The two Afghans on my right gestured with disdain. I knew what they were saying--American is scumbag! No respect for old man!
I had just hitched a ride in a pickup. As a sign of welcome, the patriarch moved off his throne atop a spare tire, and motioned for me to take his place. Grateful, I heaved my pack over the tailgate, and clambered onto the tire. He settled against the cab, content with his good deed, as the truck lurched up the hill.
Immediately, the two turbaned youth, probably in their mid-twenties, began to act up. Grimacing, they rolled their eyes, and held their left palms upward, the ones used for traditional toilet tools, in lieu of two-ply. Back and forth, their fingers flew, and cut the air. In the local and universal vernacular, I knew I was "sheet" on a sidewalk--if they had sidewalks, and they did not--only miles of rocks and boulders. Even under turbans, their cheeks were pale, with paltry beards on lean jaws.
Fine. I had no intention of offending cultural sensibilities, or setting off the youth of faraway lands. I started to move off the tire.
The patriarch leaned forward, his ancient eyes twinkling, and motioned for me to stay put.
Caught in a half crouch, I hesitated. The young Afghans frowned with antipathy. Their hands sawed the air in protest.
Move off, stay on?--that was the question, stuck like a lead slug between the towering grill of the Hindu Kush and rusted bed of a Chevy import. I was suddenly a prisoner of my own free will.
The old man, older than Methuselah, his turban tattered, his beard grayed, the lines of his face more wrinkled, tightly-wound, and layered than the corroded bed springs of Genghis Khan's steel chariot, compelled me to stay put on the not-so-comfortable (but better than bouncing truck bed) split-rim curvature of a suddenly cursed, knob-tire, conundrum.
And there we went, two cultures, east and west, if not several generations--caught between old and new, bumping down the torturous road to Herat--rage, reason, and language-challenged arrhythmia; with probably a few hemorrhoids, to boot; all ruminating to no avail, and no way to get off, or resolve the rubicon situation: pander to glowering youth, or piss off gracious elders? Onward marches the Gunga Din challenge, past the wretched cracks of the Lawless Lands, and belated bugle blasts of broken Constantinople conscripts.
Years later, I look back and think--Nothing has changed. America is still bumping down the road to hell, except that it is Obama who sits on the tire, caught between two worlds, and wonders how to get off. For all his precocious skill, he is unable to escape the reoccurring theme: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing--a generational genocide inflicted, by emperors, czars, and presidents, upon the poorest people on earth. What's not to like?
Incapable of irony, Obama allows death to flourish in an iron land.
Meanwhile, back in the homeland, senators wax comfortably, in polished marble halls, and give new meaning to the eloquence of practiced capitulation.
In all my travels, it is funny what sticks in the mind. I remember the incident like yesterday. The pickup, no doubt, is long-rusted, and recycled into kettles and pots. The old man--long dead; the young men, maybe with children of their own, going down the same tired road.