She made amends a year later, when she and Don brought Seraj an American saddle and bridle, precious gifts in a country that prizes horsemanship. After an awkward interval in which Afghans who had never seen a saddle tried to put one on a horse that had never worn one, Seraj leaped onto his mount, did a triumphant dance around the visitors, then took off down the hill.
Ironically, one of the last wars of the 20th century and the first of the 21st have been waged in what is essentially a premodern nation. Some Afghans would dispute that Afghanistan is even a nation, identifying themselves by their ethnic group, tribe, or clan. Many cannot speak their neighbors' language; many more can't read or write. In this kind of society, gestures count for a great deal. When a woman whom Sally is visiting, the mother of her teenage interpreter, starts rummaging through the family's treasures for gifts to give her—prayer beads, bolts of cloth—her generosity brings tears to Sally's eyes. On one occasion, her party stopped in the apple orchard of a nearby village. Rugs were spread in the shade of the trees; the foods served included a coarse, locally grown corn, roasted on the cob. Sally was feeling ill that day and set down her corn after only a few bites. An older man sitting nearby picked it up and began to eat. She understood that it was a gesture of respect. Then she learned that her companion had seen his young son murdered by gunmen. They might have been Taliban or mujahideen; so many young men in Afghanistan belong to militias and will use guns on any pretext. The gunmen pulled up at the family's gas station, the boy filled their tank, and when he asked them for money, they shot him. He was 22.
From the Soviet invasion in 1979 until the present, as many as 2 million Afghans are believed to have died by violence. Millions more have been displaced. Afghanistan has one of the world's highest rates of infant and maternal mortality. It's one of the most heavily land-mined countries on earth. "Virtually everyone I met in Afghanistan has a story of dislocation, suffering, or loss," Sally says. "People there know about 9/11. I don't usually tell the story; usually the Afghan with me tells the story. And I always get this phenomenally sympathetic reaction. They've suffered so much themselves that they understand."