October 20, 2002
The United States was already gearing up for the war in Iraq when I was on my way to Central Asia in October 2002. I had an aisle seat on the Turkish Air flight from Istanbul to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. A woman was in the window seat of my row, and when the doors closed for take-off, both she and I put our bags on the empty seat between us. She was German, a hydrologist on her way to teach Uzbek cotton growers to conserve water. I was returning to Tashkent, where I’d taught English in the late 1960s. Then the engines started up, making conversation difficult.
One last passenger boarded the plane and approached our row. He had a hard face, a hook nose framed by heavy brows, thin lips, and a black beard. I turned to my seatmate. “Watch out,” I said. “Here comes Timor.” I used the Uzbek name for the conqueror of Asia, known in the West as Tamerlane. All this man needed was a saber.