“I heard the Afghan crowds in the street. They were all chanting or mumbling,” said my Australian colleague the next morning. “I thought there was some kind of protest underway, but then I realised why. They were all staring into the night sky and praying aloud.”

Our Eastern Hemisphere had a lunar eclipse that evening and the public reaction puzzled me.

My colleague seemed convinced that our Afghan hosts had panicked and were outside praying for Allah to bring back the moon. There was no reason to doubt her except that it didn’t seem very Afghan, especially in her swank Kabul neighbourhood.

Perhaps the streets had filled with uneducated guards and servants, rather than the wealthy home-owners. But she insisted that they were all outside, praying up a storm so to speak: the civil engineer and his wife and children, the gynaecologist and his elderly parents, the well-heeled importer of electronic goods and his teenaged nieces visiting from Herat – the lot of them.

We all know of Columbus dazzling the Jamaican natives in 1503, predicting a lunar eclipse and how they begged him to bring back the moon. Earlier, a similar eclipse plunged the Ancient Greeks into confusion over bad omens, giving their foes in Syracuse a chance to break the siege and win the Peloponnesian Wars.

Meanwhile, superstitions die hard even among the modern and educated. Some Japanese are said to still cover wells lest the waters be polluted by a lunar eclipse, and some Eskimos allegedly overturn utensils to avoid contamination.

But Afghans tend to be practical folk who, despite being often deprived of education, are still good Muslims who know that God created everything including science. The unlettered ones retain plenty of fascinating, medieval legends that coexist alongside antibiotics, for example, but science holds no threat to the Afghan Weltanschauung.

They are not much like the 40 percent of Americans who, a year ago, told pollsters that, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”Afghans schooled enough to have heard of Natural Selection assume that it must be true; that at some time God turned earlier beings into humans; and that we call the first one Adam. No problems there.

Yet there they all were, outside and praying until the moon came back.

My friend and driver Fatah, bright and inquisitive despite his lack of formal education while he was a refugee, gave me a garbled answer in tentative English. The eclipse had something to do with planets “moving upstairs,” he suspected. But he is deeply religious, and concluded that any excuse that makes people remember Allah and pray is a good thing anyway. I was not fully convinced.

Over lunch I asked the Minister of Agriculture whether many Afghans had problems understanding eclipses. The wise and well-travelled man scowled thoughtfully. He had grown up in a rural village outside of Kabul, where his uncles were farmers and his father was a civil servant. “They taught us all that stuff when I was a small boy in school,” he replied, “but I can’t remember exactly when.”

Had Afghan schools deteriorated in the forty years since he was a boy? It is possible. But many of the urbanites crowding the night streets were of his age, and they may have gone to even better elementary schools than he did. The jury was still out.

On the way home Fatah made another attempt to explain. The devout, 39-year-old, father of seven is a keen follower of Kabul’s talk-radio mullahs and their popular call-in programmes, and people had phoned to ask how good Muslims should regard the recent eclipse.

I don’t know if this talk-show host is the same one who often exhorts listeners to respect and protect (not merely to tolerate) Jews and Christians, but that one is a public favourite. Fatah, apparently unaware of virulent Anti-Semitism elsewhere in Muslim lands, shrugs easily and says that all good Muslims believe in tolerance and respect. “There’s only one God anyway,” is his typically Afghan answer.

The mullah explained the movements of the planets, and how the earth periodically casts its shadow over the moon. This, he added, makes a splendid opportunity to remember the power of Almighty God, and to praise Him for the marvellous world that He created just for us. So, during an eclipse, good Muslims should step outside and say thanks.

He added that married couples who avoid sex during an eclipse, fearing that it might cause a future baby to suffer a cleft palate, were unscientific nincompoops.

How very disappointing for some. No fearful crowds plunged into Stygian darkness in some exotic and far-off land, frantically working their jadoo to the music of the spheres. Just educated people gathering informally to share a prayer.

How often do your neighbours step into the street in unison, just to thank God for something simultaneously scientific and wonderful? Mine do.

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