At a traffic light in this Pakistani port city, a boy was weaving between cars and motor-rickshaws, selling posters of Osama bin Laden. My friend bought one, and we were both struck by the expression on Osama's face. It was ascetic and yet sensual, as he floated above an Afghan mountain range where an eagle was ripping its claws into an American F-16 jet fighter as if it was some hapless pigeon.
Teenage boys in Pakistan hang this poster in their rooms like a rock star's and dream of becoming avenging Islamic warriors. The girls moon over Osama's dark, soulful eyes and dream of marrying him. Apparently, it's a wish shared by at least one father. A few months before the Sept. 11 attacks, a man from Yemen brought his beautiful daughter all the way to Afghanistan to marry the World's Most Wanted Terrorist. Bin Laden happily obliged, though the honeymoon options in Afghanistan must've been pretty limited: "The cave on the left, or the one on the right, dear?"
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Let's face it: However much we demonize the guy, he's a hero around these parts. What've we done wrong that everybody hates America so much? Plenty, I guess. Many people were secretly glad that we'd been shaken out of our arrogant complacency. But there's still a fascination with America's money, glamour and opportunity. You can bet that once the U.S. consulates in Pakistan resume issuing visas, the crowd on the waiting line will be bigger than for most anti-American demonstrations.
Quetta: The Chilling Thoughts of an Eight-year-old
It's the day after the first U.S. air raid on Afghanistan, and I'm stranded at the airport because of riots. A lot of these people in Quetta belong to the same Pushtun tribe as the Taliban, and they're not pleased with America. Even on the flight in from Islamabad, people were glaring at me in open hostility and that's never happened to me before in Pakistan. I avoided four scowling Taliban clerics, bearded and black turbaned, who were a few rows ahead of me on the flight. The Taliban think the Pakistanis are wimps and bad Muslims for giving in to the Americans. The Afghan ambassador was greeted recently by a Pakistani army brigadier who shrugged apologetically. "I know," the ambassador said witheringly. Your heart bleeds for us, but your lips are sewn shut."
While the Taliban mullahs and their bodyguards sped away towards the Afghan border, the rest of us passengers stared numbly at the distant city of Quetta, under a haze of tear gas as black smoke poured from a few buildings. Later, I learned that the anti-American mob had torched several movie theaters, which have been showing "Desperado" and "Gladiator." They also burned down the U.N. offices becausewell, who knows why. Maybe they didn't like the big blue lettering on the U.N. sign. Behind us, a few Pakistani MiG fighter jets were screaming back and forth across the sky, patrolling the Afghan border. The war was closing in.
I had to find a taxi driver for the ride into Quetta, one I could trust to get me through the rioters. I settled on an old man who had possibly the worst cab in the parking lot. But he was a "Haji" a Muslim who'd made the pilgrimage to Mecca and he radiated a certain serenity. Besides, I thought the zealots in the mob would be impressed by his venerable white beard. Before he took my bags, he quizzed me: "Who is the Superpower? Allah, or America?" Allah, of course. "Get in," he says. "I'll get you into Quetta safely. You have my word."
But a cop stopped us, and pointed me over to his superior officer sitting in a police van. The officer was listening to a hysterical voice on his walkie-talkie. "Our men have run out of tear-gas in the city," the cop explained to me worriedly. "Now these people are heading towards the airport."
The airport manager came striding out and invited us over to his house for a cup of tea. He lived in a bungalow on the airport grounds, and he collected birds: Amazonian parrots as bright as tropical fruit and doves with a smear of crimson on their breasts that looked as if they'd been shot through the heart. They fluttered around crazily every time one of the Pakistani MiG fighters screeched overhead.
The manager, Syed Aamir, said he liked Americans. He served us tea and lunch, and then drove us into Quetta in his own jeep, even though the police were scared to let us go. On the road into town, we crashed through barricades of smoldering tires, and swerved around boulders the rioters had dragged onto the road. It looked as if stones had rained down from heaven. Syed liked the rush; he was take-charge kind of guy and kept yelling at our police escort for slowing down in a panic every time we came upon a group of protesters straggling back to their homes.
We owed the airport manager a favor. So the next night my colleagues and I invited Syed and his family over to the hotel for a barbecue dinner. His sister, wife and brother-in-law all had master's degrees, and the conversation was agreeably familiar not much different from many you'd hear in the U.S. Syed also brought his eight-year-old niece. She was a sweet kid, friendly and smiling, and a little wild. And she kept sneaking away from the table to play beside a stream that ran through the hotel garden. Then her uncle asked her: "Who is Osama bin Laden? And the girl replied: "He's a kind man. Osama's helping the Muslim people."
Syed raised his eyebrows at me. "But who bombed the World Trade Center?" he asked her. The girl's answer chilled me: "American Jews." Where was an eight-year-old picking this up? From her parents? Classmates? "I just know," she replied matter-of-factly, as she skipped off to the garden stream. She was so sweet, and she gave such twisted answers. Nobody in the Muslim world really understands what the U.S. is trying to do, and we sure don't understand them. It's going to be a long war against terrorism.