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Osama bin Laden & 9.11 Souvenirs In S.E. Asia

Osama bin Laden & 9.11 Souvenirs In S.E. Asia

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The Osama bin Laden cigarette lighter is adorned with his raised, chrome portrait, an embossed "9.11", sketches of the World Trade Center, an approaching airplane, and a big red splotch.

When you flick the sleek, metal lighter open, a light-emitting diode illuminates the splotch so it glows bright red on one of the buildings, emphasizing the first crash site.

Loud, computerized music beeps out a loop of Mozart.

Made in China -- as are many of the latest, gimmicky, Osama bin Laden souvenirs -- the butane lighter recently showed up in Cambodia.

"I paid two U.S. dollars for it, in the old Soviet market in Phnom Penh," a Canadian traveler, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview after visiting the Cambodian capital.

"One man's catastrophe is another man's cheesy souvenir. I bought three, for the novelty. I'll give them to people who would appreciate the irony that they even exist.

"When you open it, it plays a classical tune. It's quite freaky, eh?"

The lighter came boxed with a gold-and-black cigarette holder, and was manufactured by "Boerda Smoking Set Co. Ltd."

An Internet search indicated the Chinese company makes various lighters for domestic use and export.

In a crammed, middle-class shopping mall in Bangkok, meanwhile, other bin Laden souvenirs are currently on sale.

A Thai shop selling lava lamps, magic tricks, and embarrassing gifts to surprise recipients, also offers a small, inexpensive hand puppet of bin Laden wearing boxing gloves.

Stick your fingers inside and wiggle them, and little Osama punches the air.

On Bangkok's popular Khao San Road, where thousands of international backpackers flock to cheap hotels, restaurants, discos and an avant garde street market, stalls sell Halloween masks of a droopy, rubbery bin Laden, alongside other scary faces.

The trickle of souvenirs appear to be made not by Osama's supporters, but by profit-seeking factories which have slapped bin Laden's visage, and symbols of his international Islamist war, onto existing generic toys and other items in a crass effort to reach a fresh demographic of buyers.

While Asian customers often appear nonplussed or bored with the al Qaeda leader's appearance in their markets, many foreign tourists express shock and awe at the commercialization of the world's most wanted killer.

But some tourists, including Americans, can be seen laughing with sarcastic delight at the cruel globalization of absurdity, despite the outrageous insult to bin Laden's victims.

Thai clothing sellers cater to both sides by offering a high-quality T-shirt adorned with a reverently painted, color portrait of bin Laden, while another hangar dangles a T-shirt with his face targeted inside a red bull's-eye.

One common T-shirt in Thailand, which seems to attract mostly cynics and anti-right-wingers, is printed with the faces of bin Laden and President George W. Bush side-by-side, and captioned, "CIA and FBI Presents: Twin Terrors".

"I bought one of the T-shirts of the Twin Terrors," said a snickering New Yorker who visited Bangkok's tourist-friendly Patpong Road night market.

"But I'm afraid of bringing it back to America. Can you imagine what Customs might do to me, if they find it in my luggage?"

Much bigger, and more bizarre, is a 15-inch (37-cm) tall, battery-powered, action figure of bin Laden.

The box promises it "can dance and sing, hands can act, waist can wobble."

The plastic bin Laden's excited singing is reminiscent of India's Bollywood film songs.

Two fake, plastic hand grenades clip onto the doll's vest. Five tiny fake rockets, a pistol, and a knife are stuffed into his pockets.

The doll brandishes a plastic dagger in his right hand and waves a "V" -- for victory -- sign with his other.

Long, gray, life-like hair flows from his beard.

"Not suitable for children under 3 years old due to the danger of tearing off and swallowing small parts," the doll's "Warfare Puppetry" box warns.

In October, French police demanded an investigation when the doll appeared in a Paris shop, amid allegations it was "apologizing for terrorism."

The Paris police bust made headlines in Le Parisien magazine. Associated Press picked up the story and it was splashed worldwide, including in the Jerusalem Post.

Around the same time, the high-quality "action singer" doll also appeared in Bangkok's so-called Arab Quarter where dozens of Middle Eastern, African and South Asian restaurants, travel agencies, hotels, shops, shipping agencies and other businesses cater to Muslims and other visitors who enjoy its crammed lanes lined with signs in Arabic and other languages.

Selling for about 12 U.S. dollars, the bin Laden doll stood next to a near-identical one of Saddam Hussein, both "Made in China" by the same unidentified company.

The boxes showed illustrations of four other dolls, similarly armed, including what appeared to be a Palestinian guerrilla with his head wrapped in a black-and-white checkered scarf.

Another was a Caucasian wearing a white shirt and bright red tie under his weapons-heavy vest. A bigger picture showed him wearing a hat featuring the official seal of the U.S. government -- an eagle holding arrows and olive branches.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, a hand-held, "Laden vs. USA" computerized game was available in Hanoi, Vietnam, showing photos of bin Laden wearing a white turban alongside a grimacing President Bush.

Amid the game's 10 white push-buttons for playing, a matchbox-sized screen showed a photo of a World Trade Tower exploding, while a second airplane impacted in flames into the other tower.

The player's low-flying airplane had to defend itself from attacks by jet bombers.

"The game is divided into 20 levels," the package explained. "What's more, the inspiring music will play during the game."

On sale for five U.S. dollars, it was similar to a Nintendo Game Boy, but built by Panyu Gaming Electronic Co., Ltd., in China.


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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