just went to Egypt for a bit, you know? Yeah.
Tamim: Well, you know, especially after 9/11, you know, now people have forgotten that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, most people in the West hardly even knew that the Islamic world existed in a sense, you know? And I was a textbook editor for a portion of my life. And one of the things I worked on was world history textbooks for high school. That's, you know, I think, 10th, 11th grade, that's when they do world history and I worked on several of those. And one of the things that stood out was that Islamic history and Islam, in general, is a phenomenon in history, was something that was covered in one section of 30 chapters in the book and…
Rhys: Chapter 18. You get, okay, here was the caliphate or whatever. Yeah.
Tamim: Right. So then after 9/11, actually, it was, I was on the plane going back to the east, where I hadn't been for a long time. I was headed to Pakistan at that point and I was reading some books about the Islamic history. And it struck me that, you know, there is a curious parallelism between the history that's familiar to us as the shape of world history that I was editing textbooks about. And this other history that I was also actually very familiar with because I grew up in Afghanistan, and that's the history I learned in school. And what struck me was, huh, when you look back into the past, from the western perspective, Rome looms large as the empire of the world at one point and the, you know, the legacy can be seen so close to the modern-day because the ruler of Rome came to be known as Caesar because of Julius Caesar.
In fact, the last time there was a Caesar was the czar of Russia, the Kaiser of Germany that was still that same title. And Rome eroded because the Barbarians came down from the north. Now you look over at the Islamic world and it's like, hey, you look back and there is a very similar in scope and importance empire back there, which was the Kalifa, you know, and at a certain period, it bloomed and expanded. It was the empire of the world and then it sort of eroded and crumbled. Why? Because the Barbarians came down from the north. But the title that was the title of the ruler of the Kalifa, which is the Khalifa, that title persisted all the way to when World War One. The last Kalifa was the, was the last person to take the title was the, was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
And right at that time, incidentally, you know, there was a certain move in the Muslim world to name the King of Afghanistan as the Nuku'alofa. As it happens, the King of Afghanistan at that point was the most opposite of a Khalifa kind of guy that you could, you could pick because he was the, you know, the archetypal modernist who became one of the figures that, you know, in the flow of Islamic history said, let's have done with those old ideas about religion. Let's get with the modern world. So he wasn't a good candidate of Kalifa, and there was never after that a Kalifa. But the parallelism of those two histories made me think. Oh, wait a minute, you know, the history of the Islamic world, if you're there from the point of view of the Muslims, it's not the history of the Islamic world. It's the history of the world.
Then it struck me that lots of histories of the world, every history of the world as a somebody centric narrative about how we got to where we are today, which is what gave me the impetus for the last book I published, The Invention of Yesterday, which was prompted by the observation that we are all connected now, you know. It's like, it's one, there is one humanity and at that time, I said, and we're verging on merging into a single civilization. Shouldn't there be an attempt now to look back and construct the world history that answers to the question, how did we get to here where we are today? So that's, you know, that's what I tried to do with The Invention of Yesterday, tell that story and that's my larger preoccupation these days.
Rhys: Yeah, that's beautiful. I mean, I think it's so true that once you start to read, I mean, I think that this, you're correct to say that history's not some kind of, oh, here's the facts. You know, this happened and it's like, no, it's a narrative. How did we get to here? I just think that's a great encapsulation of it. Who is we? Who is here? You know? And I think that the parallelism are so strong. I think something in your book that you did a really good job of is, you said, hey, like the kind of western world of the Mediterranean world was based around the sea routes, you know, Sea of Rome and all these sea routes. And then on the day, like the middle world or are we in America call the Middle East is like, the, it's based around these land routes, you know, through, you know, the, you know, Turkey and Iran and, you know, Persia and those kinds of things. And so I think that just thinking of those is like, OK, these two can big empires that were happening around these different things. And then eventually, once sea travel, once like sea travel that the Western Europeans have been doing for so long could actually allow them to explore the rest of the world, then they kind of, that was one of the many reasons why they were able to kind of win after the industrial revolution...
Tamim: That's right. Yeah.
Tamim: It's one of the reasons.
Rhys: Exactly, exactly. So what were you going to say?
Tamim: Well, it's just going to say, first of all, there's other ones of those big routes too, you know. Well, there's the monsoon route, you know, those from the east coast of Africa, around India, and over to China. There's the interesting phenomenon of the monsoons, which is, which are these winds, the blow out of the heart of the world's biggest continent, which is Asia, you know, and because of the Himalaya mountains, they get split and one set of them go out, goes out across China and into the Pacific, and one set of them goes down and across the Indian Ocean. And so they, you know, because of the fluctuation of temperature at the heart of Asia, they blow out and then half the year they blow in. And so from China and from the east coast of Africa going back forever, whoever put a boat in there was a certain season in which they could…
Rhys: Go out.
Tamim: ...they could go out and they could get to, get where would they get to. They've got to what we call Southeast Asia. You know, they get the Malaysian, all those islands.
Tamim: And then they have to wait until the winds change and the winds will bring them back. So then you have this whole sort of Southeast Asian world, which is a cultural mix and stew of the influences from China on the one side and from Arabia and the African coast on the other side and India.
Rhys: Yeah. So there's the monsoon world and then the other world that comes to mind. I mean, there's kind of to some extent there's like the Indian subcontinent world, which has like both the Indus River Valley civilization at the beginning and then later, a lot of the kind of Muslim world kind of comes into it.
Rhys: There's also the kind of Chinese empire world. That's one that I don't really understand. Well, but do you, how do you think about that world, how that world defines it's how we got to here?
Tamim: Well, you know, it's interesting to note that around the time I was writing, I was starting to write Invention of Yesterday. This conversation came up and somehow the word China was mentioned and someone in our group that was discussing that. Oh yeah, the periphery. Well, now the periphery [unintelligible]. China is not the periphery. My God, you know, most of the people on Earth live in China or India. How did the hell they become periphery? But you know, so China was one of those places that at one point and in ancient times, those rivers in China chiefly, you know, the Huang He, the Yellow River was one of those places where human beings could find the resources they needed to build an enduring and prosperous life if they could get together, so to speak.
So that was one of the spots where culture and civilization, you know, was born and then began to grow from there, grow from there. And you know, one of the points I make, I sure I don't know if I should go so far as to call my thesis, but it's just one of the observations that came across my desk as l was looking at the stuff. Well, it has to do with geography, you know, it's like there was, there were four rivers. Probably more. But let's take the four that are standard, you know, places where said cradles of civilization. Okay. So there was China. There was India with the Indus River. There was the Mesopotamian and there was Nile. These rivers all had one property that was similar. They flooded annually and then you could grow stuff in the rich soil that the floods left behind. But they were actually very different from each other in other ways.
The geography of the river had something to do with the original impetus or the character that the civilization took when it emerged along the riverbanks. So the one in China, unlike those others, what it was, was it flooded unpredictably and catastrophically from time to time. The yellow of the Yellow River was the silt that came down and then the river bed rose. So the river rose. So people put dikes along the river to, in order to be able to continue to just survive there and then once in a while, there'd be a flood in the dikes would break. So that catastrophe at the core was something that was, that the culture had to absorb and build around. But as it developed, you know, China, early Chinese historians had this narrative of China, which looks at the world as concentric. You know, it's like China, the empire is the center of the world, and around the empire is the tributaries and then around the tributaries are the barbarians and then around the barbarians, ah, who cares, it's far away, you know.
So that was kind of like the model of the world that people lived inside of and the sense of reality was the empire was not, strictly speaking, a secular thing. You know, the empire was a, I'm just making up a way to describe it was like a funnel from which from some imponderable, universal, cosmic, supernatural realm order could come into the world and there was a pulse to the empire. It would come together, there would be order and then it would break apart and there would be fragmentation. There would be a single empire and then there would be dueling empires. When there was dueling empires or when an empire falling apart, the barbarians would begin to come in. Not because the barbarians were so great, but because something was going wrong within the heart of the world. Now, you know, the interesting thing is all of these ancient narratives to me, they have something really powerful in them. There is something about that, about order coalescing and then breaking apart kind of, you know. China is not the only place that has this idea of the world as concentric, and we're at the center of it. Then there's the tributaries and then there's the barbarians. So...
Rhys: Yeah, that's interesting. I feel like there's I mean, thinking about the monsoon world is as one kind of self-contained world. Then the other Chinese one is kind of and I guess that that for me is a, yes, just like more reading to be done in the future, you know? But going back to like both the middle world or and the kind of Islamic world, I think that there's one interesting part of it. And I guess, you know, just to get your take on it, here is, there's a, you know, there's this progression of there's, you know, Mohammed and then there is this the first caliphate. Then, you know, the Rashidun, I'm going to say all the names wrong but Rashidun and the, let me try to get on, Umayyad and then the Abbasid. And then after that kind of like the Ottoman won after the Mongols had done like barbarian thing. And then there's post the, the Turks, the Ottoman Turks. There's also the rise of the West and then the kind of battle between West and Mondere versus kind of this older and also, you know, more Islamic kind of thing. I think something that you piece out in your, in your book, which is really interesting, is this battle today between, you know, the West in the kind of modernity. And you said it beautifully where it's like, when after 9/11, the folks, you know, we thought that we being Americans, we thought that the, you know, the Islamic folks were angry at us because of our freedom. So we said that, no, we are free and they were like, whoa, we don't care about your freedom, freedom fine.
Rhys: It's about decadence, you know? They used to point us and say, no, you're decadent, you're too decadent and like materialist and those things. So how do you think about the modern battle between those two things and decadence versus freedom and how kind of religion plays a role in that?
Tamim: Well, you know, now we've come back a little bit to, I didn't read the book about weird, well, you know, but I know the thesis and I read your review of it and so that comes into this question here. You know, there is an impulse in modernity and what we're calling modernity, you know, that already is a loaded term, if you take my point. There might be other ways to get to modernity than this way. But this way is one that is very wrapped up in faith versus reason, science versus religion. All that stuff that happened in Europe during the time that we're calling the Renaissance Enlightenment, you know? And at that time, the couple of things that really gained momentum in the West was individualism and secular view of the world. But over and above all those as you haven't read The Invention of Yesterday, so I'm gonna...
Rhys: Yeah, no, spoil it. It's all good. Spoil it and I'm excited to dive more into it in a second.
Tamim: OK, so I think there is a really fundamental narrative that became the narrative of the West, and I call it the progress narrative. And the progress narrative, I would characterize it as the view that the project of civilization, the project of human life is to make progress. Every day more than the last day, every day can be better, and that the through-line of history is sometimes things happen and there's regress and then you collect yourself and you continue to make progress and there's no end to it. It's just it can go forever and you can see how that fits right in with capitalism. Because capitalism, the core underlying impulse there is that more is better and oh, in the east at the time that the progress narrative was. Being born in the West and the archetypal type of narrative that was putting down roots in the East was what I call the restoration narrative. The way I see it, there was this holocaust, this sort of period when the last of the great nomad explosions, the explosion of Changez Khan, Ghengis Khan, and all that accompanied that. Then at the same, you know, like right on the heels of that, the plague which swept across.
So, you know, as the recovery happened from those that period of disorder and holocaust, the Islamic world and the Chinese world had a very recent glorious past to look back on and said, oh, we got to get back to that. But in the West, the very recent past before the Black Death was peasants, you know, not the most everybody was peasants and everybody was poor. So now, in the wake of the, in the aftermath of the Black Death, it really was true that every day could be better than the last. And there was a glamor to innovation. So for the Islamic world, now I'm going to just zero in on Islam, there is something at the very heart of Islam, which is, you know, the notion at the heart of it is a community of the mystical event in Islam as the birth of that community and the way that it was successful. Its success was the mark of its trueness.
Rhys: I see. The ummah.
Tamim: Yeah. The ummah.
Tamim: And you know, it's exemplified or symbolized by the fact that Islamic history marked year one, not as the, as the year that Muhammad was born, not as the year that Muhammad died, not even as the year that Muhammad had the revelation that turned him from an ordinary human into the prophet, the messenger of God. No, year one was the year that the Muslims left Mecca and went to Medina because that's the period in which they were able to begin actually and practically trying out this idea about the community. Would it work? Could that community really operate the way that, you know, Muhammad was preaching that it should the Gods that it should? It's amazing, you know, prosperity in the media after that, within a hundred years, it was the biggest political entity that had ever existed up until that point. So that was completely remarkable. Anybody who was living in that event, it's no surprise that they would think this is something, this is something supernatural happening, I'm part of the...
So you know, when the time came that a reviving Muslim world which was built on the restoration narrative, we were right, let's get back to what we were doing. That was the truth. When they discovered that in their own societies, there were these people that had come said, hey, could we trade a few things for a few things of yours? Now suddenly they were everywhere and they and you have to go to them to get a license if you wanted to do business. What was that all about? So that's the thing that, that was from the Muslim point of view, that was a, you know, that was the event of the age. The struggle with this, with this other it's not just a struggle with some conquering people because they didn't, for the most part, come with armies.
It wasn't the war. It was a struggle with some other idea, but for some strange reason was winning and it was like it couldn't win. How could that idea win? There must be something that we're doing wrong or something. Whereas, you can easily see why from the western point of view, it was hardly noticeable that they were having a struggle. You know, it's like, I don't think the western Europeans that came to the Islamic world spent very much time at all saying. Now, this idea seems stronger than ours or, you know, let's our ideas better than this idea. This idea just didn't even exist. This was what the natives thought, you know, of course, they were wrong. Well, guess who's, who's in who's country?
Rhys: Exactly. We're here. Yeah, exactly. I mean, I like the idea of the progress versus kind of reformation, there it is. And I think the progress one I just super, super agree with. So I'm currently writing this book called What Information Wants, and it's, you know, about genes and memes and how they're these ideas that spread through society, that some of those ideas, all these ideas need attention and they need capital and they need like brilliant progress and if they don't, then they die. So with religions, we can see it very clearly with stuff like jihad turning from struggle into an active, let's actually go conquer other places. And with, you know, Christianity, you can see it through having lots of kids or through it with Catholicism or through missionary work or those kinds of things. But I think super correct into saying that capitalism as a similar kind of ideology, it has this progress narrative or this development narrative, which it still wants to fuel itself in. In order to do that, it needs to quote and quote, what it sees as make progress A.K.A. make development happen, A.K.A. industrialize all the things, you know. Is that kind of an alignment with how you see that progress narrative?
Tamim: It is and you know the progress narrative was so successful that in the Islamic world and pretty much throughout what used to be called the developing world, you know, that's of an obsolete turn a lot of ways now, but throughout the world, that was lagging behind. People would argue with the social mores of the West, but they wanted the industry, you know, they wanted the cars. It struck me so forcefully, the first time I went back to Afghanistan after 38 years, which was in 2001, right after 9/11, and that city was clamorous with cars. It was polluted and it was like full of, and there was hurry and bustle. and, you know, it had been ruined, reduced to rubble in the wars, but still, it was like just clamorous. I remembered the city I left and I remembered that it was so quiet there and it was so private and everything that was worth anything was happening inside the private world. And it struck me that nobody in that world would have traded the world they were living in for this world. But nobody ever had that choice. What they did have a choice of in that world was, do you want a car? Oh, yeah, sure. I love this world with a car.
Rhys: Exactly, exactly. And then before long, everybody, you know, game, theoretically, everybody accidentally got a car. Oh, now the world kind of sucks, you know.
Tamim: And now there's a traffic jam and I can't get out.
Rhys: Exactly, exactly. I was reminded that in, when I was in Cairo recently, and it was like, I kind of talk about Cairo as a city with 20 million people in one park. You know, it's kind of it's like...
Tamim: One what?
Rhys: One park. It's like tons and tons of people, all these big towers. It's just like you can and there's one park that you can go to and you have to pay to get it, you know, so it's just like, it's like, oh boy. And it wasn't that, that was the choice of anybody, but that's just what happened to these big cities. So let's kind of zoom in on Afghanistan for a second. I guess we have this kind of big macro narrative of, you know, the kind of Islamic, you know, story versus the, you know, Western kind of Roman story and then Afghanistan as a part of that as a subpart of that. Tell me, I guess, you know, I really loved your term of games without rules. Tell me a little bit more about like, so I guess maybe the easiest way this is to say what is the short history of Afghanistan? How does games without rules kind of play into that history?
Tamim: Well, you know, the part of Afghan history that I really focused in on was the part that began around the same time that the, that the United States was born, you know, because Afghanistan was born as a country right around that same time.
Rhys: What was the first guy's name again, the like, the.
Rhys: There's him and then there's also I thought there was a guy like 1830 or someone who does something.
Tamim: Well, there was [unintelligible].
Rhys: [unintelligible] is I think [crosstalk] Yeah, yeah.
Tamim: You know, these are all big, big characters to the Afghan history is full of like really, each of them could be a movie.
Rhys: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So sorry to interrupt. Yes, there's it starts there.
Tamim: Right. So, you know, before that, there's all, there's often been something in Afghanistan. You know, it is just as much a distinct place in which are some sort of imperial form or state form constantly takes shape, as is, let's say, Iran. There's always been some kind of Iranian empire by always. I don't mean since the Big Bang. I mean, you know, but it's always been something there. So Afghanistan is one of those, and it's and where it is, is it's between India, Iran, where the Turks live and over there, China, so it's where people went through to get to other places, and there's something about Afghanistan that is quintessentially that. You know, I say engage in that role, but I'm going to repeat it, quote myself. This idea that Afghanistan can't be conquered is total nonsense. Afghanistan has been conquered again and again, and the people who conquered it are those are called Afghans now. They're all from someplace else. Even though the Pashtuns, who are often considered those are the real Afghans know until recent times you know who they thought they were.
They thought they were the lost tribes of Israel. They thought they were the two that got lost or one of those, you know, they claim they came from someplace else. So but in the period when I'm that I'm talking about, that's when the modern state started to form and that modern state started to form exactly when this other drama we're talking about Western civilization coming into the Islamic world and us and the confrontation between two ideas, one of which was overwhelmingly more powerful than the other. That's exactly when the state formation of Afghanistan began. And Afghanistan is like a, an example of a process that I described in, in Destiny Disrupted, which is that in the, in the attempt to figure out why are we not succeeding, we Muslims, against this ideology that is not Islam.
You know, if we're going to reject the idea that Islam is actually turns out to have been false, which is an idea which I think did not enter the head of any Afghan. No, Afghans thought that. I think generally throughout the Islamic world, that's not one of the things people thought. So the three things that the, well, the three, there's probably many different things people thought, but in general, three of the directions that people talking and groping and you know, and grappling with this conundrum. One was we've been too literal about our religion. We've been too, you know, wrapped up in the outward forms of religion. We should rethink our religion as a system of ethics and morals and fundamental rules. This will allow us, you know, to become secular, so that people would look at the people like my father, for example, you know, he would look at the scriptures and say, he told me this exactly said, [unintelligible] my boy, Islam is fundamentally you be a good neighbor, you be a good human, you'll be a good friend. You don't lie, you don't cheat. If you do those things, that's what it means to be a good Muslim. I like to call my father that kind of fundamentalist.
Tamim: That's a kind of fundamentalist. But like many people, one of you know, like many scholars in the Muslim world who are modernist in that way, look to the various, you know, to the Quran, to the Hadith, then to the other scriptural sort of commentaries. And they look for ways in which the modern values of Western civilization were not are not contradicting what was said in the Quran. So my father would say, you know, it says you can have up to four wives if you can treat them exactly equally. My son, it's impossible for any man to treat four different women exactly equally. He's right about that. And my father, who enjoyed the glass of wine in his day, or even perhaps a shot of whiskey, he said, look, here in the Quran, it says, don't go to your prayers if you're intoxicated, it means you can be intoxicated. Just not...
Rhys: At prayer time, you don't get drunk before you go to the mosque.
Tamim: You're right. So but you know, all that kind of analysis is sort of like catching up or they're playing catch up. But they, a whole demographic, emerged in Muslim societies. And now I'll just turn to Afghan society. You know, in Afghan society, there emerged an elite who were oriented towards this thing called secular developmentalism and destiny. They wanted to find a way that they could be Muslims and still have industry basically and still have, you know, all of the things, roads and power plants and so on. So in Afghanistan, the problem that, that exists for every ruler is that they have to present themselves to the inner Afghanistan, to the rural and countryside Afghanistan, where the idea of Islam is so intertwined with the traditions and cultural ways of tribal life and clan life that has developed in Afghanistan over thousands of years. It's so interwoven with that. That's going to be a conservative and bloc. And anybody who wants to rule Afghanistan once these Western empires were coming would have to represent themselves as the guarantor and the protector and the hero of Afghan Islam to the inner world. But as the suit-wearing guys who spoke a foreign language to the imperial powers.
Tamim: Every single Afghan ruler of from then on had to have that dual face, that Janus faces and periodically in Afghan history. This is why the subtitle of Games without Rules is they often interrupted history of Afghanistan within Afghanistan whoever's in charge is always trying to find a way to consolidate the country, so it can be one country under the rule of one state and the national centralized state. So it has been sort of a sort of making progress, but it makes a little progress and then something happens to interrupt it. And it's always one or another of these outside powers who decide to get inside Afghanistan and fix it.
Rhys: Yeah, without understanding its dual face thing that they need to do. Yeah.
Tamim: Yeah. And they have regularly decided to do this by putting in their guy in the seat of power and then trusting that he will rule it in the way that they want him to rule it. This has not worked one single time. It's really remarkable how every time they've done the same thing and every time it's failed in the exact same way. You know, in the 1840s or so, the British started and they took out those nomads and he was like such a successful builder of nation-state and he was successful at that because he knew how to operate diplomatically with all of the tribal elements in the country. So he was not just a conqueror, he was like a, he was a slick politician and he was very good at internal politics. They believed that he was going to, he was too independent, they thought a guy that independent, he's going to bring the Russians in. So they took him out and they stuck their guy in who was an incompetent. But, you know, he had from anything that the British could see.
Rhys: He was a good bureaucrat or something.
Tamim: No, not, not just that. He had just as good legitimacy in dynastic terms as the guy they took out. He was also the grandson or some, you know, close relative of [unintelligible]. So they thought, well, this is what a ruler of Afghanistan. That's what the ruler has to portray. They took him out and they put their own guy. He was all that legitimacy and stuff, but nobody considered him the ruler of Afghanistan. Why? Because the British have put him in there. He couldn't govern the country. It wasn't that the country united and as one kicked out the British. No, they just said, we're not going to obey this.
Rhys: Yeah, as random guy to put in.
Tamim: So the country sort of fragmented and everybody started fighting the central power, whoever the central power was, and that was the British, essentially. So finally, they gave up and put the original guy back. And then 30 years later, so 1870s they tried it again. They took out one guy and they put in another guy. And same thing happened, they just couldn't do it. It was always the question of they could rule the cities because they could move their troops and that was it. But the countryside is big and open and you know, who knows where everybody is? They just couldn't govern. So they gave it back to a strongman. The strongman was the strongest strongman that ever lived. You know, he was like a really scary guy, and I'm afraid there is another one of those maybe coming. So his name was Abdul Rahman, and he said, I am going to reduce the, you know, rural tribal Afghanistan to be absolutely under my control. He was it was a reign of terror and he just completely put in a whole new set of bureaucrats, state control, all that stuff. Every single person in the country had to have a certificate of, you know, identity card. I have one still, you know, I'm here. There's still an identity card for me in a...
Rhys: Lockbox or something?
Tamim: In a box, in a building, in Kabul with my father's thumbprint on it and, you know, so nobody could travel without permission. There were spies everywhere. So many people were killed. The executions were horrifying. But he got it. You know, he got the country down to where he ruled it. Then, you know, then they could rule, and what happened? They began to look up and say, OK, now we have to try to make ourselves, make nice with the people out there within about three kings. You got this guy [unintelligible] and he actually went and traveled in Europe, and he said, hey, this is good. Let's make Afghanistan more like this. He came back and he did all the things that a social progressive would want he and the people of my social class and my group in Kabul. This is what we want. You know, they banned child marriage, banned the dowry system, which always turns into some kind of bride selling kind of a thing.
Rhys: This is like 1930s through '70s kind of thing.
Tamim: This is the 1920s.
Rhys: 1920, right around 1920s.
Tamim: It was 1920s and he abolished the veil. You know, the [unintelligible], the body bag thing they call a burka. He just said no more, that's absolutely done with that. The country revolted, you know, it opened opportunity for the rural conservatives and other, you know, British or whatever other outside forces came in to help them out and they overthrew that king. And there was a nine-month reign of exactly like the Taliban, just exactly what the Taliban are. Then the royal family came back. They reclaimed the throne and the guy who reclaimed it, his first move was to make sure everybody knew he was a powerfully conservative, a Muslim, as anybody had ever seen. There was under him and Ministry of Vice and Virtue, and they walked around the streets, their agents and if you were a woman out there without a veil, you grabbed and put back in your house. Your men or folk would come and get your woman, don't let her out. If you were eating outdoors in the month of fasting, you got a beating.
So he was a tough guy and he was to all appearance. He was just as conservative as could be. But in fact, once he established that rule and he was soon assassinated, once a son, once a son, you know, once the family had established that rule. They began doing what Afghan rulers have done as soon as they really secure their power. They started trying to modernize them and move toward social progress. And by the time my mother came to the country, which was in 1945, that just started the first girls' school. She was a teacher in that school and within another 10 years, there was girls' schools all over the country. And by 1959, the first experiment in co-education happened in Afghanistan.
One girl went to a school that had probably 200 boys and that one girl was my sister. And she was, you know, she didn't, the veil had not been, not outlawed, but the mandate for a veil had been abolished and nobody had to wear a veil. So she wore a black dress stockings. The sleeves came down to her wrists, but bare hands, bare face, and she wore that and that was like as far as they was going to go at that moment. But that's how far they went, you know, baby steps. The king said, we have to walk, if we walk, we'll always move and we'll move forward. If we run will fall and break our legs and we won't go anywhere. So that happened. Then in 1978, the Communist Party overthrew the royal dynasty, and it was a very small group. It was probably, I don't know how many communists there really were, but not that many. And they were purely urban and they had, they immediately began the most extreme program of social progressive laws enforced by military that anybody could imagine. They went to villages and they grabbed, you know, they were, they, and I, I have this account from a woman who, you know, she was an Afghan woman. She was in Kabul. Later she came here and, you know, so she saw this with her own eyes. They would send the troops a village and say, bring out your women. We're going to take them off and educate them. For the guys in those villages, just like the government comes with soldiers, give us your women? That's...
Rhys: Not a good look.
Tamim: That's not a good look. So pretty soon, you know, within no time at all, there's, there's a rebellion everywhere. Not to mention, there already was to match the communists, there were Islamists, there was, that was the '60s in Afghanistan. The radicals were not the student radical who not all leftists. The student radical who had just as much rightist. So the Islamists were there. So the country blew up, and they have no choice but to bring in the Soviets. And the Soviets had sort of no choice but to come in or their little proxy government will be gone. So now these guys were, their backs were against the wall and the Soviets decided they did the same thing, held the cities, countryside was rebelling. They eviscerated the countryside. They bombed it. They strafed the herds. They did what they could to emptied the villages because that's where the guerrillas were finding their safe refuge. You couldn't tell a guerrilla from a villager because they looked remarkably similar.
And what happened was six million refugees in Pakistan, another six or so in Iran. And the thing is, though, and you know, this is not often really remarked upon, but the thing is those refugees in those places were not families. They were the women and children of families. The men of those families were still in the country fighting. So what you got was this 10 year period where the Afghan men were living in a world that was all men and then whose only business was war and the women and children were living in these squalid refugee camps where they because of lots of reasons with culture being among them. They couldn't show their faces outside these tiny little, you know, places, warrens that they could live in. Ten years, that's where the kids grew up and they became the Taliban and you know, a friend of mine who was delivering UNAIDS and stuff, and he was a photographer. He came back, I saw these pictures of children, you know, they just look like kids. He said, man, if you know these guys, they're, these are damaged kids and these guys are going to be trouble.
Rhys: Yeah, yeah. And before diving into the exact new in the last month or whatever with Afghanistan, I think I want to reflect on a little bit of what you said there. This beautiful thing of, you know, and the games without rules for me, I just love that as a phrase which just like the, you know, in the more rural places in the countryside and the mountains or whatever, it's like this classic collectivist kind of bottom-up, like you just know the people who are around you and it's that's the game without rules or everybody kind of knows this social structure. But like when you come in as a Westerner in the outside, like what's happening here, we need to go to the ministry or whatever. It's like, woah, woah, woah, we don't do things that way. It's like you talk to people, you find out what's going on, you shoot the shit, whatever, you know, and then eventually stuff gets done. So that huge difference, I just want to highlight, I just love the games without rules.
The other thing that I think your book showed me is that both, is that just thinking of, you know, I love the oft interrupted history of Afghanistan. It's like, hey, it's this middle ground place and, you know, it's had, you know, a bunch of different rulers or a bunch of different barbarian-ish types or there's the mob or there's the is the like Muslim folks initially with caliphates. Then there was the Mongols later and then there were the Turks to some extent. I'm not sure how much I know about that one. And then there was the great game between the British and the Russians, which is just like, so rough for Afghanistan.
You're kind of, it just like, you know, colonialism is sad in many ways that one is just like, oh, man, in between these two countries. Then there's the one in the after World War Two with the Cold War, where it's like you have U.S. and Soviets who are again doing this like a pseudo new kind of great game there. Yeah, and so it just it feels, and as you say there, it's like there's this beautiful version of Afghanistan, which is, you know, the guy in the 20s and 30s kind of pushing stuff up and then your sister going to school for the first time. It's like, hey, you got to walk before you can run. You got to do evolution, not revolution. But then what either the West sees or what you know, the kind of Russian saws you know these women need, they need to be wearing, you know, like tank tops and short shorts now, you know, it's like, wait a second.
Let's work with the people there to kind of do this in a more because when you go too fast, you get these in the traumatic experiences that the men there had and the women in the children in these refugee camps. That just creates these trauma-laden kids who then go on to be rough in society. So that'll make sense to me and then tell me, like if we think about like the U.S. involvement in the last, because some of the listeners might be specifically interested in that, it's like, OK, what we saw from the Western media was like, oh man, the U.S. has been there for 20 years. Now, we're out ski's, mission accomplished, but we got to kind of run. Now, the Taliban are back. Do we make any progress? How do you kind of see the U.S. getting out as a similar part of this pattern that's existed? Or how do you kind of understand the last two months in Afghans, their last kind of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan?
Tamim: Well, you know, first of all, I would say, I wrote, I'm going to go back a little bit, but I'm getting good.
Rhys: I like the historical perspective.
Tamim: Right. So I'm going to go back to 2012, when I was writing Games Without Rules, I was hurrying to get it out because the presidential election was coming up. I'm a Vietnam-era guy and I know that, oh, America's at war that's going to be a huge hot issue in the election, actually, it was never mentioned even once by either candidate in that election. It's unbelievable. Right before that, somebody asked me at a party said, oh, what are you working on these days? I said, well, I'm writing a history of Afghanistan. The short, I got that far and I realized they'd stop listening. They heard the word Afghanistan. I was like, oh, God boring, I don't wanna do that. This was not the forever war. This was, the unobserved, was aggressively unnoticed. It was the aggressively forgotten war. It's unbelievable to me that people in these 20 years are not aware that there was a war going on and it was a savage war. It was a war in which people were dying and horrible ways, but not in the cities. You know, I went back ten years after 9/11 and Kabul, you could walk around anyway. The sense of tension was everywhere, but you were not, you know, nothing happened to me. I, I walked around.
Rhys: You're here now.
Tamim: Yeah, I'm here now. So you could already see that, that something was going on, I'd say, in 2012. I think the policy people knew that because the argument was continually, should we put in more troops and the word Taliban was often used and I thought it was misused because just because the word suggests a particular group. So that the syndrome was to read in the news, ah, they got the number 12 guy, now they have the number three guys. Now they got the number 34 guy as if that's what it was, you know, as if there was some structure there and that if you could get rid of that spider, that organism, then everything would be fine. But actually, the problem was Talibanism and Talibanism was some kind of melange of, you know, the idea of Islam, plus the idea of the old Afghanistan, you know, the old tribal Afghanistan plus, you know, just all of that stuff.
To the extent that the violence and the bloodshed was not stopping all throughout the country. In 2012, when I went, you could not drive from a major city to another major city. You were to fly. Actually, I did drive or we did a bunch of us from Kabul to Bamiyan in Central Afghanistan. But the plans were laid and we were told, you know, just be ready and on a certain midnight, the call came to tomorrow at 6:00 we were leaving because they didn't want the word to get out, so that nobody along the way would set up an ambush. Then we got the Bamiyan and it was fine and once we got there, that was fine. Everybody, we were there. So Afghanistan was like that, the cities and then there was the country and like, this war is not going where it should.
Right around then was also when it ramped up into drone warfare and the drone warfare, I think, enabled the American public to even more just not notice it because in fact, the casualties on the American side, considering this the savagery of the war, the American casualties were very small and so people could afford not to notice it. And then too, unlike the Vietnam era, when there was a draft, people like me were like, oh, we hate this war, we might be there. Now, it's supposedly, you know, like a professional army. But what it means is how the volunteers that the sign up are people who are they have economic difficulties and this is the way out.
Rhys: The class, the lower class folks.
Tamim: It's the lower-class thing. So what you have a lot of the rural poor folks from America, you know, get into the army, they go to Afghanistan. So it's poor, poor country boys from America fighting poor countries move against them and elites on both sides just unaware, unnoticed and not at all. It just isn't happening. Then, you know, the way the war was launched, it was necessary to rally public support for war and that's you always need to have a noble purpose. You know, you can't. It's politically difficult to, especially in a democracy, to have a war in which your stated purpose, as you know, to increase gun sales and, you know, put a base in someplace where you can get some minerals or whatever. That's not the way you can sell a war.
So here, because of the Taliban and their depredations, it was already sell. You know, it's like we're going to save the women of Afghanistan, and so it was a noble war, and so the left was on board and then the right was like these are the Muslims, the Sharia. You want Sharia, you want your daughters to be. So then from the right that was like the noble war, we're fighting the infidels. So all of that nobility, you know, all that, that self-congratulatory [unintelligible] Yeah, that accrued to the war became the good war. So that was all the more reason why nobody paid attention. When the, so now we're talking about August and September of this year. What I keep hearing is they left so suddenly it's like, wait, the withdrawal was originally set for 2014. How sudden is that? How could nobody knew we weren't ready?
How could you not be ready? This is eight years later. Yeah, but it was all the truth. We were yanked out with their only 2500 troops. That's not like, dealt, they'd been withdrawing all the time. When the Taliban took the cities suddenly within a month, they took them basically without a fight. There was fighting and had often some [unintelligible]. But basically, they walked into those cities and everybody was waiting for that. I think out there in the cities. And especially, you know, where the war had been hot in the Helmand Valley and in Lashkar Gah, [unintelligible] places like that, ordinary people were like, we don't care who wins, can you just please stop. And so the Taliban had a program they were running on that was very popular. If we win, the war stops. It's not clear that that's true. But that certainly, I'm sure, felt true to the people. And you know, one last thing I want to say go back now to drones and then and to the war. Back then and in 2012, you know, 2010, '11, in that period, there was some discussion about how the soldiers, how the American soldiers should be armed.
You know, how they should be clad when they went into battle in Afghanistan and it was, you know, understandably thought that every piece of body armor they could have, they should have. Well, of course, you want that. You know, you want your soldiers to survive. But when you looked at a soldier, you saw a guy from, an alien from outer space. They didn't look like the humans that people on the villages. So quite apart from anything about democracy, these guys were saying or Islam, these guys, apart from ideologies like these guys are humans and what are these guys are? I don't know what they are. Both sides are lobbing bombs, people, when the fight is over, your relatives are dead. You're going to feel like the war as those guys coming to our place because they're from someplace else and you're home and the drones only exacerbates that. You know, because the drones are...
Rhys: Yeah, it's like, that's even more alien of a thing.
Tamim: Yeah. They're just the bomb.
Rhys: Yeah, exactly. That's interesting. I think that there is a, I mean, I definitely agree, I mean, the drones and then this whole macro narrative like, you know, what controls the news cycle and stuff like that. It's like, yeah, that, Afghanistan after the very, very beginning, essentially was like, I don't really want to talk about that kind of thing. And especially, I think I like the phrasing of, you know, the poor rural boys from both places essentially were fighting each other while the elites were doing, were just doing their own thing. That seems directionally correct. One thing that I didn't quite understand, both from the book, Destiny Disrupted and from, like modern-day Afghanistan is, you know, you talk about like the Taliban. And for me, something that's been a learning over the last, you know, a couple, a little bit of time as I've read more about the Middle East and Islam is like, OK, you had, it's like how kind of, this kind of Islam, what I would tradition call Islamic extremism or what I might now call Salafism or Wahhabism or whatever.
So it's like you have this or kind of a response to Western decadence, you know, you have the Western decadence happening. You have modernity happening, modernity, quote-unquote. Then you have this kind of pushback from Wahhab and then Waha, plus the Saudis creating this new state and then kind of like Petro Islam or whatever kind of pushing Wahhabism into the world. And then Salafism is maybe like the nice term of Wahhabism, and it's like these versions of, and I think that they do have really, as far as I can tell, like Wahhabism does a really good job of saying, hey, there's Dar al-Islam, the, you know, the land of peace of whatever and Dal al-Harb. But maybe something like the land without, without Islam, without peace, and like creating those two worlds and saying we want to create the world of peace. So that feels like a powerful meme to spread when something but like, why is it the case that kind of Wahhabism or the Taliban or these kinds of things are so kind of, in my mind, like powerful as these cultural entities, you know, like, yeah, why are they sort of powerful?
Tamim: Well, I think that there is a question of identity here and, you know, I'll put myself no again. I just wrote a piece responding to the things that happened and what I would say is, you know, the Afghanistan that the West, first the Soviets, then Americans that they wanted to put in place here was one in which the majority of Afghans really, rural Afghans. But there's also a lot of urban Afghans. They looked at that society and they didn't see it, they didn't see themselves in there. They saw a story in which they were not a character. I think, you know, identity, human identity, as is the ability to see a character, to see a story that your society has is playing out and what you're an important character. You might not be important even, but a meaningful character. You know who you are in that and then that story.
And, you know, I think that a lot of the, a lot of the power of the jihadist narrative in the Islamic world comes from the fact that it's tapping a narrative that has already been almost like a childhood nursery rhyme folktale for Muslim kids. They grow up with that story of the thing that happened in Medina long ago where the guy went into a cave and an angel said, you are going to speak for God from now on. And you know, your world is full of warfare. But we're going to tell you how people should live in this war is going to end. Sadly, this is the mythos of, you know, the Islamic story. Then he went and he gathered his followers and Medina said, yes, yes, please come teach us how to live. And he issued the laws and people the biggest empires on Earth.
Tamim: The Byzantines, you know, the Persians, the superpowers of the time, they try to crush this little group and they fail because God was on the side of this, this little community whose only real power was they were doing it right. So that's like, that's like a bedtime story for four kids. So when you grow up, the structure of that narrative is there. Now somebody comes and says, hey, the world is divided into Dal al-Harb and Dal al-Islam. Yes, Islam looks like it's been beaten down and there's only a few of us left, but some of us have rediscovered the golden rule, you know, Apple and whatever. We're going to start to do that again. We're going to live just the way they did in Medina. Then it'll happen. It'll happen. So there's like a supernatural belief there, a magical belief.
Rhys: Yeah, that's interesting. I think that's a great I mean, you want a narrative that you want to believe in, and that narrative that you've been told kind of fits well with the narrative that or that the childhood narrative kind of fits well with this kind of the jihadist narratives or whatever. I think it's it makes me think a little bit about, I think this might be a little bit of like me being too mean or something to like the jihadist or something like that, like, it reminds me a bit of like the if some folks have talked about the Trump kind of January 6th riot and stuff like that. It's like an example of LARPing, do you know, have you heard that term before?
It means live-action roleplaying and it's when you're kind of, people would do it when they go out into the park and they put on their like medieval costumes and they'll fight each other and it's like they're playing pretend that they're in this old world. And there's something about like, you know, at the capital, when you had the guy with the first...
Rhys: Yeah, the shaman guy. He was LARPing, you know, he was there. He was doing a thing that technically, from their little weird perspective, it was like, oh, they're taking back, they're like, it was a steal, all these things and they were in the some, so that they mean this like weird reality into existence. And like similarly, that sounds kind of similar to this.
Tamim: Yes. Yes, exactly. That's what it is. You know, it's like the role of narrative as something that we really have to think about this. You know, you were talking about information wants certain things and when you say it that way, you're representing information as having willpower and I have a version of that myself and which I would like to say that narrative is exactly analogous to a biological organism, and it has a will to survive and it has a will to prosper. So then the question that this is the main thing I think about these days actually and then the question comes up, how could that be since in fact, you know, a narrative doesn't exist without the people who are telling the story? But I think that individuals are, you know, I think that actually narrative is how we are able to see the world at all.
You know, I think here we can actually ask the scientists if they agree. The neuroscientist and they'll say, yeah, we agree because you don't, our perception is not like a video screen that just reality we have senses about sample, sample, sample, sample, this little bit, this little bit, and they feed it into a model with built inside of our heads and then our responses are based on how that fits in the model. And if the response brings us good things, then OK, the model must be right. And if it leads to some harm, oh, the model needs to be corrected. But the model is always what we're living inside of. The model is a narrative, then the narrative as an unfolding story. So I think that in normal times, you know, when things are more or less the same every day, the narrative works it, it helps us, you know, it helps us classify new information coming to us as relevant or irrelevant and or true or false.
And or good for me or harmful to me? As long as things are more or less regular, then that's a good thing. That's how we can function because we can't, we can't actually ask for evidence for every piece of information that comes in. We actually have to take things, most things we have to our quick judgment of them have to be, does it fit with everything else I know? And if it does, then OK, you can come in and you can be part of life. That's how narratives keep themselves going because groups of people have narratives they share and groups of people by virtue of their shared narrative have a group self, have a social self. The social self, when things are in disarray, that social self is under threat of extinction because the narratives are not working. Everybody says this is what's happening and they can't agree. So people cluster to the smallest, you know, the largest group that can totally agree, which becomes smaller and smaller.
Yeah, it's kind of like, it reminds me of, I think, I think, your own destiny disruptor, which is like that of one of the super powerful things about the new kind of nation-states around the, you know, 1500s Western Europe time was this have built the shared language and that you would cut, you were like a knife, like a very, everybody was aligned in one direction. You would cut like a knife through bread, and the bread was the kind of barbarians or whoever else. The empires that had all these like ran people there. So that's, I mean, yeah, and I think I really like what you said about your narratives as these organisms. And I think, yeah, they want to self perpetuate and we'll see how they do that. So thank you for your time today, Tamim. I think that there's, I mean, so many juicy things for our listeners to dive into here. I think that as a reminder for our listeners. Yeah, I mean, I've only read Destiny Disrupted, but the other I've watched them talk about Games Without Rules and they have the history of, what's your latest book called?
Tamim: The Invention of Yesterday.
Rhys: The Invention of Yesterday, and which is a big history of, you know, 50000 years. Again, I really think I mean, this Destiny Disrupted is, you know, good reads. It has 4.4 stars like nothing is 4.4 stars. So I was like, OK, I got to read this. And one of the great reviews for it at the bottom said, you know, this is a person who has been it has a masters in, you know, Middle Eastern studies, and this is the book that they give about the most helpful book for them and it's the one that they give to all beginners. So it's like definitely check that out or the other Games Without Rules if you want to look at Afghanistan or the 50000 years, The Invention of Yesterday, if you want to understand big history stuff. Tamim, is there anything else you want to kind of leave our listeners with either advice or books to check out or where to find you on the interwebs or any of that stuff?
Tamim: Well, I'll just say that people often mislabel my book, The History of Yesterday. That's a trivial sort of a title. No, it's The Invention of Yesterday. And if I had it to do over again, I wouldn't make the subtitle what it was. I'd subtitle it, The Human Story from The Stone Age to The Virtual Age because that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to look at history and say, is there some single story you can tell that has the human story? That's what I tried to do there and thank you so much. This has been a wonderful conversation, very interesting.
Rhys: Yeah, thank you again and I'm just fingers crossed for, you know, Afghanistan in the long term to have this beautiful relationship between the rural parts and the urban parts and for it to be and for there to be less. Also, like a little bit like outsider like development is OK. But like to in general, a lot of the people there, it's kind of self-determine things to some. Is that right?
Tamim: Yeah. If they could have sovereignty and peace, they would then pursue social progress. I really, really believe that.
Rhys: Yeah. Yeah. Beautiful. With that, thank you again, Tamim, and thank you listeners for coming on today. Goodbye, everybody.