When I heard the news that the Pakistani army had captured Muslim Khan, a top commander of the Taliban, I was overcome by a simultaneous sense of shock and relief. “That’s him,” I screamed at the TV set overhead in the bar where I was having a drink.
“The guy who’s the spokesman for Tehreek-E-Taliban?” Smitty, the bartender asked as he dried an Old Fashioned glass.
“That’s the one,” I replied.
“You know,” Smitty continued, “he’s also the leader of the TTP Swat’s negotiating team in talks with the provincial government of the Awami National Party.” Boston bartenders are like that–knowledgeable, thorough, almost cocky in the amount of information they have at the tips of their tongues.
“Not only that,” I said, my eyes glued to the set, ”he painted my living room.”
A hush fell over the room, a stillness I hadn’t heard in a Boston watering hole since Reggie Lewis collapsed during a 1993 Celtics playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets.
“You mean,” the guy to my right began slowly, “the same Taliban who blew up the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan?”
“The same,” I said, taking a sip of my Sam Adams Lightship beer.
“Did they blow up anything of yours?” an attractive blonde asked, suddenly interested in me now that I was linked with the international war on terrorism.
“No, for the most part my wife doesn’t decorate with un-Islamic graven images,” I said, making it clear–in my own subtle way–that I was spoken for. “We certainly didn’t have any little Buddha statues around.”
“Tell me more,” she persisted.
“I’m not sure how much I can tell you since much of what we learned during the paint job is still classified,” I began. “Still, my tongue has been loosened by the effects of alcohol, so I might as well continue.”
I grabbed some loose mixed nuts to sustain myself–a big risk with swine flu going around at the time, but I like to live dangerously. “It was the late 1990′s–the Taliban had decided to focus on interior decoration as the way to bring down the Great American Satan.”
“Khan became a housepainter in the western suburbs of Boston, where we lived,” I continued.
“Why was that?” the bartender asked.
“Because I worked in Boston,” I answered.
“No, not why did you live there, why did he become a painter?” the bartender continued.
“I think because he didn’t like to clean gutters,” I said. “Painting the interiors of Colonial-style suburban homes may be boring, but at least you don’t risk falling off ladders.”
“And yet our image of the Taliban is that they’re fierce warriors,” a flamboyantly dressed investment banker to my left said.
“That’s what they want you to think,” I explained patiently. “Historically, they and their ancestors have been capable of intense short-term bursts of fighting, but they’re not well-suited for protracted battles.”
The bartender tossed me a complimentary bag of Beer Nuts, the snack food with the unique “sweet ‘n salty” taste. “Thanks, Smitty,” I said. “Anyway, maybe we were naive dupes–I don’t know. Khan came in with the low bid, and he promised to finish the job in one week. Everybody else said it would take two.”
“It’s hard to find good painters,” the blonde said. “I know what you must have been going through.”
“Our kids were young–the house was always in an uproar anyway,” I explained. “We didn’t want to make it any worse.”
“So–did you talk to the guy?” the investment banker asked. I had to savor the moment; it isn’t often I can impress a guy who makes five times what I do.
“For the most part I leave communications with tradesmen, contractors and international terrorist organizations to my wife,” I explained.
“Yoo-hoo, Mr. Taliban! You missed a spot.”
“You’re gone all day, right?” the bartender asked. “When you get home you just want to play with the kids.”
“Exactly,” I said. “So all my exchanges with him were very perfunctory. How are the wives, how are the kids, how ’bout those Red Sox. Still, as a precaution, I always record my conversations with guys who are on the Treasury Department’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons.”
“Just to be sure,” the blonde said, nodding her head.
“Yes, even though it’s illegal in Massachusetts to tape someone without their consent, I wanted to do my part in the War on Terror.”
“Do you–have the tape with you?” the investment banker asked, curious.
I glared at the guy. “You think I’d ever let it out of my sight?” I asked, incredulous.
“Well, no, I . . . uh, just, uh,” he stammered. “Do you think we could listen to some of it?”
I eyed the four of them–Smitty, the blonde, the banker and the one whom everyone knew only as “the guy to my right.” I sized them all up. “Do you promise that none of you will use what you are about to hear against the United States of America, so help you God?”
“Promise,” the blond said.
“Swear on a stack of bibles,” Smitty said.
“Cross my heart and hope to die, boil in oil and stew in lye,” the guy to my right said.
I looked at the investment banker. “Can I use it to make money by shorting stocks or making investments in defense-related industries?” he asked tentatively.
I thought about it for a moment. I remembered what Calvin Coolidge, the only Republican President from Massachusetts, had once said; “The business of America is business.”
“All right,” I said. “But I get 10% of any short-swing profits or long-term capital gains.”
“Deal,” he said. I took my pocket tape recorder out of my suitcoat and hit the “Play” button:
ME: How’s it going?
KHAN: I put a coat of primer on today, just waiting for it to dry. Also waiting for the obscene and immoral culture of the West to die.
ME: (Laughing) The kids must have been watching Barney the Purple Dinosaur while you worked today, huh?
KHAN: There is a white western woman in the house all day who does not cover herself.
ME: You mean my wife? Yeah, I talked to her about that. She can’t find a nice burqua at Talbot’s.
KHAN: She is the source of all my troubles! Constantly changing colors!
ME: What do you call that shade you’re mixing now–pink?
KHAN: It’s actually “Dusty Rose.”
ME: Just do what she tells you, pal. I’ve learned that it’s better just to go along to get along with her.
KHAN: This is why we must establish a world-wide caliphate under Shariah! You wimpy western husbands!
ME: You know what her nickname is?
ME: “The Ayatollah.”
KHAN: (silent for a moment) Wow. So if she wants me to re-do the trim I should . . .
ME: Just do it.
KHAN: In the name of Allah?
ME: No. In the name of world peace.