Last Sunday didn't seem like a special day to Azim Durrani. The 20-year-old university student woke up late. He helped out with chores in the house, met up with a friend for coffee and went home to play some Bulletstorm and some Unreal Tournament. He had some homework to do that day, but he was putting that off for later.
"Nothing special had happened that day," he told me.
But late at night, around 1 a.m. Monday morning, when, like any proper college student he was just finishing his assignment, he heard the helicopters flying over the city where he lives, Abbottabad, Pakistan.
"Suddenly I start hearing these helicopters in the city, and then like five minutes later there's this huge noise of an explosion, the impact of which the whole city felt. At first i thought maybe it must've been a gas tanker, but then I hear these helicopters leaving the city and then jets flying in.
"I kind of had a tingling feeling that something's not right here."
Durrani describes himself as a geek. He loves video games and poses with comic books in his picture on Twitter. He'd never been to the compound where U.S. Navy Seals found and killed Osama Bin Laden. He'd never been closer than 50 yards, he estimates, to the hideout of the most wanted man in the world. And he didn't think that kind of thing happened in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in a city now known through the news as a place rife with military intelligence but which, to Durrani, always felt a more like Smallville. Smallville: the place where Superman grew up. As seen on American TV.
"The first time I started watching Smallville—the first season—I was like, 'This is so much like Abbottabad. It's peaceful, small and has markets in the same manner Smallville does.'" It even had a place that reminded him of the coffee shop where Clark Kent's girlfriend hung out.
Self-described gamers and geeks are everywhere, in America, in Japan, in Europe and even a few kilometers from the former hideout of Al Qaeda. In the aftermath of the American mission against Bin Laden, it was Durrani who told a Time magazine reporter that the raid "reminds me of the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare that I play on my Xbox." He sees some of his world in video game terms and thoughts of Call of Duty raced through his mind the night American helicopters zoomed into his city. Other thoughts ran through his mind as well, because at 1 a.m., when explosions rock your city, it's pretty hard to tell what in the world is going on.
The explosion Durrani had heard was probably the U.S. military blowing up one of its helicopters, which had suffered mechanical difficulties. The jets, he now thinks, were probably Pakistani jets scrambling to figure out what had happened. The raid had happened at half past midnight; much of what Durrani heard was the aftermath.
"I just assumed for the time that maybe it was a training exercise by some Pakistani pilots and one of them crashed or something," he told me in an e-mail. "A few minutes later I heard on the news that a helicopter has crashed in Abbottabad in Bilal town, so I kinda got worried since my uncle lives near that place. I called him to find out if everything was okay. What he told me got me into shock, for like a minute. He told me that the helicopters were U.S Army Blackhawks and that drones were flying in the area to assist, and there was a firefight between the residents of the house (which, at that time, no one knew who the residents were)."
It's still not clear just what the SEALs used, whether they were in Blackhawk helicopters or others, what level of assistance they had from the drones that have flown so many missions over Durrani's country, but by late Sunday in America and early Monday in Abbottabad, Durrani came to learn the most important thing about that night. "I came across the shocking news," he said. "OBL was in that compound and what's more shocking was he was living in this peaceful town of Abbottabad."
Durrani couldn't believe that Bin Laden was in his "Smallville," and he wanted to get the word out about the Abbottabad he loves, because he knew what people were thinking. He took to Twitter and tried contacting gaming reporters and even some game developers. He wanted to give gamers, a community he cares a lot about, a different sense of his neck of the woods and the people who live there.
When your town becomes the center of the world's attention, one reflex is to stress just how normal the place is. "Its funny every time I hear TV people pronounce my city's name on TV," he wrote to me. "lol."
I asked him for pictures of Abbottabad. I expected markets. I thought he'd send the main drag. Nope. He sent himself throwing up heavy metal devil horns, posing in front of rock music posters. And then he sent a batch of photos of his grandfather's house in Abbottabad. He was proud of them, because he shot them on a great camera and, well, they look nothing like what people are seeing of Abbottabad these days.
I knew it was a reach, but I asked him if he'd any sense of whether the people in Bin Laden's compound played video games, before I knew he'd never even been nearby. "Nope, sorry," Durrani said. "I doubt those people in the compound were even bothered with video games, since they all were pretty old, and video games here is an interest only to young or middle-aged people."
Over e-mail and Twitter you could mistake Durrani for being a hardcore gamer from anywhere. Ask him how he got into gaming, and you get the résumé: Super Mario Bros, Sonic & Knuckles, Sega to PC, PC to PlayStation, and then the Xbox 360. Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are the best games of the decade, the challenge rooms in Arkham Asylum are a good way to burn some time and Stranglehold should be played on hardboiled difficulty ("cuz its that awesome and that fun to play.")
The second Modern Warfare isn't as good as the first, Durrani told me, and, no, just because he mentioned to Time that the raid against Bin Laden reminded him of Modern Warfare, that doesn't mean he'd call himself a Call of Duty player. "When it comes to choosing what type of player am I, I would say it's a mix. I'm more in favor of Battlefield games than Call of Duty ones, since Battlefield is more tactical and you have to be coordinated. It's more of a thinking-man's FPS (from a multiplayer perspective, that is). And I love playing Halo and Left 4 Dead since they're a lot of fun to play with when you're playing with friends."
Durrani's gaming experiences sound so typical, though there are certainly some regional differences. He only wishes he had an Xbox Live account, but there's no Xbox Live in Pakistan [Update: He does use trial and free Xbox Live accounts, but via an American ID; he simply doesn't have his own paid one]. And in places where there isn't officially Xbox Live, there probably aren't many gamers who knew someone who joined the Taliban. Durrani knew a guy from Waziristan who was like that. "He had grown up and spent most of his teenage life in Kuwait and Bahrain and was like a big hip hop fan and knew how to rap pretty well," Durrani said. "His father was a wealthy businessman in Kuwait. I never asked him how he transformed from a teenager to becoming an aspiring Taliban." The guy told Durrani about the video games the Taliban liked to play, specifically CounterStike. "The Taliban I knew told me how good Talibans are at C.S and how that game helps them in keeping their senses sharp…. [he] told me one thing to keep in mind, Talibans will always play as terrorists..lol..these Talibans have a computer like memory and this makes them geniuses at using PC's just like a grease monkey is for a car."
Sure, that's different, but that's not Durrani's story. He's just that geek gamer waiting for more news about Gears of War 3. Durrani has been eager to answer questions about Abbottabad and to make new friends. He's been reveling in the attention he got from the quote in Time, and now he'd love for more people to follow him on Twitter. "I'm just happy the gaming community will get to see another side of Pakistan," he told me as he checked in, via Facebook, about when this story would run, "or of Abbottabad, to be precise."