Peshawar, Pakistan April 2001 , 5 months before, well ok we all know before what.
There I was, hanging out in the wild west, staying in a cramped dorm in the only safe hotel in town, beds so close together they were touching, falling asleep to the sound of gunfire every night.
I’d met a fellow Englishman a few days before (I’m embarrased to say I can’t remember his name, sorry brother), a nice guy, he’d been in Peshawar for a while, waiting for an Iranian visa, if memory serves me better on this point than it does on the fellows name.
(As an aside, if from this perspective in 2009, hanging out on the Afghan border with an English guy who was going to Iran seem pretty odd – wait, it gets better :)
Anyway, one morning the guy turns up at my hotel, asking if I want to get breakfast and saying he has a mission he’d like me to accompany him on.
“Have you heard of Osama Bin Laden?”, he asks as we walk, playing a game of trying to wave at as many women in burkhas as we can……….
I had heard the name and had a vague idea who Bin Laden was but was not terribly knowledgeable on the subject. Bearing in mind the date, I don’t feel bad for not really knowing who he was. Now of course, you could probably say his name anywhere on the face of the planet and people would know who he was.
My friend filled me in a little on some details and said he’d heard that a very special T-shirt was available in certain markets around town and would I like to go shopping with him.
Of course, I didn’t need asking twice so after a brief stop for hot sweet tea and cigarettes we were heading for the local market.
It’s a pretty weird feeling to be wandering around, 2 English boys in western clothes in 35 degree heat, everyone else wearing a salwar kameez in the regulation colours of black, brown or white, at least 50% of them with Ak47’s or some other large machine gun on their shoulders, as natural as mobile phones are here in Tokyo.
After a brief walk we arrived at the market my friend had heard about and set about asking stall holders if they had ‘The osama bin laden t-shirt’, at first everyone denied all knowledge of such an item, maybe they thought we some weird undercover CIA agents or something.
Eventually we came across a stall out the front of a large shop selling all manner of clothes from salwar kameezs to the ubiquitous 20 rupee cotton mix Y-fronts so popular in subcontinent markets.
We asked the stall holder, a jovial gentleman built like the proverbial outhouse, if he had any of the famed T-shirts. At first he said he didn’t, but there was something about the gleam in his eye when he told us that made us push him a little until after a few minutes of playful banter he told us to stay where we were and he disappeared into the back of the shop.
He came back a minute later with a large blue cotton bag, set it down and proceeded to pull out several white T-shirts. He unfolded them and held them up high in the air so we could examine their splendor.
The site that greeted us made us both stop talking and stare in disbelief.
Almost as soon as he held the T-shirt up people around us noticed what he was doing, we were the only badly dressed white boys in the market after all and were all ready beginning to draw quite a lot of attention.
And then the gunfire started.
Being a nice middle class boy close proximity gunfire is not something I am used to and I ducked for cover much to the amusement of our stall holding friend.
‘Its ok they arent shooting at you’ he said.
I tentatively stood up, still in shock and looked around.
He was right, they weren’t shooting at us, I guess if they had been I wouldn’t be writing this now anyway.
No, the guys who had previously been going about their everyday business with their AK-47s resting on their shoulders like fashion accessories were now firing them into the air in jubilation at the site of the the T-shirt.
It was utterly surreal to be stood there as more and more people noticed the T-shirt and fired their guns into the air in salute.
My friend and I just looked at each other, frozen by surprise at what was occurring around us, we looked back at our stall holder friend, still holding the shirt aloft and he was grinning like a Cheshire cat.
The moment seemed to last for ages until I snapped out of it and hastily pulled his arms down.
I’d seen enough and was beginning to think it was time to get the hell out of dodge.
We quickly purchased a couple of t-shirts each, thanked our still smiling friend profusely and left in a hurry.
I can’t remember how much we paid but it was nothing compared to the thrill of owning such a crazy T-shirt.
As we walked away from the store several of them men who had been firing their guns patted us on the backs and bid us a good day.
We flash forward to 7 months later, November 2001. I had run out of money and was in Delhi preparing to fly home, the world was a very different place than it had been 7 months before.
Osama Bin Laden was now a name known throughout the world.
I remember sitting in my hotel room trying to work out how I was going to thin down the excess amount of crap I had accumulated over the trip to an airline friendly 20kg and I remember thinking that taking the impossible to explain T-shirt back through 2 sets of immigration and customs checks was a VERY bad idea given the climate I now found myself in.
Especially seeing as I also had a book of the sayings of the prophet Mohammed with a signed inscription to me in my bag.
The visions that went through my head looked a lot like what we now refer to as extraordinary rendition.
However, I just couldn’t bare to part with the shirt, it had become an almost mythical item, not something I was going to be wearing out drinking with my friends when I returned home, but utterly priceless as a souvenir of a few months where this event was one of many life changing events.
Luckily the customs men didn’t see me as suspicious (a first) when I touched down in the UK later that month, much to my relief.
So I am still the proud owner of what has to be without doubt one of the craziest T-shirts I have ever seen.
Still don’t wear it out much though ;-)