After Abbottabad: To Visit or Not to Visit Osama's Death House

I had planned to ride over the river (a narrow offshoot of the Indus) and through the woods north of Islamabad to my friend's grandmother's house in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The wolf would've been Osama bin Laden -- and he was already dead.  

I landed in the Islamabad airport, only two hours away by local taxi. But word in the garrison town on the Karakorum Highway, and now on news channels across the world, was that "they" were watching out for foreigners. Supposedly, even in shalwar kameez and dirty sandals, I was an American danger to myself and to everyone I came in contact with. I couldn't go for lunch at grandmother's house -- I was on my own. 

I thought I'd go anyway. How often are we given the opportunity to gloat at the death site of humanity's worst offenders?  Hitler is lost, never to be found; Osama's closest memorial is his tiered private retirement home where he spent his final years watching porn and videos of himself.  

In May of 1961, exactly 50 years before Operation Neptune Spear, the U.S. arranged the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator who massacred tens of thousands of Haitians and his own people in three decades of cultish rule. I once spat at his grave, clearly marked in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. But that's in Paris. Affluent suburban Abbottabad (EPP-ta-bad) does not have quite the same je ne sais quoi. And besides, why should this despicable warlord merit even an ounce of my time?  To visit would be to perpetuate the legend, to submit to his posthumous power, to gawk at cordoned-off property like the encased relics of saints. I convinced myself so, and took the bus away to Lahore. 

Instantly, I regretted it. So much talk about this place and I wasn't going, I think, because I told myself I shouldn't. And because I had been disinvited to lunch. Still, the deed was done up there and I doubted very much that there would be any real trouble in this Boca of the North-West Frontier Province -- at least no trouble I couldn't get out of with an American passport and my one well-practiced phrase in Urdu, "Yeh kittana hota heh?" How much does that cost?

The Pakistani government wouldn't want much with me, and the regular folk didn't even believe he was killed. The old auntie next to me on the bizarrely comfortable Daewoo bus thought he had been living there, but that something was still fishy: "Why would they throw him in the ocean?" she said.

That very day, Pakistan had arrested five CIA informants who contributed to the raid in Abbottabad. In recent weeks, camouflaged military lurking in the grass around the compound had undertaken to confiscate and smash cell phones of the curious. But danger aside, and ignoring the fact that Abbottabad is known for great pine nuts (as an old auntie told me on the bus), I had forgone doing something for the choice not to do it. I followed a stubborn will to ignore Osama (OBL to some Pakistanis) and aggravated an even more stubborn one to do more, more, more! Either way, at least for me, OBL would always be the one that got away.  

*            *            *

I was feeding myself lies. Maybe I could have learned to believe them with years of therapy or meditation, or medication. I could have put regret aside and left the past behind, like an unrequited high-school crush, like a war fought under false pretense. But hours before my return flight, there remained one easier treatment, and in the throes of my obstinacy, I emailed in sick to work in Abu Dhabi.

Four days after I had first set foot in Pakistan, I followed my friend's Aunt S. onto a night flight to Peshawar. My presence was no longer dangerous; with the right clothes, in the right company, I was invisible. I could blend with the young laborers returning from Karachi, with the vacationing Pakistanis who travel through Abbottabad to the hill stations at the foot of the Himalayas, or with the out-of-towners from Lahore and Islamabad who pose for pictures in front of Osama's house. At least, that is what they used to do. 

Now, life is tense again. Camouflaged military lurk in tall grass on all sides of the house, hands clutching rifles, eyes scouring the intentions from your face. I asked grandmother's friend, Osama's onetime neighbor, if I could take a picture quickly from the car. "No." He was firm. "Someone is watching." 

To see the house was as bathetic as it was conclusive. It looked smaller than on TV. I didn't speak to a single local that believed the terrorist leader had actually been there: "We would have known," says everyone. "We are nosy people," said Aunt S.   

It is true, in this town that has grown immensely in recent decades, that old families remain connected and infinitely knowledgeable about local comings and goings. But there was a paradox: Grandmother pointed to the 14-foot walls. These are typical of large families who have moved in from Waziristan, not a sign of reclusiveness or hidden secrets. Abbottabad locals feel more tribal kinship with Waziris, she said, than they do with cityfolk and vacationers pushing in from the capital -- for this, the little birds on the grapevine might have left these closet Saudis alone. Secrets can live in Abbottabad.

For Pakistani or American, believer or skeptic, this was the site of brief and powerful global focus, the most popularly tangible moment in the post-9/11 era, the backdrop to the retirement of a fallen idol, and a question mark on every turning page in the book of West-Mideast relations. This house was an instant memorial to the day when America regained the edge in it's own war on symbols.

And there I was, staring at it. 

One Day in Abbottabad