Even though Karachi, a Pakistani port city of roughly 15 million people, has served as an al Qaeda way station for nearly a decade, the streets are hot and sleepy today. Seven high value detainees still at Guantanamo Bay have been arrested here, and yet there is little outward reaction to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death rocking the rest of the world. Most of the action is virtual. It’s taking place behind closed doors in one neighborhood coffee house, Peace Niche, where a handful of young Pakistani men and women are blogging and tweeting furiously about the unfolding events.
“Obama’s speech sounded like a Morgan Freeman voiceover,” Mariam Bilgrami, 29, the projects manager at the second-floor shop and art gallery downstairs taps onto her Facebook page. “I’m not a hater,” she’s quick to add. It’s just that she feels that the President of the United States is missing an opportunity to say, “Even though this is important, it’s just the beginning.” There will still be drone strikes in Pakistan, she goes on. The U.S. will not withdraw from Afghanistan.
Her status update draws immediate angry reactions from some Canadian friends, among them soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. How would the 9/11 firefighters families feel to read such a post? She understands this and means no disrespect. She too is glad that bin Laden is dead. But “celebrating death” feels odd to her, she writes back.
“To many he is Bin Laden the Hero,” the shopkeeper in Karachi says. “He’s not as bad as what America makes him out to be."
Facebook and Twitter, she adds, are the only way most Pakistanis are truly able to express what they think. In what other forum could a sharp and outspoken young Pakistani intellectual like her go back and forth in real time with soldiers fighting in Afghanistan? “It’s the only way you can tell how people really feel,” she says. Anonymity is an essential part of the exchange.
So is security. Al Qaeda has used Karachi, she explains. According to the recently released WikiLeaks documents, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11 made Karachi his operational home. It was from here that al Qaeda ran much of its media wing, set up its financing and distributed money through couriers, ran bomb-making workshops, laundered money through phony import-export businesses, shipped cases of anthrax, and planned to attack U.S. soldiers at two local hotels.
Now Bilgrami is worried about possible militant backlash. Only last week, a suicide bomber blew up several Navy busses here. “This city is a pressure cooker,” she said. Things build up until they explode.
Curious about the outsider asking questions, other customers in their twenties and thirties at Peace Niche gathered around an empty table to chronicle their excited versions of the day’s events. One café goer, Mariam Aziz, a graduate film student at NYU who happens to be at home in Pakistan on vacation is following the twitter feed of @ reallyvirtual, a young man from Abbotabad who has been tweeting about the events unfolding outside his window—the late night raid, the sound of a crashing American helicopter—before he knew that all that fuss had to do with bin Laden. Within hours, he’d become a kind of citizen counterterror analyst.
She’s also monitoring heated online debate as to whether or not one Pakistani newspaper had the right to call Osama bin Laden a shaheed, or martyr, a word ostensibly reserved for those who die for their faith. How could anyone argue that bin Laden was a good Muslim, another customer asks in disgust. After all, most of his victims weren’t godless foreigners, they were fellow believers. One reason this café is so busy is because it was one of the few still safe places to be out in public.
Many parents now have to hire armed guards to bring their children home from school. Life now revolves around the issue of being cooped up at home as it never did before. "The first time I heard gunshots, I was scared," another girl says. "Now I'm used to it."
Life in the shadow of a war between militants and America has become de rigueur here.
“We’re glad he’s dead,” one accounting student tells me. “If anything he’s one hell of a hider.”
Outside in the street, among those who don’t blog and drink cappuccino, the story changes. In the midday heat, the shops are closed for lunch. On the steps nearby a tailor shop, a man debates the public image of Bin Laden the Terrorist. It all depends on whether or not you know him, how he has treated those close to him. “To many he is Bin Laden the Hero,” the shopkeeper says. “He’s not as bad as what America makes him out to be." What does that mean? He scowls. "America wants what it wants.”
In part, his comments reveal the gap between the haves and have nots here in Pakistan. The mood on the streets and the media tone seems to be changing. The morning’s shock giving way to anger at the U.S. presence on Pakistani soil, which has been one of the largest public stumbling blocks to cooperation between the two countries for nearly a decade now.
The man on the street would rather not say more. Behind him, the alley begins to fill with more onlookers, a tea seller, other bored men who seem less curious than suspicious.“OSAMA BIN LADEN HAS BEEN ASSASSINATED,” the paper boy cries as he flashes the Urdu paper EXTRA and weaves through traffic.