The four of us were hiking somewhere in the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan when the barrel of Ahmad Hafizullah’s AK-47 jolted upright in the manner of an impatient crossing guard. Leaning upon a donkey, which was already struggling under the weight of our supplies, Hafizullah turned and peered at us below him, the gun a long metallic finger splitting blue sky. The three of us—my agent, our intern Candy, and I—stopped hiking. Behind Hafizullah, the footpath dropped off into a sheer canyon of sliding rock and boulders pockmarked by gunfire. The granite hills winked with ice and spent ammunition cartridges. We were 10,000 feet above sea level, 35 miles southwest of Jalalabad, and surrounded by snowcapped mountains. The land resembled a sheet of crushed black construction paper and served as a reminder that the name Tora Bora means “black dust.” I wondered if I was freezing to death.
Hafizullah pulled our crate of Jolly Rancher candies from the donkey and dropped it into the dirt, saying, “He loves the Passion Fruit ones. Crazy for them.”
My agent muttered that knowing Mr. bin Laden preferred his Jolly Ranchers in a certain flavor was a detail that would have been best shared prior to crossing the border. A Passion Fruit-only mix could have been easily arranged in Pakistan. Had he known.
In the pause that followed this minor flare-up, Candy sighed for the umpteenth time. Candy’s duties included serving as both photographer and translator on this caper. Underneath her burqa, she was a leggy blonde with a digital SLR around her neck and a pocket dictionary of Arabic-English phrases in her purse. She would graduate the following semester from Ole Miss as a Phi Beta Kappa Tri-Delta and had been increasingly vocal about her workload being disproportionate to the two measly credits she was earning. She sighed again.
Hafizullah ignored all of us and approached a boulder taller than the Humvee we had left double-parked next to an unexploded cruise missile in the valley below. Hafizullah knocked on the rock. Within seconds, we were greeted by a lovely ululation that reminded me of geese in mating season. The boulder rolled from the mouth of the cave and for the first time, I heard Osama bin Laden speak.
“Send in the clowns,” sang a soft voice.
My agent smiled and waved as Candy and I picked up the crate of Jolly Ranchers, then he turned to Hafizullah. They had much to discuss. The price for bringing us to bin Laden was steep, but my agent had made Hafizullah’s dream happen—a lucrative two-book deal with a prestigious Random House imprint. The only remaining details were whether to lead with his novel (Hafizullah’s preference) or a memoir of a foot soldier’s life with the Taliban (as Random House desired).
Candy and I left them chatting amicably by the boulder, and stepped into the cave.
At this point, the casual reader may have some questions, such as: How did I arrange a meeting with Osama bin Laden? And have I shared my findings with the proper authorities? The answer to the first question is that I Googled him (his phone number is listed: 001-93-304-933). The answer to the second question is that I tried to share my story, but Oprah bumped me.
The inside of the cave was more spacious than it looked from the outside. From an aperture in the rock, a shaft of sunlight revealed a stalactite hanging from the cave ceiling like a single, fleshy tendril. Water flowed over its surface and into a pool of water below, where an overfed golden koi rose to the surface and sipped the air.
And there was Osama.
Osama bin Laden hovered 15 inches above the koi pond in a full lotus position. Osama. Osama: I mouthed the syllables of his name, my index finger tickling the tape along the case of Jolly Ranchers to tap: O. Sa. Ma. Here, with a circle of light seared upon his chest was l’objet désiré of some of the world’s most powerful governments—and all of its writers and journalists.
I waved. Candy waved. No response.
I looked at Candy and she looked at me. She shrugged then pulled a miniature camera tripod from a deep fold within her burqa.
A map of the United States marked with red Xs and dates leaned against the cave wall. It looked important, so I made a mental note to give it a closer look after I inspected his hairpieces. “Why,” asked Candy, “is he in the lotus position? I didn’t think Islamic terrorists practiced yogic flying.”
“I guess everyone has to decompress.”
While Osama remained in his meditative state, we explored his cave. One of the first things I like to do when I meet someone new is see what they read. Candy commented on an overabundance of marshmallows and Old El Paso taco shells, but I spotted a stack of books on a rickety wooden nightstand next to an inflatable mattress. The contents were typical: The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Tuesdays with Morrie, The Truth About Hillary. Two aging videotapes—Pillow Talk and Armageddon—lay next to a pair of leather sandals.
“I wonder,” Candy mused while tugging at her head scarf, “if he’s a good kisser. I bet he is. You know, a bit rough but also tender in that older, experienced-guy way. Like a James Caan or a Tony Randall. I saw photos of him when he was younger. He was cute, had this Ashton Kutcher-David Duchovny-George Clooney-Tony Danza thing going on. But swarthier and more bearded. No baby fat. Abdominals were tight like a drum. And nerdy, but not in the ‘let’s go play with my dung beetle’ way. Nerdy in a fun way, like deep down, you know he’s totally cock diesel and fun.”
Osama remained motionless. Nothing exceptional was happening. I wanted to leave. But before I could tell Candy, she gasped.
I followed the direction of her finger as it identified something dark and furry resting upon the air mattress. It looked like a napping mongoose or perhaps a pelt from a Marco Polo sheep but Candy, her eyes wide, mouthed one word at me in explanation: “Toupee.”
“Lead paragraph,” I said.
“I see you’ve found Marvin.” Osama’s voice was similar to that of a child’s—high, soft, and a little churlish. “I name them all, you see.”
Osama waved an open hand at a collection of toupees and wigs perched upon a row of mannequins wearing the desert camouflage favored by the armies of the former Soviet Union. Behind them, a map of the United States marked with red Xs and dates leaned against the cave wall. I chastised myself for not noticing this first; it looked important, so I made a mental note to give it a closer look after I inspected his hairpieces.
“I’ll introduce you,” he said. “Meet Felix, Tyrone, Esperanza, and my favorite, Candace.”
“Candace?” I asked the world’s most infamous terrorist.
“Yes. A cut similar to that of Ms. Bergen’s. A lad just wants to feel like a brassy American gal sometimes.”
“So you’re a fan?” I said, fumbling for my tape recorder.
“No taping,” he said, his voice dropping several octaves. “I didn’t think you came here to ask questions. It’s certainly not why I granted you an audience, my little infidel.”
From the cave’s deep shadows came the first few chords of an old Stephen Sondheim tune. Osama closed his eyes and sang along:
Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground.
You in midair.
Send in the clowns…
I’m not ashamed to admit I was shaking a little. But I hadn’t spent the last few weeks dodging land mines to come away with nothing, so I asked if he’d mind a quick interview.
“Depends,” was his response, as he drifted to the cave floor. “Did you bring us some candies?”
I cracked open the crate of Jolly Ranchers.
“Passion Fruuuuuuit!” he sang, with obvious joy as he held his favorite flavor to the light.
“The Prophet tells us there are two cures: honey and the Koran. America can bomb me all she wishes, but she will never triumph because I have honey.” While he sat on his air mattress and worked his way through the crate of Jolly Ranchers, Osama recounted the biography most of us already know: Born in Riyadh in 1957; the only child of parents who divorced shortly after his birth; raised by his mother and her new husband; spent his early years in an exclusive prep school near the Red Sea; played soccer; influenced as a child by stories about killing the irreligious; fought the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s; exiled from Saudi Arabia; survived two assassination attempts; planned and executed terrorist attacks in Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United States; has four wives and 12 children, but lately work has been his mistress; drives fast; likes making audio tapes; enjoys tropical fish, films by Jerry Bruckheimer, and beekeeping.
“Oh yes. I love their little wings and plump little bodies. And their honey. The Prophet tells us there are two cures: honey and the Koran. America can bomb me all she wishes, but she will never triumph because I have honey.”
“Honey. Got it. What about Saddam Hussein? Love him? Hate him?”
“Oh piffle. Saddam was a piker. An empty Trojan horse and a bully with no knowledge of Islam. Look at me. Look at all I have done. And you ask what I think of him? Plus, he was short and pudgy, whereas I am lean and fit. Look at this stomach.”
Osama raised his shirt, revealing a flat, somewhat furry belly.
“I told you,” said Candy who had found a four-foot tall hookah in a corner of the cave. “Tight as a drum, baby. Drum. Ask him how many sit-ups he can do.”
“Enough questions from you,” announced Osama. “Now it is you who will pleasure me.”
I assumed he meant my trusty intern, but the only candy interesting him at the moment was flavored and wrapped in plastic.
Osama extended a long, thin hand and beckoned me toward him with a single finger. There was a lurid quality to the motion that reminded me why I had been suspicious when he demanded I email him a photograph before we met. I wanted to run, and looked to Candy for support, but she was occupied with the hookah. Unwilling to abandon her, I joined Osama on his air mattress. He lay behind me and pressed something into my hand. I looked down.
In my hand was a dog-eared, leather-bound copy of Deliver Us From Evil by Sean Hannity.
“Read to me,” said Osama. “I love this man. He is a righteous man.”
I flipped through the opening pages, noticing an Arabic phrase jotted in the margin next to a passage that read, “For when it comes to confronting evil, the fact is that there are essentially two types of people: those who are willing to fight it, and those who try to excuse it—or, worse, deny it even exists.”
I held up the book for Candy, who was looking a little unsteady on her feet, and asked her to translate the scribblings in the margin.
She squinted to read. “It says, ‘So true.’ Weird, huh? So should we look for plans or—”
“Read!” Osama’s voice shook the cave walls.
“Throughout history,” I started, my voice quavering as I picked a random phrase, “the appeasers have refused to recognize evil, let alone confront it.”
“They make excuses for it, ignore it and coddle it. And by refusing to fight, they nourish and encourage it.”
Osama’s shaking hand grabbed the book, flipped forward past several highlighted pages, then jammed it back in my hand. On the page were several words circled in red ink.
“Read those words,” he whispered in a throaty croak.
“Media,” I said. “Moral certainty. Moral equivalence?”
“Freedom. Liberty. Liberal.”
We continued in this manner until a high keening came from his side of the bed. At his insistence, I resumed the passage. Upon completing the book, he handed me others by Bill O’Reilly. Ann Coulter. Rush Limbaugh. In this way, we passed the night.
As sunlight crept through a crack in the cave wall, Candy roused herself from where she had slept by the koi pond and shook me awake. She smelled of hookah and her hair and fingers were coated with marshmallow.
I touched Osama on the shoulder. He yawned. I told him we had to go. He nodded.
“Tell me you’ll remember me,” he said.
The conversation was veering toward the lachrymose, so I told him what he wanted to hear.
Watching him roll over and slide back into sleep, I had to admit my impression of him was mixed. He’s a child of privilege and a classic overachiever, a type I find tiresome, especially when mixed with Messianic tendencies and weapons. But he clearly had Daddy issues and felt unloved and ignored by the world. I should have been happy to leave, but I wasn’t. I wondered if I would ever see him again. Candy wrestled me from this reverie with a shake of my forearm. I followed her from the cave and we scurried down the trail.