Listening to Professor Bradley Birzer’s spell-binding, videotaped lecture on John Randolph (available on this website), one is startled by his vivid, contagious, and nearly gleeful description of Randolph and Henry Clay squaring off for a duel on the site of today’s Reagan National Airport on the Potomac. Then it struck me how similar people may look but how different we are.

How many living Americans fully understand men such as Randolph or Clay, who rode out on a chill morning prepared to die for honour? Yet they are not so far from us and our times: three respective five-year-olds talking to their respective grandfathers take us there in a mere third-hand conversation. Yet, compared to us and our attitudes, Randolph and Clay might as well have been Homeric warriors at the gates of Troy, three thousand years gone instead of but two centuries.

In England, the last cabinet minister to resign on a point of principle (not fight a duel and maybe die), was Lord Carrington almost 30 years ago. Recently, when US Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack offered his resignation over (false) accusations of a bigoted statement from a deputy, it was a jaw-dropper. Why we are scared to resign, much less to die, and whatever became of honour is another story for another day: just as interesting may be how different are we from our fairly recent ancestors, not to mention people in other countries who seem just like us until we get to know them.

Depending on Kabul traffic I spend up to two hours a day, or 12 hours a week, with my pleasant, dependable, and admirable driver. Fatah, a devoted father of seven, is a 38-year-old Afghan whose education was severely curtailed by war and exile, but he is quick with languages and his English gallops ahead much faster than my pitiful Dari (don’t even ask about my Pushtu). Back in Peshawar, Pakistan, we were in the anti-Soviet jihad together, although we never met, me running emergency food and medical projects and Fatah, in his early teens, taking brave battlefield photographs for one of the moderate resistance parties that the Afghans loved and the US and Pakistani clandestine services despised. He is a devout Muslim who starts every journey with a short prayer (as did my Irish-American grandmother, albeit using different prayers), and his favourite drive-time DJ is a Kabul radio mullah who explains, for example, how good Muslims are obliged to respect and protect Jews and Christians. Such is modern Kabul.

Stuck in traffic, we engage in traditional Afghan chit-chat: which varieties of apricots, grapes, or melons are the best and which province grows the finest ones, or religion or politics, or we tell jokes or exchange bits of poetry. All Afghans love poetry earthy or sublime. His most recently recalled couplet: “The poet says he looks into the eyes of others in hope of seeing his beloved/The farmer asks, ‘then look into my eyes and see if you can find my cow.’”

Then, about twice a week it happens and I get a flash of how different we really are. Fatah and I were discussing Afghan wildlife when I mentioned bats and he was off like a bat himself. Hazrat Moosa (the Prophet Moses) asked God if he could create a creature of his own, since God had made so many. Allah was reluctant at first, Fatah explained a mile a minute, but He finally relented and let Moses create the bat. But since Moses was neither all-knowing nor all-powerful, he created a bat without a rectum and so—to this very day, mind you—bats lack sphincters and relieve themselves through their mouths. As Bill Murray says somewhere, “It’s a fact, Jack!” Fatah took his eyes off the road to see my response. He was dead certain: this was no piece of amateur anthropology.

Bats sleep hanging upside down and their dung collects beneath them on the floor of the cave, so I suppose that bungless bats are a plausible explanation except for the observable fact that bats have backdoors, so to speak. Come to think of it, I am not sure how they use them while hanging upside down, since they look fairly clean and unsoiled despite their bottoms being positioned above their tops, but bats have bungs. I feel as if I am talking to some Dark Ages scholar who miscounts the number of human teeth because Aristotle got it wrong, and there is no point in peering into a friend’s mouth to count his teeth since Aristotle is, well, Aristotle.

An American anthropologist friend, visiting the glorious mountains of Swat in Pakistan two decades ago, met a refugee Afghan falconer who asked if he would use his US passport to smuggle captured birds of prey to sell to rich Saudis—they could split the profits. My friend demurred and the Afghan asked if he knew why the Saudis dote on such birds. Sand-carp, the Afghan explained quite seriously, they hunt for Saudi sand-carp. These muscular fish swim through the desert sands as normal fish negotiate the water. Falcons see the ripples in the sand, and so when a sand-carp comes up for air the bird swoops, grabs it and brings it to its master. Whatever do they do with sand-carp, my friend asked and the Afghan looked at him as if he were a hopeless naïf. “Everyone knows that! Eat just a tiny, pill-sized portion of Saudi sand-carp,” the refugee explained patiently, “and a fellow can ‘do it’ eight or maybe ten times a night.”

Suddenly, we are back in the Age of Herodotus, listening to third-hand travellers’ tales that are quite literally incredible while the Greek historian scribbles it all down for his next book.

What makes it all the more fascinating and ever-surprising is the juxtaposition between modern science and utter superstitious nonsense. One minute your friend or acquaintance is talking quite sensibly about why the doctor says that his child needs, or does not need, a course of antibiotics, and in the next he explains why bats lack bungholes. Even without Monty Python, the European Middle Ages must have been the same with conversations careering back and forth between the sensible and the ridiculous. Come to think of it, my distant childhood was sometimes like that, such as when an Italian neighbour-lady in Detroit explained to me that a wish made during the precise moment of transubstantiation in the Mass would always be granted. Historian Hugh Thomas reports that the Catholic Church had been trying hard to squelch that particular superstition since the late 16th Century or earlier, yet there in the 1960s a fat lady with a moustache and a prominent facial wart, wearing a faded cotton housedress stretched tight across her amplitude, leaned over my grandfather’s chain-link, garden fence waggling a finger to set me straight.

My point, if I have one, is a paradox. At least since the death of the Soviet Union, no nation is so cocksure and messianic as America, no people so certain that the world thinks as they think and wants what they want. Yet few people are so unaware of what others think and so lack the empathy or inquisitiveness to find out. Our grandparents would be aghast at the serial bastardy that passes without much comment in modern Britain or America. Our great-great grandparents fought duels to the death while we get printed warnings telling us not to put plastic bags over our heads. We seem to know what is best for everyone while remaining quite unaware of our fairly recent relatives, much less ordinary people in far-away places.

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