Tamim Ansary: Parallel Histories

Evening Lecture

When we think of chronology in history, we place events in relationship to other events within the same frame. Each frame is studded with iconic dates that give context to events: In 1066, for example, William of Normandy conquered England. In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It's surprising to realize that in 1066, Omar Khayyam was a brilliant schoolboy in Nishapur; and that in 1495, Babur (who later founded the Moghul empire) became the 12-year-old king of Farghana. These simultaneities don't occur to us because our one planet is home to many parallel histories. Each is a whole world defined in terms of a narrative—a sequence of events and developments that form a meaningful arc. In the Muslim world, the defining historical narrative pivots around Mohammed's immigration to Medina , the year that marks the birth of a community. The theology and civilization of a world is thereafter intertwined with the political fate of this community. Early success confirms religious doctrines which in turn define political and cultural responses. Later defeats by Turks and Mongols generate revivalist narratives that weaken proto-scientific and proto-modernists tendencies. Centuries later, those same doctrines serve as the bases for some Muslim responses to Western imperialism. The persistence of old, ongoing, and often hidden narratives shape some of the tensions afflicting our world. They also help frame our understanding of history and society in way we may not notice. The differing attitudes toward interest in Muslim and modern Western societies provides an example. The difference is difficult to understand unless you grasp the differing premises of these societies, rooted in those hidden narrative. Yet the material underpinnings of our interactions are changing radically: technology and politics have intertwined in ways that make an interaction among all the cultures of the world inevitable. Let us examine our parallel histories, our hidden narratives, and our unstated social axioms in order to weave a common historical narrative for the one-world we're becoming.

Tamim Ansary, author, lecturer, and teacher, was born and raised in Afghanistan and has lived in the United States since 1964. He writes about Islam, politics, democracy, history, education, philosophy, the social impact of technology, sports, movies, and other topics as they catch his fancy. His columns and analyses can be found at his blogsite www.mirtamimansary.com. Ansary's books include Games Without Rules, the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan, published this year, as well as The Widow's Husband, a historical novel set against the background of the First Afghan-British War; West of Kabul, East of New York, a literary memoir about a bicultural life straddling East and West; and Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes. His memoir was honored by San Francisco as its "One City One Book" pick for 2008 and has been assigned as common freshman reading in universities ranging from Tulane to Carleton. Destiny Disrupted won the 2010 Northern California Book Award for general nonfiction and has been translated into eight languages including Italian. Ansary runs the 65-year-old San Francisco Writers Workshop and teaches sporadically through the Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning at San Francisco State and at U.C. Berkeley. He has also written numerous nonfiction children's books and has contributed to major U.S. elementary and high school textbooks programs.

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