KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — It was subtle, this death threat. In fact, I completely missed it.
"If I kill this infidel now, I will be in Paradise," declared a man in the crowd as we climbed into a tiny motorized rickshaw on a crowded street. "I will become Ghazi!" he proclaimed, referring to the level of paradise where some Muslims believe that God blesses those who dispatch non-believers.
The two Afghans with me overheard the line, spoken in their language and were deeply agitated. As we pulled away, safely obscured by the bright blue-colored plastic sides of the rickshaw, my Afghan guide whipped around to look back one last time, muttering about making sure that the man hadn't pulled a pistol from beneath his woolen shawl.
"He thinks you are a Russian and an atheist, and they have had bad experiences with Russians," said my guide, as we rattled down a street in central Kandahar.
Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and by definition, they were nonbelievers. (I didn't want to look like the clean-shaven Soviets, so I shaved.)
Though Afghanistan is renowned for its hospitality to guests - even an American journalist - it is also deeply conservative, inward looking, and - these days especially, under the rule of the superstrict Islamic Taliban militia - religious.
"For the Afghan people, it doesn't matter your tribe or race," my guide explained, stroking his long black beard. "Religion is everything."
But Afghans have always eyed foreigners suspiciously. After all, they've always had trouble with outside occupiers. Look at Russia, for example. Or Alexander the Great. This strikingly beautiful, hard-scrabble land has for centuries produced a people who gave even the famed Macedonian conqueror a difficult time.
But as an American journalist, flipping my notebook, the lasting images are ones of the Wild West - a frontier mentality honed to a dangerous edge with the flintstone of fundamentalism. To what earthly authority must a man be accountable, it seems, when all will be judged by Allah?
Today, the Taliban controls 90 percent of the country. They have brought an impressive degree of security to a nation that has experienced only war and rival warlords for two decades. But they also enforce Islamic law with conviction.
Take Friday prayers. All men must pray. It's not optional. While driving by a mosque in Kabul at midday, turbaned gunmen in the road stop my taxi. There are other cars by the side of the road, slackers who have been stopped and "encouraged" to spend a few devotional moments in the mosque.
But my translator knew I was late for an interview. "He's a doctor with the Red Cross," he lied, pointing at me. "We have an urgent case, and must go." The gunmen scowled and waved us on.
During a stopover in Ghazni, a nondescript town a long day's drive north of Kandahar, less than $4 gets me an all-concrete room complete with a wood-burning metal heater. A beardless boy comes in and lights it, the smell of lighter fluid rising with the heat. Visitors are welcome - even foreign ones - if they carry sufficient cash.
I bed down on a thin mattress on the floor, next to the glowing heater, and cover myself in a thick matted wool blanket before the generator is turned off for the night. Curfew is at 9 p.m., and then there is silence.
Next morning, after a breakfast of eggs and stew and onions - the beverage choice is black or green tea - I pay by the hour for the generator to be turned on to power my computer and satellite phone to write and file a story.
The Afghans here haven't seen a laptop computer, and so keep a discreet distance - except for one enthralled boy, who watched my colorful screen saver as if it were an Oscar-winning movie.
After breakfast I hit the road, heading north toward Kabul. This portion of the ancient Silk Road is barren and rough, pinched by a landscape of frostbitten deserts.
As my driver plays unnerving games of "chicken" with oncoming traffic, I count a dozen camel trains loping south for the winter, packed high with woolen tents and bristling with the wares of a nomad's life: charcoal-black pots and pans, poles, shovels, and all manner of colorful cloth.
At midmorning, we stop and buy a sack of dull-pink skinned pomegranates. They explode with bright red seeds and juice, when inserted with a dirty thumb to break apart the fruit. There is yogurt too, white and flowing, bitter without sugar.
"Where did you get that scar?" I ask the driver, pointing to the four-inch line across the top of his left hand. He tells the story easily, as one might talk of changing a spark plug.
Personal relationships are functions of honor, pride, and individual toughness, he begins philosophically. Here the pinnacle of bravery - or foolhardiness - is described the same way, as one who "does not fear God."
"I was with friends, and we wanted to show how brave we were," he says. They put a thin metal rod from an AK-47 assault rifle into a fire until it was red hot. My driver - his name remains a mystery, in the same way that I will never know how he fixed our leaking fuel line - laid the rod across his hand, branding himself.
"I didn't flinch," he boasted, his boyish face breaking into a big smile. "That's how powerful I am."
Bravado? Maybe. But it comes in handy at sporadic checkpoints. Taliban militiamen flag us down and ask for a road tax - a bribe anywhere else - and hand out receipts. "Why do you bother taking this infidel around with you?" he is chided at one stop by two turbaned gunmen.
They mean business, as evident in the decorations at their checkpoint. The Taliban are known for their uncompromising interpretation of Islamic law, which for them forbids images of any living thing, and music. Like others across the country, this checkpoint is festooned with great bunches of shimmering black cassettes and videotapes that have been confiscated from cars.
As we pull away from the barrier, my driver reaches behind his ashtray with a mischievous smirk, to the place where he hides his own music. Without a word, he pops in the tape - and hits the accelerator.
The smoke from roasting meat wafts through the bazaars in southern Afghanistan, soon after sunset. Men gather on rug-covered platforms a few feet above the muddy earth, kicking off their shoes to eat fresh bread, meat and stew.
Smugglers abound, telling stories of the road that verge on the fantastic - and point to how wild life here can be. When I was working through my fifth skewer of kebab - two pieces of meat on either side of a thick chunk of fat - a man with a bountiful face started to tell me his story.
Working his Muslim prayer beads with his thumb and forefinger, he told of his cross-border operations with Iran - nothing uncommon there - and then of his recent job as a farm laborer in the pistachio orchards of southern Iran. He had a dispute with his boss over money, the man lunged at him, and the smuggler smashed him over the head with a shovel.
"Those Iranians are cowards, and they treat us badly," the smuggler said, keeping a straight face. He took another handful of rice, mashed it into a piece of bread, then dipped it in stew.
"Aren't they after you?" I ventured.
"No, I'm going back after him," he said, showing where his eye was still swollen from the punch he received. Wiping his lips, he then gave me his prayer beads, as a gift. "Don't forget me - or Afghanistan!" he said. How could I?
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society