My father-in-law has good hearing. He’s 75, but he has ears like a bat. His vision is worse — what can you do? — but when talking by phone, our main form of communication in recent years, it doesn’t matter much. My father-in-law is an Afghan and lives in Kabul.
I often use him as a source of information, a litmus paper of sorts, when ascertaining the mood of the Afghan public. Sometimes, he is even willing to undertake a sort of sociological mini-survey by making the rounds amongst his neighbors and cousins and asking them in an altogether professional manner, "What is your opinion on ...?"
I called my father-in-law this time, too. It was about two hours after international news agencies broke the news that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was dead. My father-in-law was surprised and told me to wait a moment because he had everything he needed from me written down on a slip of paper, but he couldn’t find it.
I recalled how in 2001, my news agency colleague at the time, Jaromír Štětina, and I conducted our own sociological research. When we found out that a large number of Afghans had no idea why Americans were invading their country, we had a recording of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers sent from the Czech Republic. We scrounged up a generator, a television and a video player and called together our drivers, interpreters, cooks and bodyguards.
They followed very closely the planes crashing into the towers, people on fire jumping from the windows, the smoke billowing through New York, women crying and men tearing their hair out, but those Afghans didn’t raise an eyebrow. When it ended, the oldest of them, our neighbor Adzhmal, declared, “So they invaded us because of those two destroyed high-rises? And only three thousand dead?” He was disappointed. My father-in-law added, “The Soviets killed a million of our people and burned the whole country, but we’re not attacking anybody.” Misfortune is relative.
Later, the Americans tried to apprehend Osama and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar with the help of locals. They put up posters with their likenesses everywhere, and so thanks to the Americans, my father-in-law found out what the al-Qaida leader and Taliban chief looked like. While the whole world recognized their faces, few people had seen them in Afghanistan, where they were living. Television was banned, as were photos of living beings in the only newspaper allowed to be published.
As Europe was drinking to the death of the enemy, Afghans still had no idea that he had met his end. When they found out about it, they expressed little excitement. (“Why would they kill him? After all, it’s their guy,” my father-in-law said when explaining the majority opinion in Afghanistan.) Then, he admitted the news was more good than bad, but he would have preferred the Americans to remove a certain official in the Ministry of the Interior who took a bribe from him and then made out a passport for a completely different name.
“Everything will change now; don’t worry, Gramps. The smell comes from the head of the fish,” I consoled him, using an expression suggesting that the problem is with the leadership.
“There are no fish; we hunted them with grenades, and there are fewer and fewer grenades. Now there will be extremely few,” he said, inferring that Osama’s death would cause a shortage of munitions on the Afghan market. “Yeah, we would really like a deep … fat … fryer,” he deciphered from his slip of paper. “A big ’un, as big as possible — for trout.”