Is it unpatriotic to say that Osama bin Laden had nice eyes?
In the twenty-four rippling hours following reports of bin Laden’s death and burial at sea, I’m left scrolling through his public photo album online, staring at images of bin Laden as a young soldier in Afghanistan, a young revolutionary with hints of Che-spirit, attracted to a kind of epic justice shrouded in twin promises of prayer and redemption.
In his early years, his long and lanky frame could have assumed the coolness of a skateboarder’s stance, or even a ballet dancer, minus the hippy beard.
In each image, he’s got those sweeping, elegant arches for eyebrows, feminine almost, delicate. Even in later images, gussied up in army-green, strait-jacketed in bullets, his face holds an undeniable (and deceptive) softness. He holds his hands in his lap, wrist adorned with a plastic Casio watch, eyes looking directly at the camera. If I didn’t know it was Osama, foaming with evil intent, I could have just as easily mistaken him for one of my neighbors back in multicultural Skokie, IL.
It was strange – the morning I heard he was killed, I woke up randomly thinking about Al-Qaeda. I even asked my boyfriend if there was an active Al-Qaeda group here on the island of Zanzibar. He said he didn’t think so. We fell back to sleep for another two hours. When we woke again, we flipped on Al-Jazeera (a morning ritual) to Osama’s sizzling hot live breaking news. It was almost 99.9% certain that bin Laden had been attacked at his million-dollar mansion in Abbottabad and shot point-blank in the eye. A gruesome way to go, though the story keeps changing by the hour.
Armed or not, shielded or not by wives or daughters, Osama bin Laden’s death was confirmed by President Barack Hussein Obama and U.S. security forces who claim that DNA tests sealed any doubts or suspicions. Still, the fact that he was swept away to sea just hours after the killing threw most of world into hushed conspiratorial huddles, especially across the non-Western world, who are less inclined to cheer and chant than to ponder the truths buried within other truths. History’s prone to repeat itself. Osama murdered? We’d heard this one before.
Still, I was pretty convinced that the darling of the global war on terror had been killed when I stepped out yesterday morning and headed to work. Just minutes into my walk, a German man greeted me heartily with a smile and a handshake, shouting congratulations! He’d apparently heard the news and guaged the American reaction to be jubilant, overall. I was taken aback, said a hesitant thank-you, and launched into my misgivings about bin Laden’s death being cause for celebration. Uh, how about a little sober meditation on what, then, we are still doing in Afghanistan? Or on the thousands of lives lost because of this man’s masterful terror plots? The chat was clipped, but it left me wondering what others in Stone Town were mulling over regarding Osama bin Laden on their way to work that morning.
I’m sure there’s all sort of rumble and roar at Jaw’s Corner – Stone Town’s infamous political hot-spot where men gather, cross-legged, to sip spiced coffee and swap politics. But no one jumped at the chance to swap ideas with me, the American walking sloped with questions that morning on her way to work. Zanzibari’s may be opinionated and fiery, but they are also deeply respectful and tend not to provoke those who might hold opposing viewpoints.
The day-after, then, was relatively quiet. But as the hours wore on, it was evident that the tone set here was one of scepticism and doubt.
While Americans cheered, hooted, and hollered at disturbing decibels, a stunning display of rah-rah isolationism, naively celebrant of what some thought might be the end of an era of global terror, Stone Town residents started asking questions. Why was the West was so willing to believe our valiant President’s announcement without any proof or evidence ? Why was his body so hastily tossed into the sea? Who had performed the sacred Islamic funeral rites? Why was he killed and not captured ?
If no one was actually expressing these questions to me personally, all I had to do was read today’s headlines in various Zanzibar newspapers. In three different ways, all in capital letters, a growing consensus asserted that Osama had not yet died (OSAMA HAJAFA) and that, in fact, Osama is very much alive (OSAMA: AMEJAA TELEE). An image of Osama’s gnarled bullet-pocked face – clearly fabricated say the editors of Sani. One declared WAISLAMU HAWAMINI – Muslims don’t believe.
A local radio show even suggested that perhaps the Pakistani president himself orchestrated a gentle kidnapping to protect bin Laden, that this was a carefully choreographed dance with Washington, a chance for Obama to boost opinion polls as the U.S. nears the next presidential election.
Denial and disbelief dominated street banter and corner talk. Conspiracy theorists were holding court in local cafes. And they had an attentive jury.
When I attempted to dip a toe into the political pool, sheepishly questioning a few local residents about the whole Osama situation, our exchange inevitably swerved into mild rants and recollections of George Bush, the war criminal, who operated on the same premise of evil as Osama bin Laden. If anything should be shot, most felt, it’s the smirk off George Bush’s puckered face.
And I’m not so sure I entirely disagree. I marched against Bush’s evil war path, gawked at his ignorance, felt deep shame for my country during his presidency and his legacy of diplomatic disasters. It’s still hard to have a conversation, though, about Osama bin Laden, that so easily swerves into a hearty tirade against U.S. policies. It’s sort of like the don’t you talk about my mama principle. I am comfortable criticizing my people, but I squirm when the conversation teeters too far in the direction of damnation. It’ s hard not to take it per sonal.
(But what, these days, isn’t in some way personal?)
Granted, the people who shared their searing views on U.S. foreign policy could be counted as my friends. I was spared the fire and brimstone of more radical thinkers whom I know exist here beyond my peaked ears. These were friends who could, at the end, admit perhaps that it was a good thing that Osama was dead (if he was dead) but that it still doesn’t excuse America’s history of brutal imperialism or its misguided young-buck global war on terrorism – which unfortunately translates to many as a war on Islam. No matter how you shake it, this has has been manufactured as a polarizing war of ideas, god, culture, history (and yes, oil).
Fair enough – this is why I travel, why I’ve chosen to locate myself in a matrix where the mind cannot depend on the gestalt of national context to form opinion. Or in other words, I don’t have my peeps to check myself before I wreck myself. In the last week, I’ve found myself in endless double-takes of feeling and fact, trying to sift a point of view that is at once generous, critical, compassionate, and forward-thinking.
After all, this wasn’t the first time I’d had to press pause on my liberal American reaction button here in Zanzibar. I was equally bowled over by puzzling reactions to the formidable Libyan revolutionary leader Muammar Gaddafi.
On the night of February 23, 2011, I watched Al-Jazeera news with horrid fascination as Gaddafi delivered a maddening speech to his citizens. He, wrapped in shades of brown, read from his green law book, blaming Americans, Italians, British, and a gang of hallucinating youth for the national revolt taking place just outside his house-of-shambles door, with Libyans protesting in escalating numbers as the speech continued.
Gaddafi pledged to die a “martyr” and would be more than happy to use military force on those who tried to defy him. He asked his nation, “Do you love me? If your answer is yes, you are to hunt down those who try to destroy me.” He vowed to “show no mercy.” The paranoia behind his tinted frames led to a frothing-at-the-mouth kind of dementedness that made it so clear that this man needs to be extracted immediately from his fantasy tower.
I was sure that no one could deny that Gaddafi had lost his mind. That the people would triumph. I was totally riveted, watching what I thought was a mental breakdown unfolding right before our very eyes: rambling, incoherent, panic-stricken rage. Power itself, snapping.
But again, I was wrong about the general mood and opinion around town the next day, and in subsequent days, when Western powers, to everyone’s dismay here, decided to invade Libya presumably on a human rights platform — all to save the people of Benghazi from mass murder, and reign triumphant as lovers of humanity, democracy, and freedom.
If only the narrative was that easy to stitch and bind.
What I realized, much to my initial confusion and in later days, a kind of awe, is that Zanzibaris were not against the charismatic Libyan leader. Many felt more inclined to sympathize with this man who was clearly being attacked by drugged gangsters and impostors.
I kept hearing a sentiment that went something like this: Libyans have nothing to complain about. They may not have their freedom, but they’re rich, and they’ve gotten everything they need. Gaddafi took care of his people.
The benevolent dictator, exalted ? I don’t think I was prepared for this viewpoint, hadn’t considered it before, and certainly didn’t have the referential cultural context to embody it. I felt strangely American – as in, naive, defensive, and ultimately stooped by the reminder that millions of people actually don’t think like me.
I know, quite the revelation.
With just a quick Google search, I discovered that Gaddafi had actually helped pave Zanzibar’s roads. He is responsible for thousands of North Africans’ fellowships and scholarships in higher education in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Just two years ago, in 2009, Gaddafi was voted to head the 53-state African Union, and it was Tanzanian president Kikwete who handed him the gavel. In doing so, Gaddafi had been voted the poster-boy for a new Pan-Africanism, a “United States of Africa” — and while there were mixed reactions, many imbued in him a sense of promise. He was deemed by over 200 African kings last August to be Africa’s “king of kings.”
So, here’s Osama living large in Abbottabad, giving away soft rabbits as gifts to local children, living with his ladies and guards in an idyllic military-mountain town, a wad of Euro’s and two phone numbers stitched to the inside of his long robes. And then there’s Gaddafi, waving his green law book, rocking his revolutionary fashions, spitting rage at those who defy him, an army of virgins orbiting his complicated life.
Neither would suffer social Siberia on Twitter or Facebook- – both have their followers and fans.
Righteousness and fearlessness make for potent political & moral cocktails, downed on the road to justice and freedom. Have you ever seen that incredible film Jesus Camp – about the evangelical movement in America ? There is no better example of the frothing delirium of the righteous and their intoxicating propaganda than this portrait of evangelicalism in America, and it’s all happening right there in apple-pie land (http://www.jesuscampthemovie.com/).
The chilling reality is that the righteous everywhere go around thinking that they’re absolutely right, their actions divinely justified – and that’s what makes them so dangerous, and so out of touch with realit(ies). Each preach in parallel pitch, unaware of other universes of righteousness, just as powerful, just as compelling, just as comforting a reminder of belonging, just as strong a pull towards home.
This is not to say I’m an Osama apologist or Gaddafi sympathizer. Bin Laden’s violent leadership end orsed a kind of brutality that cannot be excused or forgotten. I can’t say I relate to those who defend these enigmatic men, even in the slightest. It is just to say that by living within a totally different paradigm, it’s become my daily task to listen for the motivations and experiences that lead to the formation of these opposing ideas and assumptions.
I met a guy on the street this week who actually knew and grew up with Zanzibari Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the boy who was later recruited by radicals and went on to assist Osama bin Laden in the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. He was held at Guantanamo Bay until receiving a life sentence earlier this year. This guy reminisced fondly about his friend — a kid just like any other kid — until around fifteen, when he became radicalized by Al-Qaeda, whom Ghailani later claims exploited him. While Ghailani serves a life sentence in the United States, his mother is still on the island, rarely leaves her house or speaks to anyone, and lives daily with a broken heart. She’d lost a child to the madness.
Sorrow multiplies. It’s nearly impossible to undo what’s been done. I can’t say anything more clever than what’s already been said. All I know is that those who take on a listening stance are more inclined to be humbled by their own assumptions.
I still think Osama’s dead and I’m fine with that. And I still think Gaddaffi’s a super-fly, wonky, revolutionary madman who lost his marbles and his street cred. Neither had/have my vote. But I have no choice, at least while I’m here, but to accept that I am one among many who share very different ideas about the world and how it was formed — from global policy to human molecule, there are real differences and I can not assume that what I know or believe is without a doubt right.
There are absolutes, but not many. And yes, I know, cultural relativism has its own set of dangerous consequences. I’m wrestling with all of it. How do we make room for resistance movements and still keep a close eye on terror? How not to collapse the two, shutting down anyone who defies the West? How not to split gods ? It’s a slippery slope, a difficult conversation.
It’s our work as human beings, I think, to let ourselves be shaken by the multiplicities.
Not that we let go of who we are, or what we believe — but maybe that we give a little — just say, for instance, that Osama had nice eyes?
(God, it takes some serious guts to try to love your enemy.)