I grew up with a mysterious man. He talks about depleting natural resources, the concept of class, Sweden’s welfare state, religion, Kyoto, corporate influence in politics, monarchy in Saudi Arabia and AIDS. And he kills people. Many, many people. I don’t understand him. I’ve never met him. I don’t even know if he’s alive anymore. I heard about him precisely on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was eleven, just starting to see the world.
I went to Peshawar in the aftermath of 9/11, an eleven-year old child, roaming the commercial streets and realizing, astounded, that the only posters as popular as the semi-naked Bollywood actresses were the close-ups of a bearded man with a raised finger, proclaimed as the “soldier of Islam”- Osama bin Laden.
I listened to my mother’s friend, sitting in our common room, speaking in hushed tones, around the end of 2001, guiltily admiring Osama, infatuated and defending, asking, after all, what had he done so wrong?
To my brain, it didn’t make sense when someone declared that if Osama bin Laden came knocking on his door in the middle of the night he would rather give him the security of his house than give him up to American troops.
I met a cab driver, once, who told me he was going to abandon his family, take his life savings and go to Peshawar, in hopes of being smuggled into Afghanistan and joining the jihad with bin Laden. Eerily, Peshawar seemed like the Woodstock of another generation and bin Laden a farce of Che Guevara. Everyone was gathering in Peshawar; everyone who cared about these wars and there were more of them than anyone had thought.
America started drone attacks in the tribal regions of Pakistan a few years ago. One of these air strikes, the one on January 13, 2006, was aimed at Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s right hand man. It missed the target but killed eighteen innocent Pakistanis. I remember an unscathed Ayman al-Zawahiri appearing before the world and taunting the only superpower left, “Bush, do you know where I am? I am amongst the Muslim masses.”
In the summer of 2009, I went to Barcelona. One morning, I was sitting at an Arab bar with a friend. We were talking about Bresson and the Sex Pistols and Hemingway and Zapata. All the useless things a young writer and a young filmmaker can talk about. Al-Jazeera blared in the background as we chugged Voll-Damms. And then he asked me, “What do you think of Osama bin Laden? You think he’s a hero?” I couldn’t laugh; my friend was so sincere. He was asking about a man I had known for eight years. He had in ways dictated my life. And I was lost for words. I have never been lost for words.
I had read about this man, watched him and grown up knowing him. Still, nothing. I was stuck between those who called him evil without understanding what evil was and those who considered him good without knowing what good was. I didn’t understand either. I didn’t understand Osama.
There is bin Laden, a man synonymous with terror, whose footprints can be seen all over the most monstrous modern atrocities including the 9/11 attacks. He is the man who has murdered thousands upon thousands of innocents for his convoluted utopias. He wants to stop our music, cage our women and build caliphates. He is ambitious and ruthless. And yet, somewhere there, is another Osama: the guerrilla warrior who has managed to escape and yet jolt the global empire of the twenty-first century. The tall, gaunt figure with a stringy beard and shabby clothes, still carrying a Kalashnikov that he claims to have taken from the clutched hands of a dead Russian soldier. The man with solemn eyes, wearing a loose military jacket, sitting in a cave and broadcasting theories of empire. One of the richest businessmen in Saudi Arabia, who chose to flee his business and his homeland to devote his life to a struggle that the Saudi royal family would not tolerate. A man who fled the world to live in a cave, to create a new world. Across the world people identify with this image of Osama bin Laden. They feel that he has fought for them.
Yes, I know. I know about romanticism and terrorism. I know about media and world politics. I know about cultural artefacts and images. I know about saints and sinners, iconoclasts and reverends, conservatives and democrats. I know about Gandhi and Hitler and Mother Teresa and Bakunin and Benjamin and bin Laden. I know about them. I wish I knew them. I wish I knew the man. The man who has forever changed the way people will look at me, the questions they will ask me and the assumptions they will make. All the demons I have tried to abandon – my religion, my country, my colour, my tongue – he has made impossible to escape. The man who has bound me to circumstance. The man I have grown up with.
I have been forced to belong to times and eras and peoples. I tried Bush, and Musharraf, and Obama and even Lady Gaga. But it doesn’t work. I must admit: I belong to Osama’s time, whether I like it or not.