Media madness: Revisiting Osama’s ‘fortress mansion’

Published: May 4, 2011
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On your left we have the 'mansion' Osama was apparently living in and on your right what a mansion should actually look like.

As details come pouring in about the OBL raid and the secret hideaway readers and viewers around the world are getting increasingly baffled.

‘How is it possible that the Pakistani government was unaware of this massive mansion with fortress-like walls?’ ask puzzled writers, bloggers and heads of state.

‘Pakistan has a lot of explaining to do!’

And that, too, in a garrison area close to the country’s version of a ‘Sandhurst’-like military academy, as London’s entertaining The Daily Mail puts it.

It’s time we helped out the international media with some background information, before public perception of Pakistanis falls to ‘big, fat liars’ (well, at least we’re not quite fat). You see, here in Pakistan, it’s much easier to blend in by living in a big old house than to seek out a ‘cave’ for a secret hideaway.

Here’s why:

Compounds: A lot of Pakistanis who aren’t multi-millionaires live in compounds. With extended families and shared utilities, staff and expenditures, it’s actually an economical alternative to independent housing. We even have terms for it, ‘joint family’ living, complete with ‘annexes’ or ‘sections.’ So OBL’s “compound” is not a rarity here.

Mansions: Although there are some stunning homes and estates in the country designed by contemporary architects, we certainly don’t call our large houses “mansions.” The reason for this is that many of the large houses aren’t of the caliber evoked by the word “mansion” i.e. straight out of MTV’s Cribs or Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous or an Oil sheikh’s palatial abode. The majority of large homes in Pakistan are outdated old houses. OBL’s ramshackle home and his threadbare, bloodstained room shown in news reports is a typical example of such a house; hardly a “millionaire’s” home or a “luxury mansion” as termed by so many sources.

High walls: Except for people who live in army-regulated residential DHA areas (who must conform to army regulations), most of us pretty much have insanely high walls and love to guard our privacy—no permits needed, though you need NOCs (‘No Objection Certificates’) for much everything else in life. OBL’s “high walls” and “fortress” style property wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, though a low picket fence certainly would have.

Abbottabad: Like the English name, Abbott, it’s pronounced Ab-butt-ä-bäd, not Ab-bought-a-bad, as pronounced by so many news anchors trying to enunciate what they think is an Urdu name. The city was named after Major James Abbott, while other Anglicized city names include Jacobabad (for Major John Jacob) and Sukkur for Lt. Sucker (kidding on that one, it means ‘superior’ in Sindhi). Obama might hand news anchors a pronunciation guide, as the first US President in history to say “Päkistän” instead of “Paxtan.” Now, Abbottabad is neither an Islamabad suburb nor a high-end “resort,” but it has scenic views, is close to pretty Nathiagali, and has a rich Hazara history.  And by now it’s probably been Googled and tweeted more than Lady Gaga.

No phone lines, no internet and garbage burnt instead of collected: Add to this electricity outages, scanty supply of water and gas  and you have the typical Pakistani household.

$25 million: The price for turning in OBL—“Sigh…” (the collective sound of 25 million sighs from would-be bounty hunters).

91,000: the number of twitter followers that @ReallyVirtual (IT professional Sohaib Athar) got the same afternoon when he unknowingly tweeted hearing a helicopter in Abbottabad (part of the OBL raid).

laleen.khan

Laaleen Khan

An international columnist and media consultant who Tweets @laaleen

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.