I sat in the back row of the rusty, creaking Japanese minibus as we bounced our way across the bleak Afghan desert from Kandahar to Kabul. In front of and next to me, their heads brushing the roof, were seven Afghan tribesmen, complete with ancient carbines and crossed bandoliers.
They talked amongst themselves and occasionally cast a glance back in my direction. Although there were a number of young westerners on the “hippy trail” in that fall of 1971, this was probably the first time that a lone, longhaired “ferengi”, complete with bushy beard and backpack traveled beside them. I was on my way to meet up with my friends who were already in Kabul. Foregoing my usual hitchhiking, as the weather was turning cool, I had found this minivan in a small market area in Kandahar a couple of hours before. For just two dollars, I would be in Kabul in a few hours. By now, I was immune to the pervasive odour of unwashed bodies and uncured, dirty sheepskin coats emanating from my traveling companions.
It was the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims; for thirty days they don’t eat from dawn to dusk. I knew this, but reached into my pack and brought out some bread and goat cheese. Seven long, gaunt, slightly hostile faces turned toward me…
“Oh”, said I, slapping my forehead, “Ramadan!”
I made a big deal of putting my food back into my pack, the tension was gone and they smiled good-naturedly at me.
These were the descendants of some of the fiercest warriors the world has ever known. They had withstood invading armies from Genghis Khan to the British Empire and would eventually defeat the Russians. It was said that if you were wounded in battle against the Afghans, it would be much better if you died, because when their women scoured the battlefield afterwards, they would do unspeakable tortures to an enemy left alive. They were tall, fierce-looking, proud, dirty and looked capable, even eager, to protect their barren lands.
Suddenly there was a loud bang, the bus lurched to one side and we rolled to a stop. Everyone piled out to inspect the flat tyre. The driver cheerfully threw the baggage piled in the back onto the roadside, rummaged around to find his tools and the spare and went to work. It was cold in the desert and within three minutes, one of the men had a warming fire, made with dried camel dung patties found beside the road.
Perhaps because of my gesture with the food, they seemed to be comfortable with me; one of them spoke a few words of English. Using hand gestures and a stick in the sand, I tried to explain to them how big a skyscraper is and that there are tubes under the ground through which people hurtle in metal trains. Supermarkets, redwood trees, sailboats, these and more were “discussed” and marveled over, with looks of wonder and disbelief.
A few minutes before we were ready to squeeze back into the van, we stood around smoking, as I shared my cigarettes with them. One man, the one who spoke a few words of English, pointed to himself and told me his name was Ali. I told him mine. He then pointed to himself again and said clearly,
“Ali, Moslem – Jon, Christian?”
A defining moment in the life of a twenty-year old! How do I answer this question, here in the middle of nowhere, no one knowing where I was, surrounded by these gun-toting tribesmen? In a sudden flash of insanity, I decided to be truthful. Standing tall, with them waiting expectantly for an answer, I looked Ali squarely in the eye, pointed to myself and said one word,
After I said it, I had this momentary vision of seven ferocious Afghanis, gleefully dismembering me with their deadly knives and leaving me to rot in the desert.
A startled look came into Ali's eyes and he walked quickly around the fire toward me. I looked back at him unflinching, as he rushed up and stopped inches from me. He studied me up and down, an intense look of disbelief on his face. I quickly looked behind, hoping for an escape route, but the others had moved closer to me, their eyes unwavering. For ten seconds no one moved. My mind raced and I automatically put up my arms as Ali raised his at me. I prepared myself for the blow that never came.
Instead of hitting me, he threw his arms around me. He hugged me tight and his bad breath overpowered me. He stepped back and spoke one word,
I was taken by surprise and immensely relieved. He talked rapidly to his friends who looked at me with amazement, all gesturing wildly with their hands. One by one, they shook my hand, told me their names and smiled at me. We sat down around the fire, joined by the driver who by now had replaced the flat with a bald spare tyre. Ali explained haltingly in a few words his reaction to my confessing to being a Jew in this apparently hostile environment.
“Abraham, Muslim father; Abraham, Jew father - we bruzzers.”
Here, at the ends of the earth, warming ourselves by a camel dung fire was this simple man’s profound understanding of men’s real relationship to each other. He wasn’t concerned with the rhetoric of modern politicians; he probably couldn’t even read a newspaper. But he did know that five thousand years ago, we both came from the same patriarch and in spite of our vast differences we were indeed brothers…
Copyright 2012 JoJo Publishing "Everyone Said I Should Write A Book" Jonathan White
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