I’ve told bits and pieces of this story through the years, but in honor of the release today of the paperback version of the book I wrote with my father last year The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, I figured I’d reprise the entire “origin story” of how it all happened. For those unfamiliar with the concept, “origin stories” generally chronicle the seminal events that occur to birth a Superhero. In the case of Batman for example, it’s the tragic events that befall young Bruce Wayne when he witnesses the murder of his loving parents. That feeling of victimization, fear, and desire for vengeance prompts Bruce’s quest to transform his greatest fear into his strength and fuel his never-ending quest to seek justice. As a young student, Peter Parker is bitten during school field trip by a radioactive spider. It’s the seminal moment of Spiderman’s origin story, granting him his Superpowers, which tangle with his credo “with great power comes great responsibility” to produce his Superhero identity. The rest, of course, is modern pop cultural mythology.
In the case of this book though, the origin story starts circa spring 2001. At the time, I was working for a news organization called Channel Ones News, an in class news network that broadcast to American students all over the country. It was a great gig, because while most outside the closed circuit of American middle and high schools had never heard of us, we were the number one source of news for American students. That position empowered us with great responsibility. Just a few years out of college, I had already assumed a position of senior foreign correspondent of the network and was making regular trips overseas to cover news stories of regions in conflict. Kashmir, Iran, Chechnya, Colombia, Sri Lanka and more – theses were my beat, the greatest job I’ve ever had. At the time at Channel One, we were developing a news show that we hoped could break out of our little in school news network and go wider. We’d partnered with the WB network and were building a show we’d pitched – in classic Hollywood parlance – as 60 Minutes meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In even more Hollywood cliché, all relevant parties had signed off and we were raring to go!
Soon thereafter, I remember clearly sitting at a big table surrounded by creative executives during a development meeting pitching out stories for our potential pilot episode, the first show that would hopefully launch the series. The idea was to come up with “sexy” stories that would be of substance but also have elements of adventure and danger that would hopefully promise ratings, the end all be all of broadcast television.
I’d come armed to the meeting with a cover article I’d recently read in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It was about madrasas – or strict Islamic schools for young boys in the Northwest Frontier part of Pakistan and Southern Afghanistan. There was controversy over these schools though because while the clerics who ran them claimed they were just orthodox religious schools that preached discipline and structure to poor boys that would otherwise not have access to education, US intelligence agencies (CIA, NSA, and others) claimed differently. They felt strongly that these schools were essentially terrorist training camps where young poor boys were being recruited, indoctrinated into a rigid Islamic fundamentalism and trained in combat and weapons skills to then go out into the world and carry out the Jihad.
I proposed that we go out to the wild wild East and see for ourselves.
Context: we’re talking January 2001, folks. Months before 9/11. While Islamic terrorism was very much on the radar, courtesy of the initial World Trade Center attack a few years earlier as well as a lesser known attack in Yemen and brewing trouble in Somalia and elsewhere. Still, Islamic terrorism was little more of a menace than say the IRA or other zealots spread across the globe, hardly the type of red alert status they would very soon earn.
Hence the tepid response to my pitch. What was the news hook to it? There seemed to be no urgency around it. One executive did remark that it did indeed involve elements that often work well on TV – guns and violence, so that was a good thing…in a matter of speaking. With that wave of momentum, another executive volunteered a potential news hook. Paramount Pictures was releasing a summer tentpole movie based on the Tom Clancy Bestseller The Sum of all Fears. Ben Affleck was starring and the plot centered on a terrorist induced dirty bomb being smuggled and detonated in the US. The movie studio would surely be spending a pretty penny promoting the flick. Perhaps Mr. Affleck could be induced to travel with me to Pakistan to check out the madrasas?
Alas, for insurance issues alone, the idea felt farfetched (because otherwise it seemed reasonable??) and was scrapped. Gradually attention turned to more domestic (read cheaper stories) and eventually the whole pilot – as most often are – was shelved.
But fortunately for me, the executives at good old Channel One News liked my pitch and suggested we go ahead and do the story anyway. So, a few months later, in August of 2001, I found myself with two colleagues checking into a hotel in the city of Peshawar preparing for our next day visit to a madrasa in question we had identified tucked away up in the nearby Khyber Pass.
As I always do, the first thing I’d done upon checking into my hotel room was click on the television. I remember flipping through three distinct shows. One – Baywatch with busty young blonds bouncing up and down the white sand beaches of Malibu. Two – Beavis and Butthead sniggering their way through fart jokes. And three – amazingly emaciated models walking up and down the runways of Paris and Milan in clothes that would never fit any woman I know.
The next morning, my small crew and I climbed aboard a military escort jeep that drove us to the edge of the Khyber. That’s as far as they’ll go because to penetrate the interior of the Khyber, it’s best not to do so with the army and everyone knows it. The keepers of the region are various tribal militias that could be hired for a couple hundred bucks. We followed protocol and paid a group called the Khyber rifles to be our escorts. They threw us in the back of a pick-up truck with a group of men who covered their faces with black bandanas holding Kalashnikov machine guns and we were on our way. I remember this clearly, well because it was probably the most overtly masculine thing I’ve ever done in my life. At one point, about an hour into our drive up into the pass, one of the young militiamen handed me his gun and gestured for me to snap the trigger, pointing the gun up into the air. I followed his instruction and fired a few rounds high into the sky. A few seconds later, the sounds of other rounds echoed from the ridges around us. These were other militia brethren responding to my veritable mating call with shots of their own. I’m not gonna lie – I was thrilled!
The Khyber is legendary because for centuries it has been a central smuggling channel for all sorts of trades. From cotton and tobacco on the fairly harmless side to arms and poppy (raw material for heroin) on the more reckless side. Great cinema has romanticized some of these antics and the barren countryside full of warring tribes has done its part too to stoke the drama. I sat back in the pick-up and took it all in. We humans are strange creatures.
At long last we arrived at our destination. I knocked on the gates of the school and along with the help of my translator explained our reason for being there. After some back and forth, we were invited into the school and escorted to a back room that was air-conditioned. This was a welcome relief, for it was 112 degree Fahrenheit at the time and despite my excitement for our advances on the story, I was wilting hard. More relief came soon in the form of the school’s head Mullah – the quasi principal of the school. He was an older man with a long white beard and wore a traditional blue robe. He was warm and gracious and carried with him a bottle of Pepsi and some mangoes. He urged us to sit and recover from the heat. He had the Pepsi poured into cups and then drew a long, sharp blade from his robe and started to peel the mangoes.
Much to my glee, a few short minutes later I was slurping away on the sweet mangoes while informally chit chatting with our host. He was a modest fellow with a strong accent, wise expression, and subtle sense of humor. After I finished my mango, I carried my dirty paper plate to a trashcan near the far wall to deposit it into. As I placed it, I suddenly noticed a small-framed picture. In it was our host the Mullah and none other than Osama Bin Laden! Once again, I’ll remind you, this was August 2001 – just weeks before 9/11. Mr. Bin Laden, though on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List for his alleged complicity in various terrorist attacks the prior decade, was not the iconic master villain he would soon become. But to journalists like me who traveled to this part of the world, he was very much a part of our due diligence download. I carried the frame back with me and held in front of our host the Mullah.
“A friend of yours?” I asked him.
“Yes, yes.” He nodded. He described Bin Laden as scholar and said he was very wise. He said they studied the Koran together at times and that in years past, Mr. Bin Laden would come down to the school to meet and teach some of the boys. “But these days, he has some visa problems,” he shrugged. So didn’t come very often.
He offered to take us up to meet his friend Mr. Bin Laden the next time we visited if we gave him some advance warning. I promised him we would, for in my country we called that a Pulitzer Prize
On with the interview. I ran through all the standard questions about what was going on at the school, what US officials and all the rest charged. He seemed unfazed and disputed most everything. “Look around,” he urged. “No guns. No bombs.” I promised I would.
Finally, after nothing terribly remarkable was said over the last forty minutes or so, I gestured to the image of Osama Bin Laden. I used it to wrap up my interview. “So do we need to be afraid of you in the west?” Kind of like we are, I thought in my head.
He thought for a moment and then asked me a question? “Where did you spend the night last night?” he asked me. I named the hotel in Peshawar.
“Did you watch TV?” He inquired.
“What?” he nodded.
Damn, he’s good.
I listed Baywatch, Beavis and Butthead, and emaciated chicks.
He shrugged. “Should you be afraid of us or should we be afraid of you?”
Touché. I was reminded of something my father used to always tell my sister Mallika and I growing up: “everything is a matter of perspective. The world is the way it is because of the way we see it and everyone is always right from his or her point of view. Or at least they think they are.”
I nodded my head, understanding his point. We batted a few volleys back and forth and that was it. As I was getting up, I thanked him for his hospitality and he laughed. That was their custom, he assured me, saying that being anything less than gracious to a guest would be shameful.
“Just don’t come back not as our guest,” he offered, sliding his blade back into his robe. He urged us then to go walk the school grounds and see everything for ourselves. “No guns.” He reiterated. “No bombs.”
And he was right, as far as I could see. The grounds of the school were pretty desolate in fact, sparsely populated, mostly on account of the excruciating heat. Boys, ranging from about six years old to sixteen, sat in classes reciting the Koran or mastering math tables. Others wandered the halls or bantered with each other in Urdu. My gaze eventually fixed on a kid about fourteen years old because of the familiar character on his t-shirt: Superman.
I approached him and started asking questions. He was shy, but eventually warmed up. I asked him a few questions about what went on at the school. Nothing of note was said.
Then I asked him about the character on his t-shirt.
“Superman,” he replied smiling. “Americans believe in him to be a great Superhero,” he added.
I asked him if there were similar types of superheroes in his country.
He laughed and said: “look around: in my country, we do not have much to believe in.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
And that was that. My crew and I left the school. The next day we left Peshawar and the day after that we left Pakistan and made our way home.
On the way home to LA, I stopped in New York City to spend a week with my then fiancé Candice (now wife) who was in med school. There was no rush to get home, no real urgent hook to get out story of supposed terrorism onto the air. I kept most of our tapes safely in a bag in my Candice’s closet until I left.
I left with that bag on the morning of September 11th. It was a Tuesday morning and beautiful. I was unhappy to leave because it was so nice in New York. But I was thrilled to get upgraded to business class on my flight. Delta Airlines: departure 730 AM.
I remember looking out my window as we took off and curled around the southern tip of Manhattan. The sun reflected off the twin towers. We then made our way up the Hudson. There was Columbia undergrad – Carmen 12 where Candice and I originally met. There was Columbia medical school, where she was training as a physician. I fell asleep in that glorious business class seat…
…until the pilot spoke on the overhead speaker. He said we were making an emergency landing in Cincinnati, Ohio because of an apparent “terrorist attack” in the NYC and Washington area.
The language was lost on me. “Terrorist attack?” What did that mean exactly?
I called my sister Mallika on one of those mobile phones they used to have on planes. She was crying hysterically. “I thought you were on one of the planes,” she sobbed.
I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Oh my God,” she wailed. “It’s coming down. The tower is coming down.”
The phone clicked off. All circuits cut. Two male stewards moved toward the cockpit and stood there with somber expressions on their faces. We all sat quietly in our seats, unsure what was going on.
When we landed twenty minutes later and hustled off the plate, I rushed to a bar just in time to see the second tower of the World Trade Center collapsing. Now I got it. And I plunged into journalist mode.
I made my way to a car rental agency to try and figure out a way back to NYC. Every last car was spoken for. I eventually hitched a ride with two guys headed back home to Jersey and Long Island respectively. We raced across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York listening to the radio and making intermittent phone contact to loved ones to get updates. Candice and her fellow med school students had volunteered already. She was assigned the morgue where they were already bringing in bodies, mostly flag draped firefighters.
I eventually made it to the George Washington Bridge around 11 pm. I walked across it with my bags (and press pass) and then spent another hour getting down to ground zero. Memories are hazy except for being down at the scene of the crime, participating in a “rescue effort” because at the time, hope loomed that there may be survivors pulled from the rubble. More hazy memories of a street covered with high heels shoes from women who had shed them, fleeing tumbling buildings. And sheets of paper floating down from the skies – sad reminders of the catastrophe earlier that days. And…no survivors.
Eventually I made it back up to 14th Street, the barrier that had been created and locked off to prevent more people from streaming downtown. Even journalists couldn’t get in anymore. So those that had – like me – were grabbed by others to offer firsthand accounts of what we had seen. A female correspondent grabbed me and started to pull details from me. I mechanically answered her questions. The whole world was already assuming it to be a terrorist attack. Links were being traced back to Afghanistan groups, sponsored by a shady Pakistani political apparatus. I had just been there. I had tapes in my bags that poked around at all of it. I started to tell my story. I started to think of what I’d asked. What I’d been told. Who was supposed to be afraid of whom?
I thought of that kid. Superman on his t-shirt. No Superheroes of his own. “Nothing to believe in” in his own country. No one.
In the absence of heroes, this is what happens I started to believe. In a place bankrupt of aspirational heroes, archetypal ones that speak to our craving for leadership and justice and virtue and power and hope, masterful frauds step in and supply it. They fill the void and they exploit the desperate need that we humans have to believe in something. In someone.
For me, I’d spend the next few years in the world of news. More trips to terrorist zones trying to find stories. Numerous voyages into Gaza and Palestine. More war. More death. More violence. More blood. More unemployment, frustration, anger, resentment, rage, and desire for revenge.
Journalists are taught to be objective. But it’s a subjective world. Humans are subjective.
Exit the world of journalism and enter the world of entrepreneurialism.
I’ve gone on long enough so I’ll wrap this saga up. With the help of friends and mentors, I co-founded a comic book company. I wanted to create a place that could be a home for young kids in the Indian subcontinent to create their own Superheroes. I wanted to arm them with pencils and computers – tools that would empower them to create heroes that symbolized their own highest goals and aspirations.
Companies evolve over time and ours certainly has. Today, it’s called Graphic India and I’m proud of our achievements which include nurturing dozens of young artists and writers, who through us, have collaborated with some of the most talented storytellers in the world, had their art exhibited in prestigious museums and galleries, and contributed to bestselling books – like The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, a book that dives into the deeper mechanics of who Superheroes really are and what makes them up.
The artwork in The Seven Laws of Superheroes is all originally created by an artist named Jeevan Kang who has been with the company since day one. Jeevan is a pioneer and the greatest example of how an artist’s vision can start to shift our collective consciousness. Jeevan’s a Rockstar.
No, you know what, actually he’s a Superhero.