My son is singing the chorus to "America the Beautiful" with fanfare and vigor. A perfectly normal way for a 6-year-old to comport himself, except that we've just boarded an Emirates airlines flight from Dubai to Islamabad, and our fellow passengers are mostly Pakistanis, Afghans and a random assortment of traditionally clad denizens of the Persian Gulf. I suggest firmly that he choose another song. He pauses for a minute. Then he belts out an Israeli peace song.
"Jacob," I whisper, "maybe this is not the best time to sing, period."
We're on the third leg of a journey from New York City to Peshawar, Pakistan, a two-person mission on behalf of Jacob's first-grade class that will carry us across ten time zones, two continents and one very long, dusty road against a backdrop of clashing realities: We're at war; we're not really at war. We're fighting to eliminate terrorism; we're terrorizing Afghans. We're dropping bombs; we're dropping food. We're helping the Northern Alliance topple the Taliban; we don't want the Northern Alliance to take Kabul. Pakistan is our friend; Pakistanis are burning our leaders in effigy.
"Let him sing," says my seatmate, Maroof, a Pakistani from Jidda who, I'll later learn, owns the only bowling alley in Rawalpindi. "Young man," he says, turning to my son, "please, continue."
But Jacob has already lost himself in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Maroof turns his attention back to me. "What will you be doing in Pakistan?" he asks.
I relate the story as best I can. I explain how Jacob's teacher, Mariah, showed the class a videotape of President Bush's plea for each American child to raise a dollar for Afghan children. I tell him how the children in Mariah's class were so awed at the personal call to duty that they took the task a step further and sold 251 handmade bookmarks, at $1 each, to their schoolmates. I say that Mariah invited me to Jacob's classroom to present a slide show of photographs I'd taken of Afghan refugees back in 1989, when I was a photo journalist covering the area. I tell him that the bookmark project suddenly became so controversial within the school that Mariah was forced to defend herself and her actions, and that one parent of a child in a different class privately expressed her concern that giving money to Afghan children was like giving money to the enemy.