“Tell me about your father.” Khalil looked at the man sitting in front of him. He kept his surprise at the question out of his face, out of his eyes. Why would an interrogator want to know about his father – unless his father was a terrorist as well? And Khalil’s father was anything but, the swine.
“Why do you want to know about my father?” And Khalil really was interested – he couldn’t figure out the game. This was possibly the first time he was interested in anything going on around him since his arrest.
“I am a psychologist.” George said this as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Which perhaps it was for a psychologist. But this was an interrogation, wasn’t it? Was this some sort of crazy American rights related thing? “Cure” the terrorist of his cause? Make him into a model American? Insanity – and not Khalil’s.
“Well, that is nice.” Khalil said. An American phrase to address an American notion. Khalil looked down at his legs, fingering the orange material of his jumpsuit. It was similar in color to the saffron robes worn by Buddhist monks; an interesting choice.
Khalil let the pause continue a few seconds more – for effect. Then he continued, his voice harsh. “Why do I have to answer these types of questions? I do have places to be. I certainly didn’t sign up for therapy as you Westerners are so prone to do.” A bluff, of sorts. Khalil was curious. But, mostly he just tired and wanted out. George had offered release if he spoke. This grueling introspection hadn’t been part of the deal.
As if reading his mind George responded. “If you want to be released — ever you should cooperate.” George’s voice betrayed no threat. Coming on strong, intimidating, was clearly not his interrogation style.
Still confused, but resigned nonetheless, Khalil started to speak. He watched George, noticing how the morning light fell across the man’s hands casually clasped before him on the table. It was a familiar gesture – his own. Was George deliberately paralleling him to establish a comfort level between them? Immediately he refocused on his own words, hearing his voice fall lightly. If this was the game he may as well just play along. What harm was there in discussing his father? George could learn about how he handled questions by discussing any subject. This one at least was less threatening than most.
“My father is a horrible man.” Khalil said. “He took us from a small village about two hundred miles from Algiers to the city itself when I was very young, about three. We left our family, my mother left her family. We were alone in the city – well, a suburb really. He got work as a mechanic. Then a few years later he moved out, divorcing my mother and us as well. He married another woman. I saw him rarely after that – which was better. Unfortunately, he left my mother with nothing, and she had to find work cleaning and sewing for other families.” Khalil stopped. What else was there to say? He waited for George’s response – not really registering what he himself had just said.
“How did you feel when you left the village?” George asked. Well, that was unexpected. Khalil wondered whether anyone had ever asked him that question before. At first he couldn’t remember. When he did, he regretted even having the thought. Jennifer.
“I suppose I was sad. I had many cousins, many friends. I adored my grandfather, my mother’s father.” Khalil struggled as he spoke. How does one answer such a question? Then he felt angry. Why should he be forced to discuss his youth?
“Was your mother upset when your father divorced her? Were you?” George said.
Rage. Khalil felt rage as he stared at the earnest man sitting before him. Why was he in therapy? He was a foreign subject, and he wanted to leave. Not that Algeria cared. This was almost worse than the torture. It was so slow and boring.
“I am here against my will.” Khalil could hear emotion in his voice. Ah, so this was the game. Provoke him so he would lose his cool. Right? What was the game?
The light was glaring now. Hitting George in a distracting way.
“Please, just try to work with me here.” George said. “I know what I am doing. My style is just different from that of most interrogators. I am here to help you get out.” George’s voice was soft again.
Smug bastard. The guy was here for information and a conviction. Khalil didn’t hide his annoyance as he glared at George – still sitting properly on his chair.
“No. My mother wasn’t upset nor was I. The swine beat us both. His absence was a blessing from Allah. We were very poor but Allah provided, as is his will.”
“I thought you said your mother provided — cleaning, sewing….” George said.
Rage. Again rage.
“Allah is merciful. He rewards the devout.”
“By giving them an abusive father and a poor, uneducated mother?”
Khalil felt like wiping the smug look off of George’s face. Really he should kill him for the insult to his mother. But he willed himself to let it all go. At least now he knew the game – get him upset by discussing his childhood, needling him until a blow hit. So, he didn’t answer.
George sat before him. He began drawing shapes on a pad of paper he had brought with him. Not taking notes, just drawing shapes. Khalil waited.
“So he wasn’t around much?” George spoke. “When he was around he was abusive – both verbally and physically I assume. You had no other family around, no other males. Uncles, grandparents. Of course your mother never remarried, how could she in an Islamic society? Poor woman wasn’t even around much either, right? Too busy working.”
The sentences kept coming – the placid man suddenly in control, making assertions. Until.
“Where in Algiers were you?”
Khalil internally threw up his hands. This was out of control.
“A village called Kheis el Khechna, near Boumerdes” Khalil said. “Thirty-five miles outside Algiers. Two hours by bus.”
“Ah,” George’s voice was soft now. “A poor suburb. The mosque preachers in Boumerdes, they were quite militant, weren’t they? Indeed, they ran schools, didn’t they?”
“Yes, they educated me.”
George sat there, looking satisfied. This interrogation had obviously meant something to George. But it had meant nothing to Khalil. This country was mad.
Omar saw the flash of orange. That now familiar blur of color in a world of drab. The girl was named Stacey, as he had learned when the instructor called on her a few days before. Stacey.
The color was as unnatural as it was beautiful. Shocking really, it seemingly bragged to be noticed for what it was – a statement. And he had noticed.
Standing up, Omar adjusted his sunglasses, pushing them tightly to his face. One must always be prepared. The orange burst was moving briskly to the classroom door. The woman beneath the color was purposeful, no subtlety to her aggressive gait. Most likely she believed that she was not a girl to be tinkered with. American women always projected strength. That was why they were so easy to seduce. No subtlety went unappreciated, and Omar was all about the details. No, a woman alone couldn’t be as strong as these girls liked to think they were – hence the uncountable vulnerabilities. They crumbled like dust. Whores.
Slowly he ambled to the door. He was closer and managed – quite skillfully – to approach the door at the same time as Stacey. He looked past her. Then, he dropped his textbook at her feet, forcing her to stop. The bang was loud, it being a science textbook, not a lighter subject. Pun intended, he told himself.
Omar noted the startled look in her eyes. He stared back. Then dropped his gaze to the book. She hadn’t moved to help him retrieve it but he sensed her staring down where it had fallen.
Nimbly he bent down and retrieved the book. As he rose from his squat he looked at her once again. His curiosity had been clamoring for a good long look into her eyes. Had she noticed him? Not just seeing – of course she had seen him. But had she seen more, something that interested her? Omar resisted the temptation, reminding himself of his long-term goal. Short-term highs were never worth it. The objective was to make her notice him – enough so that she could recognize him. Then, he would show her such a lack of interest she would be intrigued.
Seduction was simple. It was all about mixed signals – move too fast and your prey ran scared. But a simple dance of push and pull always worked. Always.
The look he gave her was uninterested. It held in it absolutely nothing.
“Excuse me, I didn’t mean to block your way. Please forgive me.” Classic. Polite. Too polite for Southern California. The girls here were starved for chivalry. Not that they deserved it – whores one and all. But as such, didn’t they appreciate the difference from how they were normally treated?
Omar gestured for her to pass in front of him. He kept all warmth from his face. Too soon for that.
Stacey flushed. Perhaps she felt his indifference. Perhaps she was impressed by his courtesy, not like the rough boys surrounding them. The disrespectful ones who’s poisonous tongues he himself had tasted many times. What must it feel like to be pursued by such cretins, hanging their penises out to be worshiped by women who hadn’t even been properly seduced? That approach would only make a dog proud – all animal lust and carnal desire. Dogs, infidels, one and the same, really. Disgusting. Much better to respect the game itself.
“Thank you.” Her voice held a slight quiver. Omar felt a surge of success, though he struggled hard to hide it from his prey. She could see the impact she had on him later, when he was ready. But first she had to learn how much she could want him.
“After you.” He gestured again; this time he added a slight softness to the curve of his lips. He wanted to show some humanity, a recognition of her as a person but not as a woman.
Slowly she moved. Her seat was a few rows in front of his. He followed behind her as she began her ascent to the second row – her domain. Before she entered, Stacey turned her head and she looked at him, deep into his eyes. Mission accomplished! Small steps. Always small steps.
Omar gazed back, but only for a second. It was a truly beautiful gesture, one of his favorites. For a fleeting instant the woman believed that you were gazing into her soul. Any hint of a smile and the gesture was sleazy and weak. Total seriousness made it poetic, perhaps even spiritual. Omar turned away – hold the gaze too long and you became desperate. He headed up to his own seat and ignored her presence for the rest of class. He would move again, when it was time. Clarity of the goal, he reminded himself.
George walked into his house. His mind was ablaze, everything fit so well. His surroundings didn’t register as he walked to the kitchen where he could hear Karen. His footsteps displayed no hesitation as he strode into the large and very well stocked room. Life had been good to them.
He gave Karen a kiss on the cheek. Sometimes he got the lips, but not tonight – she was too intent on the cookbook open on the counter. Pots hung from the ceiling. The proximity of steel in earthquake country always unnerved him.
“How was your day?” Did he really care, or did he just want to get through the pleasantries so he could discuss the success of his interrogation. Well, usually I care, George consoled himself.
Karen lifted her eyes from her cookbook. Her glance managed to be impatient, though George couldn’t tell why. Her contradictory and confusing way of expressing herself was part of what had initially attracted him to her and had kept him enthralled all these years. He was, after all, a psychologist and a very good one. She puzzled him.
“Fine. Busy, a little bit trying, but fine.” She chopped a carrot, barely glancing at him.
She still looked good. Her soft blonde hair felt just past her shoulders. It was always perfectly straight yet never seemed flat. Her eyes were a watery blue, but wasn’t that always a perfect combination with such light hair? She dressed mostly in jeans, preferring to be thought of as a ‘cool’ teacher even as she had definitely started aging once she hit her forties. Yet her manner suited the image – she had that casual nonchalance he had long ago stopped attempting to cultivate.
“Why was your day trying?” Did he really care?
“The usual hassles about grade inflation. It is a literature class, for literature majors. A lot of them deserve a good grades – they’re so talented.”
George studied her. As if his students weren’t equally talented. You still had to make decisions and give real grades. She just always wanted to be liked, didn’t she?
“What an annoyance.” He said. “If the administration actually stepped into a classroom they might be better able to judge who deserves what grade.” Why start an argument. Better to support her.
“George, you are patronizing me.”
Caught. “What are you making for dinner? It smells delicious.” He managed a slight smile – when in doubt a smile rarely hurt. Talking about his day was the objective, he reminded himself.
“A Hungarian beef stew.” George looked at her, so trim in her jeans. Why did she keep trying new recipes? Each was as horrible as the last yet she stubbornly refused to give up. Her cooking kept him slim as well.
“Great.” Weak, but sufficient. He paused to provide the conversation with a break. “I had a interesting interrogation today. It was just what I expected. Absent father – a real jerk, hated. Overwhelmed mother. Educated in a religious school….”
“Focus on the family or tribe not individual, affluent or relatively affluent family….” Karen finished his sentence for him. Was it his imagination or did she sound bored? He ignored his suspicion.
“No, not this time. This one has a characteristic that doesn’t fit. He’s from a poor family. More common from an Algerian, but nonetheless strange.” The excitement, he always heard it when he discussed his theories. God, he loved his theories, and they always worked.
“So what does it mean?” Was that interest in her voice?
“That I don’t know yet,” he said. “Nor have I really probed the narcissistic or excitement driven aspects of his personality. I’m still softening him up. Confusing him a bit too, I don’t say.” George was ready to keep talking. But Karen interjected.
“You don’t say?”
What was wrong with her? She had been spared hearing about most of his interrogations because he had done them overseas. Now she had a chance to learn about his work, his theories, and she couldn’t be any less interested, could she? He did hear sarcasm in her voice. It was almost too nice in tone to be sarcasm – but he had learned by now that that was how she did it.
“You aren’t interested?” He said. The words fell like lead on his soft sandstone counters.
“George, I’m trying to make dinner. Can we talk later? Please.” Karen’s tone was clearly dismissive. She dropped some potatoes into boiling water.
George went to his study and sat down at his computer. Then he began to type, the words coming faster than his fingers could hit his computer keyboard. He started by describing the heavily fortified building he had just visited. The building itself so new that the paint had barely dried. The security clearance memo would have to wait. It wouldn’t help anyway.
Khalil lay on his bed staring at the ceiling. The room was almost dark. In the prison there was always some light. Presumably, the prisoners couldn’t be trusted in true darkness. He could visualize the stars he had so enjoyed gazing at with Hassan when they were both small boys, staring up into the horizons stretching out above. The twinkling lights had illuminated the sky’s otherwise thick, milky darkness. They had named each of the glowing stars. Back then Khalil hadn’t known that the stars already had names. Sometimes the names they thought up were silly, getting increasingly so, until the boys finally fell to the ground with laughter. They had rolled in the dirt, wrestling until Hassan pinned Khalil to the ground. Hassan had always had the advantage of age, which brought size.
Khalil’s flashbacks continued. His mind had little else to keep it occupied. He heard a bang somewhere outside the prison and chose to ignore it. No war was going on in California, so it couldn’t be important.
His scratchy blanket beneath him combined with the jutting springs of his mattress reminded him of his days on the move, when he had slept in a jumble of safe houses. Those days came back fuzzy and blurred, as did the nameless faceless men with whom he had shared quarters. They had all been passing through – young men excited about the training camps they were about the face and the wars they were about to fight. All brothers.
Khalil fought. He had also gotten tough and learned how to survive. How to read a man’s face so as to not trust the wrong one and wind up dead. To pull the trigger in an enemy’s face – immune to his humanity. And, when necessary, to win in hand to hand combat, thrusting your knife into an opponent’s belly, feeling the warm blood tricking down your arm and then the sag of the body in your arms as it went limp.
He hadn’t known then that he had been sent to learn and not to die. He hadn’t known then that he was being groomed for better. Had he not survived he would have joined numerous comrades – part of a decades old blood feud – still unavenged. But he had emerged instead as a leader.
He had been sent to Afghanistan. The bitter cold had been a surprise. He had thought the desert nights of Algeria had been biting in their harshness. He had learned of frost, and even of snow, as he felt his fingers chill beyond usefulness. The country was untamed, the landscape no wilder than the people. He had been very young and had made many friends who carried him forward today. The bonds that were forged then in that raw and beautiful country proved to run as deep as its valleys.
Eventually, he had ended up in Europe, always moving. The continent had been good to him until now. He had moved across borders with little intervention or interest. He had sent men abroad to train and had helped them get established as revolutionaries back on their own soil. And always he knew that he could do as he liked – the laws allowed for his type of subversion.
Now, he was in a jail cell. His brilliant future on hold, hopefully just delayed. There was so much work to be done. His hands almost shook with the repressed tension of being held captive. Certainly they couldn’t just keep him here forever? Allah, o merciful one, give me strength to survive. He whispered words from the Koran, “So lose no heart, nor fall into despair. For you must gain mastery if yea are true in faith.” Tazkia, purification of the self as called for by Allah. This was his opportunity.
Khalil refocused on the sounds of the makeshift prison. Another prisoner, down the hall he guessed, would always start shouting at this time of day, demanding to be let out, pretending to be going insane with the confinement. As if faking insanity required much effort when you were caged up like a rat and given no date for the confinement’s end. Right now he was just waiting to be released sometime in the deep abyss of forever.
He could hear guards rumbling slowly through the building or playing cards lazily near the front door. Occasionally Khalil would hear a phone ring. It was a simple routine here. Simple, but solitary. He had met no other prisoner, though he could hear the hum of them through the walls. At night he could hear the place shake with the coughs of men who had been taken from their homes. The poor souls who would haunt this country one day.
His mind continued its wandering. What a strange interrogation he had experienced earlier. Algeria, his father? Why?
Khalil pictured the vision of Algiers that he most loved. The magical side of the city as it sat nestled right on the deep blue of the Mediterranean. The white walls glowed next to the sea that gently lapped its shores. Some said the French heavily influenced the city. Having spent time in Paris, Khalil could understand the comparison. However, Algiers had retained the distinctive smells and feel of North Africa. He recalled the smell of exhaust mingled with lamb and fresh flowers. The rancidness of too many humans living under a vibrant and warm sun as it mixed with the pungency of the sea. Teashops dominated the social life of the city – or at least for the men. Boisterous groups spilled out onto the sidewalks, lively and full of bravado. Or so it had been before the killing had begun.
Khalil had wandered its narrow alleys as a young man, when he had been beginning his tenure as a revolutionary, a freedom fighter, a mujahadeen. He had visited the small shops for his meager needs – delighted to socialize and explore around the city. As a boy he had visited the city infrequently, consequently it had a hypnotic effect on him when he was finally able to live there. He had wandered to his hearts content, reading the bold signs printed in flowery Arabic.
His time then had been spent between the mosques and the teahouses. The French were long gone – or at least nominally. But revolution – a remaining European transplant – had still been in the air, intoxicating to the young men with so little future ahead of them. It had been an optimistic time – for doesn’t the future always belong to the young? Yet, like so many youths before them, dreams had hardened into reality. The illusions they had chased were replaced with many different paths, each unique to the individual who followed it. Death had been the end result for too many.
Though he hadn’t been back for years Khalil knew that Algiers would never be the same. Too many people had vanished. Allah, be praised. The winds which blew desert sand everywhere also blew with the rustling sound of aimless souls. The country needed its God – not much else was left.
Of course, Khalil hadn’t grown up in Algiers proper but in a suburb – a poor Kasbah, full of cheap apartment building, even simple huts. Another world. Where Algiers was cosmopolitan and even somewhat sophisticated, Kheis el Khechna was where Khalil felt the more primal side of Algeria. It was hot, with little air flowing through it’s overcrowded buildings. The desert, which formed so much of the country itself, had begun to seep in slowly, like the scorpions that hid quietly in dark corners. Poverty lead to a sense of desperation. The Frenchification of the country was less pervasive here and indeed had only occurred in its most outward manifestations. Some women had rebelliously thrown off their hijab, dressing instead like provincial Frenchwomen. But the calls to prayer came five times a day, ringing through each window, whether open or closed.
And, indeed, Khalil reminded himself, even Algiers itself didn’t always live up to its geography. It was part of the fertile, vibrant strip of Algeria that bordered water. The rest of the country was desert. But, like all large African cities it had its slums, full of filth, smells and suffering. This jail cell was a palace in comparison. Extended families in Algeria lived in much less.
Still, Algiers remained a blessed place in Khalil’s mind. He would always associate the city with the dreams of his youth, before they had turned to sand.
Yet, his fight continued. The ummah, community of Muslims, would rule again. Blessed Allah, don’t let them figure out who I really am, he prayed silently to himself.
He cursed himself again for getting caught. A fluke, a stupid fluke.
His mind drifted again, the tension in his body now searching for an outlet, trying to escape that trapped feeling, one he hadn’t felt for a long time before his capture. The bed springs creaked as he shifted his weight.
His father, the swine. Swine – a word used for westerners. He and his brother had chosen this word for their father. It was the only one that was harsh enough – other than godless, which was another word they used often. After all, his father, Ali had chosen the path set forth by the French and had betrayed his family, his sons. Working for himself. Leaving his family for a new woman and a new family. Never attending mosque. Adopting western dress.
Khalil remembered the man as he sat in his favorite teashop. Ali was never physically imposing. He was actually quite small and weak. Khalil had learned young that looks were so often deceiving – a lesson that had served him well as both a soldier and as a leader. The swine was a bully. He always needed to find someone weaker to make him feel like the man he could never be. Ali threw his body into the frequent beatings he had directed at his wife and children until his two boys had mutually agreed to stop him – physically. Violence begat violence. Ali – a noble sounding name. The swine didn’t have a noble quality about him. To this day Khalil could only picture him with his thin lips drawn up in an angry expression, opening to let ugly words spew out in his nasal voice.
“You want to do as you wish? Let me show you the reward of a child who does not properly respect his father.”
Respect. Ali’s eyes were like those of a dead man – they shone without light because the man had neither values nor interests. His only entertainment was drinking tea with his few equally contemptible friends in teahouses and beating the weak. He had left Allah and the righteous path. He would be judged when his time came.
Shortly after the 1990 elections, Khalil had visited his father – back then he had respected tradition and had upheld the image of a good son. Back then he still visited his father – he was only 24 at the time – not yet the man he would become.
“You lost, as I said you will always lose.” His father had said, sitting amidst his circle of friends. “Why must I have a loser for a son? This country doesn’t want to go back to its past, back to the Allah you so love. Praise be to the army for stopping the crazy lunatics, especially the crazy lunatic that is my son.” His father had spit on the ground, and turned his back on Khalil.
Khalil had felt the burning sun upon him – as real as any emotion. His world stopped moving, if only for instant. He could feel each muscle in his body tighten. And he knew what course he would follow. Humiliation, from his own father. He was being humiliated as the French had humiliated Algeria herself so long ago. Yet, the people’s hearts had spoken. First they had fought and broken the colonial yoke tight around their neck. Now they had voted for a return to religion and tradition. Ali’s world was dead.
“You will die one day old man.” Khalil said. “If I don’t kill you first myself.”
Khalil had walked away from that teahouse, never to return. As he left the laughter of his father’s friends drifted to him. “Your son doesn’t respect you?” “What sort of a man can you be to have such a disrespectful son?”
Men who loved only themselves and their own self-interest. Selfish man. For so long Khalil had bitten back the words that threatened to escape his lips. But now he was a mujahadeen. He had fought in Afghanistan. He had held the lives of men in his own hands. And he was serving Allah. He was a man now – he did not need to respect someone who mocked what should be held dear.
It was her – Stacey. The object of his desire. Today he would make another move. Omar had ignored her for two weeks – totally and absolutely. A beautiful girl like that had to wonder how she could turn so unimportant after their eyes had locked together for an immortal second. Had she imagined it? Had Omar not found her attractive? Thankfully, she hadn’t come up to him. How he hated aggressive women. If he wanted a man in bed, he would find one. Omar preferred the softness of a woman yielding, fighting pleasure as her body overwhelmed her with lust. Such a sweet victory: watching a woman drop her inhibitions and give in to complete and overwhelming desire. The passion was always there; most men just didn’t know how to find it. Omar had learned to make them wait an eternity for that orgasm. Letting tension build until they believed they would die if they didn’t have it.
He stared at her. His eyes didn’t waiver as they bored into her head.
“So, if we mix these two elements.…” The teacher’s monotone voice echoed against the walls of the cavernous classroom. He droned on. Omar ignored him. He had already read the chapter. With his brilliance, ignoring a lecture or two wouldn’t harm his grade a bit.
To be fair, the teacher was usually quite riveting. Chemistry was fascinating; Omar would use it change the world. Mixing a few elements together, indeed. But chemistry of that sort wasn’t his main objective right now.
A flash. Orange. And two eyes, staring back. His gaze was long and deep. Surprised – why was she being studied so intently? Or, so she must be asking.
Omar gazed at her. Again, not a hint of a smile. Just a deep gaze, penetrating but not threatening. His earlier reticence would prevent the label of obsessive stalker. No, he just stared deeply into two roundly perfect eyes, fringed with brown lashes. So beautiful.
She flushed, her milky skin suddenly hued a soft pink. American women so rarely saw pure sexual desire. Too often men were focused on being respectful or they projected simple animal lust. The key was to really want the woman in question, not just sex. And, let her know – blatantly. Why fear true desire?
But American women typically couldn’t handle it. They ran away at first. Being genuinely noticed after having been ignored for too long was frightening, a worldview he could appreciate. But the women always came back. Who can resist being worshiped?
This time Omar let himself smile – to Stacey’s back. His plan was moving forward beautifully. He could almost feel the pressure of her body.
The morning was cold. An out-of-season cold. A soft frost had settled on the expansive grass lawn like the most delicate carpeting. As George backed his car out of his garage he saw his breath each time he exhaled. His coat barely sheltered him from the cold and he impatiently willed the car to heat up.
Another interrogation. Inwardly he felt a groan rising.
His body sensed the presence of Stanford University, only a few familiar miles away. His beloved classroom was filled by a visiting professor that he would have to pry out of his semi-vacant spot (George had been gone way too long) and physically force back to the much colder eastern university he had so willingly abandoned. Life could really be a bitch. Tenure meant a lot, and there were always those professors who were just waiting for an opportunity to steal one of the few highly desired slots at a top university.
The car entered the freeway as if by its own volition. George tried to make the drive last – even though he knew logically how counterproductive procrastination was. Suddenly the jail, the ungainly and imposing and just plain horrible building rose up before him. His routine followed its normal course and before he knew it George was seated across from his prisoner in the increasingly grotesque cell.
“So how was your night? George asked. The grim dance would continue.
“Fine. No, not so fine.” Khalil replied. “Why did you remind me of my father – the swine?” The man stared at him, into his eyes. Unusual for a detainee. Usually they wanted to avoid looking at you, especially if they had information. And George remained confident that this man did indeed have information. Perhaps it was only instincts which propelled his certainty, but they had worked well for him in the past.
“It is important for me to get a good understanding of you.” George said. A hard question to answer so best to be somewhat honest but brief. That way the prisoner, Khalil, would not get too much information but would trust that he was being dealt with honestly and humanely – a far cry from how he was likely treated earlier while in detention. Swiftly, George put all ideas of torture and humiliation out of his head.
“Why? What are you looking for? I have been questioned, and then questioned again. I have no information. I am guilty of nothing. I was walking down a street in London. I hadn’t been to London for a while, cursed place; I forgot the route I meant to take. Please, let me go. Or at least charge me with something and get me a lawyer. What your country is doing is illegal.” Khalil’s voice was not desperate. It was searching. Typical excitement oriented personality. Being confined was probably driving him crazy.
“Illegal is not a hard and fast rule. You are a terrorist, on a terrorist watch list.” George said.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Khalil replied. The man smiled slowly, seductively. Neither his mouth nor his eyes showed any warmth or joy. His tone was slightly patronizing, but it also exuded confidence and conviction. The effect was hypnotic. George watched, fascinated, as the words transformed a man who had looked normal and non-threatening into much more. This was how the man before him recruited people, talked them into dying. George let him talk, reminding himself that this man was more like a cobra than a religious leader.
“I have done nothing to harm your country. I have lived in your country, not far from here, when I was a young student in San Diego. Ah, those days… I learned about democracy, freedom, the right to life, surfing. The right to free and fair elections. All I ask is the same for my own people. They are downtrodden, so poor. If only you could see my country, feel the heart of the people. There tears sometimes providing the only water that feeds the soil.” Khalil waved his orange-robed arm, a now familiar gesture.
“Liberte, egalite, fraternite.” George spoke slowly, hesitant to break the mood. He was learning about this man and how he operated. But he couldn’t give Khalil too much power. And Khalil was slowly showing him that he was used to grabbing power by trying to take over the interrogation.
George thought of an old trick he had once played in an interrogation. He believed that the man he was questioning, an Iraqi, was educated and knew a lot more than he was admitting. Yet the man adamantly kept protesting that he was just a poor, uneducated farmer. George had brought some documents into the interrogation room and asked the man if he would quickly take a look. The man agreed, trying to be helpful as he generally pretended to be. He reached for the glasses in his pocket. Except he had no glasses – they had been confiscated. But his pretense was over – only a man used to reviewing documents would reach for his glasses when asked to do so – not a poor, barely literate farmer such as he claimed to be.
Likewise, George could already tell with Khalil that he could not give up some semblance of control over the situation. Khalil was used to leading.
“You mock me.” The man’s voice, barely a whisper, choked slightly. George couldn’t believe it. Khalil was willing to go with the drama of the mood. He was a cold-blooded killer, desensitized to death. He was part of an organization that hated all of what the west stood for. Yet he was willing to go with his bluff, after George’s disrespectful reference to the French revolution – seeking what? Compassion. Empathy. Recognition of his humanity.
George spoke softly, mirroring the man’s volume a moment ago. “I don’t mock you, Khalil. I just don’t believe you. Do you think we could get you extradited to the U.S. if your name was on a watch list only because of terrorist acts against Algeria, or even England? Why do you think you are here – your great love of this free and fair country”?
Khalil hesitated. So many directions to follow, George thought. Which one would he choose? The most obvious was to ask more about his extradition. He had no idea what evidence the U.S. government had but it must be concrete, right? Khalil must be driven to distraction not knowing what sort of bluffs to make. Based on Khalil’s direction today he was going to go all the way and admit nothing. George would fix that.
“Ah, definitions,” Khalil said. “A constantly changing thing. Your government kills a man, it is in pursuit of freedom. You kill a child and it doesn’t matter. Do you think a mother cries any less because of her skin color? A man such as myself, with dreams of freeing my country from military rule and a murderous government – I alas am but a terrorist, a brute. Your millions who live on an intellectual diet of television and celebrity magazines are my superiors. They who vote for your murderous and blasphemous government. Yet I read philosophy and the Koran. What a world you have created – so free and fair I can’t get either a lawyer or a judge. I sit here and wait.” The lilting voice continued. Melodramatic, as middle-easterners or north Africans, liked to be. A typical emotional appeal – the type that never worked on George. However, the voice did hold a certain melody as it richly emphasized each word, as foreign speakers so often do.
George’s mind wandered. Khalil wasn’t going to admit that he yearned to know how he ended up here – yet he must. George knew. He had intended to use it against Khalil, a way to slowly call his bluffs. By dribbling a little bit of information at a time he would give Khalil an opportunity to tell the truth or to lie. By telling the truth he would incriminate himself. But by lying, he would incriminate himself more – because George did have enough information to catch him in some of those lies.
But for the technique to be effective Khalil should have started the dialogue. George wanted to see real want in him. That would be a show of weakness. Spouting off about his philosophies and oppression were mildly boring and very predictable. Each terrorist he had met always ranted about the twentieth century utopian vision of a bastardized French revolution. How he wished the French had stayed out of Algeria – they didn’t know the canon they were setting off.
Besides, while the information he had was pretty good, he had very little of it. Khalil would have to supply the rest.
Khalil could see the man in front of him losing interest. Sure, his words were empty and predictable. Any half-wit Islamist could repeat the same rhetoric. Though they probably couldn’t match his conviction and the unique intonations he had added to his soliloquies. These words contained his cover story. He would stick with them. The revolutionary, the freedom fighter, the noble descendent of the American revolutionary forces. And wasn’t there some truth to it all? He did want a new vision for Algeria, indeed for the whole world – at the cost of blood when necessary. Islam would rule again and then he would be sitting on the other side of this absurd little table. Allah be praised.
So he stopped speaking. He had heard these words himself many times before. If the man in front of him wasn’t listening there was no point in continuing. And he waited. Watching. What would his adversary do now?
“How do you define a good man?” George asked. “You said your father is not a good man. You read philosophy. What have you concluded?” George’s face as he sat opposite Khalil was welcoming. Khalil laughed.
“This is a cocktail party, isn’t it? Let us enjoy a light conversation on the meaning of life. I wish I had crimes to confess so I could end this excruciating waste of my time.” Deflect, deflect, always deflect Khalil reminded himself. Did this stupid man want him to admit that he thought Osama Bin Laden was the ideal man? Did he really expect him to disclose the plot that was unfolding on American soil as the two of them sparred? Well, hopefully it was unfolding.
“Tell me about Jennifer.”
Khalil felt the world around him recede. He certainly hadn’t anticipated this move from George. It was as if he had been punched – hard – in the stomach. He struggled for his bearings but instead heard only a roaring in his head. The white noise was replaced by the name, repeated again, ‘Jennifer’.
Khalil heard a husky laugh ringing in his ears. It filled his head but was accompanied by no pictures. Strange how sometimes a person’s voice returns, yet you can’t remember what they look like.
Khalil’s old apartment unfolded in his thoughts. It had been a small, dingy place – not really much different from the cell he was living in now. Then he had been very poor – his education paid for by his brothers in the movement of which back then he was barely a part. The room always had a faint odor and the wallpaper had started to peel. It was a palace compared to the hut in which he had grown up. He adored it because it was his.
Jennifer was intimately tied up with his memories of this apartment. Even now he remembered the early dawn shadows that fell on her face as she slept next to him. He would wake up early then so he could stare at her – the milky skin, the smooth expanse of her firm body and the ever so light blonde hair which spread across his pillows.
Jennifer loved to play music for him. Her passion was reggae and he still knew every Bob Marley song by heart. Somehow the lesser-known reggae stars she favored never managed to catch his fancy. Still, every time he heard the familiar rolling beats, which wasn’t so often, his body would ache for her and the warm and alive feel of her in his arms. Bob Marley was global.
“I don’t want to wait in vain for your love….”
Slowly his surroundings began coming back – as they always would. He saw an older and all too familiar man sitting on the other side of his cracked table. George’s white shirt was too stark for the room.
Disorientation was replaced by anger. Why wasn’t this man asking about bombs? Why wasn’t he probing about fighting or Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq? Khalil had prepared answers for those questions. He had a story, backed by an ideology, reinforced by a goal. Yet George wasn’t playing by the rules. Why was he asking about Khalil’s father? Why was he asking about Jennifer?
He faced the man sitting before him and started to speak.
“Who is Jennifer?” Khalil didn’t budge, a pillar of bright orange.
George suppressed his smile. He had seen Khalil’s face when he initially asked the question. Panic. A repressed topic. No longer painful because it was so deeply hidden and completely sanitized. George knew what that meant. He so loved to find the weak spots. It made his job much easier. Of course he wouldn’t press the topic now. He would let it fester a while. The shock value in a hardened man like Khalil had already worn off. He would shut down the whole topic within his mind. But slowly it would burn. George would bring it up again, later.
“Your ex-fiancé.” Not that George wouldn’t play around a little bit first. He wanted it to really start stinging. A quick return to the files of the repressed wasn’t going to be good enough.
“I’ve never been engaged.” Khalil said.
“Really, not even in Algeria.” George replied. “Your overbearing father never tried to betroth you?” A double whammy – bring the father back in.
Khalil visibly winced. “No, that was only for my poor sisters.”
The pain. That was the part of the job George hated the most. He stared over Khalil’s hunched shoulder, willing himself to continue. Nothing like kicking a man when he was down. Far from home, not that many of these men even had a home anymore. No, repressive governments and oppressive poverty had robbed them of that. Oh, and of course the lure of rebellion, or jihad. Murder. Whichever.
But sometimes you had to break a man completely to get the information you wanted. Los Angeles, his only real clue.
George focused again on the man before him, weakened yes, but not even close to being broken. He forced himself to forget about compassion. His objective was too important.
“You love your sisters.” George said.
“Yes.” The response was simple, as dignity always is.
“Tell me what happened to them.” George continued probing.
“I don’t want to talk about my sisters.”
Khalil looked defiant. His eyes glowed, his body was tense. George always got exasperated when his interogees were defiant. Defiance was a child’s game. Petty rebellion. It was the sign of a low-level recruit. A smarter man would worry about survival, and most importantly, release. It was the impulsive and unwise who got defiant and rebelled.
“Why not?” George kept his tone measured. His disgust was masked, absolutely.
“Allah be praised, they are happily married and have been blessed with many children. There is nothing to discuss – they are women.”
Marvelous recovery, George thought to himself. Not fully believable, but okay.
“Jennifer is divorced now.” George said. “But you knew that didn’t you?” Hit him again, while he was still weak.
Khalil sat in his chair – not moving again. His shoulders were slightly hunched and looked small in his baggy jumpsuit.
George stood up.
“Good night, Khalil. I must leave now.”
Khalil nodded his head in acknowledgement. His eyes no longer went to his safe spot on the wall. Instead they stayed completely still, staring at George.
Omar’s stride was unhurried and confident. He had worked hard to perfect it. Cool, calm and in control. Life was a game, as he had learned from his teacher, Ms.. Haas, years ago. And the game must be won.
Stacey was heading his way, once again toward the classroom door. It was easy to run into her on the way into class – everyone was supposed to arrive by a specific time. Only the geeks and nerds, about half the class, got there more than five minutes early. Only the truly irresponsible, a rarity in a graduate level science class, got there late. So, the timing was easy to master. Class ran on a clock, and clicked with absolute predictability. Just like the bombs he was busily working on at home.
Today she was wearing a short skirt, denim with a fringed hem. She had paired it with cowboy boots and a thin white t-shirt. The outline of her breasts was clear in the sunlight. Who was she trying to impress? Or was she just a slut?
He moved with as little deliberation as he could muster, his movements smooth and rhythmic. So much practice.
He hadn’t known when he went to Switzerland how to walk like this. Of course, his years of swimming had probably left him with a certain grace. But he guessed that his movements then had combined that fluidity with youthful awkwardness. All of those hormones making finesse a true test of discipline. Or, so Ms. Hass had told him.
Ms. Haas, he never thought of her as Ana – her given name. Indeed, he never much thought of her anymore. She had been his teacher at the Swiss boarding school, a hellhole. Walking into his first class in the cold and miserable mountain town sheltering the small school, he had seen two blue eyes gazing at him. Blue eyes, could anything be more revolting? Her eyes had been watery and they had simmered. Back then he hadn’t understood what her look meant.
“Omar. Please sit in that desk, there.” The statement came out clearly, though her heavy Austrian accent should have distorted the words more.
Omar stumbled to the desk, dead center of the room. At that point he only felt awkward. The sexual tension would come later. At that instant the idea of being attracted to the woman would have seemed absurd. She was too wrong in every way: too old, too curvy, too garishly dressed, too made-up. Her blond hair had too much air in it and an artificial tint that lacked the sophisticated artistry of hair like Stacey’s. She just looked cheap, even to a hopelessly homesick and lost boy who had left Saudi Arabia for the first time.
She had been the teacher, he had become the master. From her he had learned that being too obvious only worked on the truly innocent – as he had been then, at fourteen. Only the most naïve are incapable of recognizing a threat.
Stacey wasn’t like that. He watched the slight swagger in her step. Her legs moved seamlessly as if she were making love while she walked across the broad, green lawn. This girl had been used repeatedly, as had most attractive American women in their early twenties.
They arrived at the classroom door together. He looked at her, feigning disinterest. Slowly, a naughty smile lit up her face; she had recognized him. Stacey probably expected him to talk to her, to show some interest. Hadn’t his eyes been fixed on her for the past few weeks? A trick picked up from Ms. Haas, then perfected. He stared through her. Much as he tried not to look, he also noticed her confusion. Her eyes were a soft brown, and hinted at just a touch of green. The green lawn behind her almost seemed to pull new colors out of the irises. And they were gentle, bordering on sweet. Her smile had turned vulnerable. That was exactly how she should feel. Totally confused. That is what mixed messages did – they made you doubt your own perceptions. She had to wonder why her admirer had lost interest. So let her wonder. Seduction was more interesting than chemistry any day.
“After you.” Omar gestured for her to pass. It was an obvious mimicry of their early interaction. A knowing look crossed her face before she passed in front of him. Let her wonder. He knew she would.
Karen. George dialed his cell phone again, trying her number. He listened for the familiar noises. Nothing. Dead, just dead. Was it the telephone? His phone or hers? How did that work exactly – if he placed a call and her phone was in an area without service? Did it just go to voicemail? Presumably. So it must be his phone that wasn’t working.
He keyed in the numbers one more time only to hear the annoying failed call signal. Then, he slowed to avoid hitting a truck. Did the truck driver think he would get somewhere faster by acting as if he owned the road? Such an attitude had to be unwise in a world where most other drivers were struggling with technology as they drove. Like George.
Well, the failed calls neatly summed up the current stage of their relationship. He didn’t seem to reach her a lot these days. In many ways. Except when they fought, as they had the night before. And, they both went to sleep mad. How many people actually followed that miserable advice about making up before bed anyway? What if you just continued the fight in bed?
Of course, he had been physically gone too much over the past few years – leaving her for the next round of interrogations in whatever God-awful place a voice on the telephone directed him to. How could he not chastise himself for that? And, he hadn’t wanted her to visit. Every single country had been dangerous. Moreover, he hadn’t wanted her to see the prison camps surrounded by barbed wire – there to keep people both in and out (that is, if he could even get clearance for her to visit). Why risk her life as well as his own?
But, in his own defense, he had tried hard to stay in touch. When there was access to telephone service he called her. When calling hadn’t been possible he had sent letters. Each letter had been a masterpiece in its own way. Of course, he hadn’t been able to tell her much of what he was doing – classified. And, he hadn’t always been able to tell her where he was – classified, as well. But he had told her what was going on inside his own head – the conflicts, fears, triumphs and failures. And he had always told her how much he loved her. But it was all just paper, no matter how much time he dedicated to writing on it.
It is hard to feel intimate when you don’t have access to a loved one. The telephone communicated thoughts at the instant you had them. But being with someone added a physical aspect to the dialogue – a heat that can’t be felt when alone.
So the space had crept into their relationship. She called him less often now than she did before he had left. She didn’t seem to need him much. Indeed, she could no longer find him on campus or meet him for lunch – had she even wanted to. George was no longer the presence he had been to his wife.
He pictured her face from the night before and reached for his phone again – to make one more attempt. Her hair had been pulled straight back off her face, leaving the smooth skin and delicate features fully exposed. At one point tears had dotted her eyes until she decided to call him insensitive and storm out of the room.
The call failure sound again. What was wrong with Silicon Valley? Why couldn’t you make a local call in the hub of the technology industry?
If she already thought he was insensitive, what would she think if she watched him mentally pummel Khalil all day?
Well, things had changed for him. Perhaps he was more guarded now, even at home. He felt a new somberness in his daily life. He was a soldier in a way. Scared. How do you tell the woman you love that most of the time you are just plain scared? Aren’t men supposed to be strong? George didn’t feel strong anymore. He had seen too much of the real world. More than anything he wanted his life to be the way that it had been before. Instead, pictures of twisted metal and body parts haunted him, replaying in a virtual loop inside his mind.
The cell phone was useless in his hands. The buttons worked, but the phone itself had decided not to. In about twenty minutes he would arrive home.
The morning officially began as it always did. Khalil’s first set of prayers was done by the time breakfast arrived at 7:00, brought by a nameless faceless guard. Was it the same man as yesterday? They all looked the same.
The food was uninspiring – a crescent-shaped pastry, cream cheese, an under-ripe banana, a bottle of water and a huge blueberry muffin. And coffee, always coffee. Khalil hated coffee and had requested an end to its inclusion in the meal. He was still waiting for it not to arrive. The distinctive smell contaminated his cell within seconds of arriving each morning. Luckily, bacon hadn’t been served. If it had, he would have been stuck with that smell for an indeterminate time period as well. Muslims don’t eat pork.
Like clockwork, the guards were always on time. Americans were very good at the functional parts of life. They just lacked passion. And soul. Hence the very mundane and tasteless food. During his imprisonment in Egypt the food had arrived haphazardly and sometimes not at all. But the Egyptians took jail very seriously and provided food meant to punish – rice with bugs, stale bread, and no luxuries such as meat.
After breakfast Khalil would be escorted to the showers, an armed guard behind him. He could see the cameras stationed in the hallways as he walked the familiar path. Most guards never spoke to him beyond the bare minimum of orders and the quick answer to a question. One guard, Joe, was very different. He loved to talk about his mountain bike rides and tell jokes. Khalil found him the most of annoying of a very bad bunch. They were all women, pansies. The only thing about any of them which carried any authority was the gun strapped around their waists.
The shower was always warm, but never hot. The jets would send cascades of water over his body. The steam was a welcome bit of variety – his sensual pleasures were so limited that even such a small thing could matter. Khalil’s senses were ailing – who could survive on so little stimulation? After the shower Khalil would be led back to his room, the tray always having disappeared in the interim.
The rest of the day would grind on in a similarly predictable and dull manner. It was a limited existence. It wore on Khalil like an open sore.
Five bombs. Omar had to make five bombs. He had enough time to make them; that wasn’t an issue. He had a supplier for the explosives and for the chemicals he needed to make sarin. Another non-issue. His expertise was beyond question thanks to five months spent training in Northern Pakistan. And Allah had blessed his mission.
So what was the problem?
Omar fingered a battery. He considered, very briefly, wrapping it delicately with the wire that he had sitting on the coffee table. Then, his mind wandered back to the hair, so thick and full of color. He was getting obsessed. Ah, but why not? Life got boring quickly. Going to class, working out, going to hear the imams speak. He had heard enough imams. It was time for action!
He felt his cock swelling up. How long would it take before he possessed that woman? He reminded himself as he always did when lust took control that the direct approach never worked, especially with the pretty ones. They would just look you in the eye, smile sweetly and say “No”.
Ms. Haas had never approached him directly. Omar could still picture the hair between her legs. Light brown and coarse. With the slightest hint of a curl. He had loved licking it and tasting her sweat. Even the memory of that slightly pungent smell had the power to arouse him almost to an orgasm, his whole body alive with sensation.
Nothing about sex with her had been natural, yet he had always believed otherwise when trapped so deeply in her web. She had created an illusion.
“Omar, please wait one minute after class. I need to speak with you. It won’t take but an instant.” Her look had been innocuous, almost not even a look at all. The class had snickered. But then hadn’t they always snickered when he was involved. To them, European aristocracy, otherwise known as Euro-trash, he was a rough Arab boy. Who cared if his father had money? Omar could feel the contempt. He had prayed that his cheeks wouldn’t burn, at least not visibly.
“Yes, ma’am.” More giggles. How was he supposed to say it?
As he had approached her desk he could feel the nervous energy in his body. The placid cow of a woman was looking at him intently, not hiding her interest.
“Omar, I am a bit concerned,” she said. Not worried, no. Why completely frighten an adolescent boy? Better to wound him mildly.
“Yes, ma’am.” Now she smiled too. Omar could feel himself turn red. He had waited, standing there before her like a sacrificial lamb.
“You seem to be having a rough time getting used to … well, I guess there is no delicate way of saying it….”
Omar could feel sweat breaking out on the back of his neck. He stared past her, avoiding the round, slightly reddish face and insipid eyes. Instead he stared at the map of Western Europe which she had left covering the chalkboard. Who knew Great Britain was so alone?
“…the ways of the school. We have a very sophisticated and cosmopolitan student body. A fast crowd if you will. Let me intercede to speed up your integration.”
He had been forced to look at her then. Her whole face shone with earnestness and concern. Quickly he nodded ascent. If only he could have escaped then.
Suddenly, her movements were brusque. She picked up a pen and wrote out something on a piece of paper in front of him. She handed it to him.
“Please, come to my apartment this evening. 7:00 P.M. Don’t be late. I will teach you about fitting in.” With that she had waived him away, suddenly impatient. He had walked out of the classroom. Could she really make him be less alone? Why couldn’t he just go home instead?
Stepping through the doorway George noted the boy sitting behind the desk. The same guard always seemed to get desk duty. He was so young it was probably better that he was kept away from the prisoners. He didn’t look tough enough to handle them. Not like Sean, with his linebacker shoulders and quick fists.
The boy’s nametag said Joe. GI Joe?
“Good morning, sir.” The tone of the greeting was brisk but the boy couldn’t carry it off. He was too soft. Though with that wandering, half-crossed eye he certainly must have toughened over the years. Kids could be mean and undoubtedly they had teased him mercilessly. Who knew what kinds of emotional scars had resulted. Men were shot for such slurs in some parts of the world. Probably not in this boy’s neighborhood.
“Where are you from, private?” George refocused on the boy, ignoring the eye. The soldier was all good will, with a touching innocence in his eyes, even the crossed one. The eyes were a deep, dark brown, like Khalil’s, but they couldn’t be any more different.
“San Diego, sir.” Khalil went to school in San Diego. That was long ago but the boy would have been alive at the time. Although maybe just barely.
“Detainee 182 went to college there. Did you know that?” George said.
“No, sir.” The boys eyes darted away, or at least his one good eye did.
George sat down on the corner of the desk. His back was half turned to the boy, but he was still able to gaze at his face. He tried not to stare as he studied the boy’s features, evaluating each angle and plane. How features settle into a person’s face reveal the underlying personality – always. Most people don’t really look at others. The boy was clean cut, but dark. His skin was that milky coffee color which George always found slightly off-putting – if only he could come up with another image. The soldier was probably of middle eastern descent – not that all middle easterners were fanatical Islamic militants nor were all terrorists, even Muslim ones, from a middle eastern background.
The nose lost definition in the bridge. The eyes were a mess. But the lips were surprisingly strong and firm, especially when contrasted by the round chin. Interesting.
George just wondered – could this boy be part of a terrorist cell? Could he have infiltrated the army? What could be a better posting for such a militant? Were George’s conspiracy theories going completely off the deep end? He really needed to give interrogation a rest for a while, didn’t he? How far away from a serious personality disorder was he at this point?
“Do you like it here?” George asked, persisting, and knowing full well that he was probably crossing over into a new realm of psychosis.
“It’s alright, sir.” The boy looked frightened, as if no one had ever spoken to him as he sat at the jail’s entryway.
“Please, no more ‘sir.’” George used his comforting voice, the one that soothed tearful patients and calmed overzealous students. “Tell me how you ended up here?” Do you like it?”
“It’s okay.” The boy hesitated, and George could almost hear his silent ‘sir’. The accent was flat – strictly Southern California. “When I volunteered I asked for something in intelligence and they sent me here. Not as exciting as I expected, I guess.” The boy managed a slight smile and George noticed how his eyes came alight. Probably just a nice kid. Or at least one with a sense of humor. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder. How could a kid like that – who clearly had had to defend himself from teasing – be so pure? The kid was off, and no, it wasn’t just his eye. George’s paranoia was a valuable tool – he just had to keep his thoughts private. And, his instincts matched – spot on too often. This picture didn’t work.
“You speak Arabic?”
“A little bit.” The boy studied him. It was a cool appraisal – disengaged. His eyes had taken on the look of a snake – all killer. The transformation had been shockingly quick – like that of a psychopath. Or, was George imagining things?
“I would have expected them to send you abroad. Use that Arabic.”
“Six months,” Joe said. “Well, that’s the promise. I was supposed to fill in on interrogations here as a translator first. But no one has needed me much. Seems like the shortage of Arabic speakers is all overseas.” The boy was still wary, but his eyes had softened. Smart move.
“You were born in San Diego?”
“No, Cairo. You sure ask a lot of questions, sir.” The boy attempted another smile but couldn’t complete it. He just couldn’t pull off the casual Southern California boy. Blame the eyes. The boy didn’t fit. He switched back and forth between naïve and hard. Like a chameleon.
“Yes. I do ask a lot of questions,” George said. “I am an interrogator, and you might be able to help me. You can talk to the prisoners in their own language, as you just said. You can befriend them. Do you ever leave this desk?”
“Every morning and evening, to help out. But I don’t think the prisoners would be interested in befriending me. I am a guard, sir.” The boy leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, using his body language to shut George out.
“I think they might.” George persisted. His job didn’t allow for quitting. “These men are lonely. They could use a friend. Especially a compatriot. Tell me, do you think of them as terrorists or as freedom fighters? Are they like George Washington fighting the tyranny of the colonizers or are they no good criminals. What do you think?”
“How like George Washington?” George noted that the boy didn’t look at all confused. He was bluffing. He knew exactly what George meant.
“The United States, as you know, was a colony of England,” George said. “We were repressed and overtaxed. Controlled by a government not of our making. Brave men stood up to the Brits. Some have compared the Islamists to the patriotic freedom fighters who freed our own country from tyranny. The men we call terrorists object to the control the United States has over their lands and governments. They think we steal the wealth that is their due – oil and whatever industry they have. We support their corrupt governments. What do you think?”
“Man, that is way to much for me,” Joe replied. “I joined the army because I didn’t want to go to college.” The boy looked bored. His bad eye seemed even less focused than it was before – if that was possible. Someone else who didn’t want to listen to George. You would think he would get used to it.
I’ll be watching you. George turned away from the boy. It was his job to be paranoid, to think of everything. Imagine if this G.I. helped Khalil – or any other prisoner – get away and George let it happen because he never bothered to pay attention. Just one more private – a pawn. But, if something didn’t fit you had to question your assumptions – and trust your instincts.
San Diego was also close to Los Angeles.
Omar had shown up promptly at 7:00, as instructed. Ms. Haas’ apartment had been in a respectable, if inexpensive, neighborhood. A world of grey. Now he knew the world was full of places like that – they disappeared into the scenery even as they were the scenery. He had walked up to the drab building and rung the bell. After diligently locating her name on the directory first. Wasn’t that what a respectful student should do?
In the lobby he had walked straight to the elevator. Marble floors, chipped here and there. Fear clung to him as he made his way to her apartment. This wasn’t done in Saudi Arabia. He heard the bell chime as he pushed the small button. How he wished time could move faster so he could make his escape.
The door opened. Ms. Haas was wearing some sort of dress. It seemed to be a kaleidoscope of colors, all of them blurring ultimately into one. He had been momentarily blinded. Even today that sensation of being totally overcome with confusion could strike out of nowhere.
“Please, do come in, Omar.” He had followed, obedient. A scent lingered behind her as she walked. He couldn’t decide if he liked it or not.
The apartment had been simply furnished. Flowers, from the sofa print to the curtains, had taken over. Brimming vases cluttered tables and even a bookshelf, adding an even more dizzying smell to his already reeling perceptions.
Ms. Haas had gestured to the sofa. She herself sat down gently, as if conscious of her every movement.
“Would you like something to drink?” She had smiled. Had he been so innocent then that he had believed she was sincere? That, at least, Omar could remember.
“No, no thank you.” Of course there had been a stammer in his voice. He had been but a boy, so far away from home. And alone.
“Oh, Omar, please feel at home here. I will help you. There is so much for you to learn. The children at the school are nice children. But, they’re just not used to you yet. Omar, you must learn to get along with them and don’t expect others to make the effort. Many of them have known each other for years.”
Omar could still remember her smiling again. That first evening she had smiled a lot. They had been seated on her floral garden of a couch. Her hand had reached out and squeezed his knee, a small green and gold ring poising momentarily above its target before striking. He jumped. Other than his family, no woman had ever before touched him. No smile had been on her lips then. Her face had been serious and her gaze direct. Now he would recognize it as lust. The actual seduction had happened quickly.
“You must learn how to handle girls. As friends. Do you have girls as friends in your country?”
“I told you to stop calling me ma’am, Omar.” The look had been strict – a parent scolding a child, a teacher instructing a pupil. “You are a very interesting boy, Omar. So handsome, and so young.”
The hand returned as she caressed his shoulder, the touch somehow both light and firm at the same time. He had only stared. Not sure what to say. Or do. She had been breathing slightly harder then, and a slight flush had illuminated her face. The smell of roses perfumed the air. Somehow her body made its way closer to him, and he could see the curve of her breasts stretching against the thin cotton of her dress. A blue dress covered with daisies. How could he remember such details even today?
Suddenly, her hand, firm and sure, was between his legs. From that point on he had been driven by hormones, his body unable to stop the torrent of control from between his legs. Her hand had probed, reaching inside his clothes.
Omar felt a glorious squeeze as she found his penis. A shiver ran up his spine.
Roughly she used her other hand to remove his pants and underwear. For a brief moment he felt her hand disappear as she removed her own clothes. Never had he wanted anything more than to have that hand back, grasping his cock. His wish was granted and she began to stoke him. She guided his hands to her breasts. He found himself cradling them, which somehow translated to a surge in his groin area.
His cock was fully engorged as she lowered herself moaning on top of it. He felt a warm engulfment as he entered her and his hips began to rock uncontrollably.
Ms. Haas was moving on top of him, her breath coming in great gasps. He remembered the great surge of tension that had exited his body. Then she lay prostate on top of him. Her sobs had moved him strangely; though he hadn’t been able to identify the precise emotion they stirred. Nothing excited him more to this day than to get that depth of emotion out of a woman during sex or after. That moment when all inhibitions have broken down. The wet, stickiness of bodily fluids mixing together.
The old woman shivered. Her hut was bitingly cold. She couldn’t afford enough wood to fight the harsh desert night.
Tenderly, she lifted her glass of tea to her lips – all anticipation. The hot liquid warmed her body, comforting in its acrid bitterness, the sweetness reminiscent of her favored candy as a child – so rarely tasted and savored. Setting down the clear, small glass she pulled her blanket around her. The flickering light from her candle lent an odd intimacy.
A brusque knock on the door surprised her. Company, especially at night, was rare. Slowly hauling her body to the door she opened it. No fear was left in her with respect to who could be on the other side.
“Leila,” a voice whispered softly, Ama, her neighbor and a dear friend. “Sorry to bother you so late. My husband had a visitor. He heard that the Americans have captured Khalil. My apologies to you for the news, but I had to pass it on. Praise be to Allah.” With that Ama turned, pulling her shawl tightly against her to ward off the wind. She disappeared quickly into the night, no doubt fearing her husband would notice her absence.
Leila closed the door, almost not feeling her movement. A new wave of grief and terror overwhelmed her. Her body knew the emotions well.
She was alone, no one to comfort her. Long ago, her husband had abandoned her for a newer and younger wife. While she didn’t miss his harsh blows and even harsher words she did miss the dinars he had provided. Luckily Khalil had been a loyal son and had sent her what he could over the years.
Khalil, her younger son. His brother long dead. She remembered all of her children, as she often did. How she had cradled their small bodies while nursing them as babies. Their small faces had changed expressions, first staring at her with curiosity, then adoration. When they started walking their eyes had always returned to her for assurance and comfort, especially when they fell or tried something particularly daring.
But the looks had changed over the years. Her three daughters had been sold to her husband’s favored suitors as soon as they turned seventeen. She remembered her middle daughter, Fatma, as she had clung to her mother’s skirts crying, hysterical, begging to be saved from the old man she was being forced to marry. Fatma’s gentle eyes, though red and tear soaked, had been all Leila could see of her through her hijab. But Leila had let Fatma down, as she had let them all down. As her mother had let her down.
Hassan, her older boy, who had loved life and never stopped laughing. A deep throaty laugh that always brought a smile to her face. She remembered his lifeless body as she cradled it in her arms until all of its warmth was gone. The body had slowly stiffened, becoming more like a statue than a person. She hadn’t let go until the next day, again helpless as another of her children was ripped from her arms. This one had to be buried within twenty-four hours of death, as was Allah’s will. The tears had rolled down her face as dirt hit his coffin with a thud.
Now Khalil was a prisoner. Who knew what they would do to him. Would they torture him? Was he in pain now, as she lay helpless in this miserable hut? Khalil who had adored her the most of her children when he was small. The sound of her voice had always made him stop whatever he was doing, his eyes focused on pinpointing her location, and, when old enough, running to her. That precious and familiar little body which she could still remember cradling. The gentle caresses, whispered endearments and soft kisses. Had they all been in vain? She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen his face. If he came back to Algeria, he would be killed.
Leila lay down on the pile of blankets that made up her bed. She slowly pulled another blanket over her. Deep sobs shook her frail body. She didn’t pray to Allah. She had no prayers left for him. Her husband had rejected her. She hadn’t pleased him. Therefore her destiny was sealed – Leila would rot in hell, a sentence she had already started serving.
Khalil felt himself slowly waking. He saw the soft pink light of dawn, mingled with perhaps a bit of purple. The hue was hazy as he began to open his eyes. His dream lingered, warmth permeating his consciousness. Slowly focusing he saw the familiar jail cell and closed his eyes once again, falling back into the comforting memory of his dream.
He had been lying in his mother’s arms. Her body, fleshy and full, had held him gently. He could feel her tender hands caress his small back, for he was still a boy in the dream. It was a familiar scene, replayed many times during his childhood. His mother had been the one to comfort him after his father’s beatings. Only in her arms had Khalil been able to release his pain, the hurt and the betrayal caused by his father’s brutality. Only there could he cry, listening to her lilting voice as she soothed him. With his mother he had felt safe, though even then she hadn’t been able to protect him from the world.
Yet his mother had been a pillar in his early life. He loved her still.
During his first battle he had not cried, though he had wanted to. Years of resisting weakness, not rewarding his father with tears, the swine, had paid off then. Those years had hardened something within him. However, he had never been able to discuss that battle with his mother. When he tried, he could feel the tears crushing up inside him. But he had no longer been a child then.
Khalil visualized his mother’s broad face in which her soft eyes were the highlight. The warmth of his dream was beginning to wear off, and he could feel a harsh blanket against his skin. The cover it provided couldn’t approximate the warmth of his mother’s body. He tried picturing her again, treasuring the image and trying to return to the dream. Of course, in reality only her face and hands could ever be seen; the rest was always covered. Still, he savored his memories of her full lips, her warn hands and the richness of her laugh. He could never go back.
Khalil’s father was so different. He had the thin lips and harsh voice of the villain from a Hollywood movie. Almost a caricature of one. Character was reflected in a person’s face, wasn’t it?
“What does my own face look like now?” speaking only to the bare walls around him. Was it blank, devoid of all feeling or emotion? Was that why he didn’t care about death? Perhaps he didn’t care about death because he was no longer among the living. Early on he had believed in martyrdom. Now he didn’t believe in anything other than winning. His lifestyle allowed for little else. Had he gone from extremism to nihilism?
And he had disappointed his mother. He could have stayed at home, gotten a job, had children. Protected her. But he had chosen instead to step into his dead brother’s shoes.
The warmth. Khalil missed his mother’s warmth. He felt it so rarely now. The only other place he had found that sort of warmth, and that feeling of belonging, had been with Jennifer. But, as with his mother, he had told Jennifer little, and had left her with even less. But he wasn’t going to think about Jennifer, was he?
Khalil heard the leaden footsteps which signaled the imminent arrival of Sean, the sadistic brute. Sean was destined to be a prison guard, adding to the misery of many a prisoner’s experience, including Khalil’s own. One day Khalil would crush Sean’s skull between his hands. It was only a matter of time.
The wind whistled outside the jail. Khalil could almost hear a woman crying.
The letdown, when it came, happened quickly. It was absolute.
Snow had fallen. The world had seemingly gone from green to white overnight. When he had seen the first snowflakes Omar had grabbed at them greedily, marveling at their fragility. Their intricacy was so unlike the heavier desert sands of his home. Yet how completely they covered the landscape and transformed it into a new world.
The novelty had faded fast. What one day had the softness of frosting on a cake turned into a new burden forced by his father. The winter was cold – crushingly, overwhelmingly cold. Omar had never been so frozen in his life and the chill refused to lift. He begged his father to bring him home. The telephone line had echoed with the emptiness of his pleas.
“You’re being educated. You should thank Allah one thousand times for this opportunity,” his father said. I never expected that I could afford a school like this for you.”
It could have been any parent speaking to any child. Yet it was he, Omar. Stuck alone in a frigid and hostile place.
Ms. Haas had tutored him in the ways of the west. She had spent hours explaining what normal teenagers were like and how they should behave.
“Just try, Omar. They’re spoiled, but they are not bad kids.”
But they were bad kids, and Omar couldn’t fit in.
“They all take drugs,” he had argued. “They drink and say things that are not respectful.”
“Teenagers do that. More so at boarding school, where their parents can’t watch them. But they don’t all do that – not even here.” Ms. Haas was lying naked on her bed. Her flesh was a pale and pasty color. Omar’s slimmer and darker limbs were wrapped up tightly with hers as he sought a way to fight the cold. The profusion of flowers that surrounded them – the bed sheets, the curtains, the full vases – seemed oddly out of place, given the season. She seemed lost without her elaborate garden-like cocoon.
“They mock me. They hate me.” Omar said.
“Get over yourself. They barely notice you. You don’t try.”
He stared at her. “I’m trying,” he said. What did this whore really know? All she knew how to use was her body. And the best man she could get was a mere homesick boy. Could there be a worse place than a boarding school in a small Swiss town?
“No, you aren’t.” She dismissed his concern coldly.
“Shut up, you cunt.” He slapped her; his palm rang hollow as it hit her face. The red rose from under the paleness of her cheek. Omar braced himself. He expected her to yell or somehow fight him.
Slowly, Ms. Haas began to move, getting closer as she did so. Omar pulled back from her. Immediately, he felt ashamed of his own cowardice. She caressed his inner thighs. He was too shocked to feel anything. What was wrong with her?
“Hit me, Omar. Hit me again. Hard, very hard. Just not my face.” Her lips turned up in a grin. “See, you have learned something – you have learned to swear – which turns me on.” Her breathing was heavy and the redness from his palm was no longer visible in the flush of her whole face. Her tongue stuck out ever so slightly. She looked grotesque.
Ms. Haas’ hands probed his body, but they no longer felt sensual, not even to a fourteen-year-old boy brimming with hormones. She was grasping everywhere, her palms turning sweaty, leaving a wet trail like that of a snail.
For the first time since she had seduced him, Omar felt violated. He couldn’t escape those hands and the flesh that swelled up behind them. Had he ever consented to this? Still, the fingers kept probing, pressing into his body’s crevices. They crawled across his flesh seemingly not noticing that they were passing across a human being.
“Omar, I said hit me.” The voice was a command. No, more a demand, uttered from the lips of one who told him what to do daily. She was his only companion. He could not refuse her. So, he hit her. Hard. His open palm slammed against her hip. He heard her yelp. Was it with pleasure or with pain?
“Again.” He hit her once more, this time his hand crashed into her thigh. She leapt onto him. Her wet mouth was crushing his, her tongue probing everywhere. She straddled him yet he couldn’t respond. The horror was too great. This woman was really raping him. And was he really alone with just her in this God-forsaken country? What sort of debauched world had he entered, courtesy of his father?
He pushed her off and looked at her, breathing hard against her flowery sheet. Her eyes glowered.
“Get out. Now!” Ms. Haas shrieked at him, quivering.
Omar almost tripped as he struggled out of the bed. A sheet had somehow wrapped itself around one of his legs. The bright colors and elaborate pattern made it harder for him to discern where one part began and another ended. He struggled, feeling her glare.
From then on, she taunted him more than the other students did.
“So, do you saw off people’s heads? George kept his voice cheery. He was going to start the conversation today. And he was going to control it.
Khalil smiled, looking cool and slightly superior. His thin shoulders were visible under the shocking orange cotton coveralls. He looked slightly emaciated, as most revolutionaries manage to do.
“No. That was Abu Musab al’ Zarquiwi, a Jordanian,” he said. “Dead now. I am an Algerian. In Algeria we prefer the ‘Kabyle smile’.” He stared at George, clearly watching for the effect of his words. George reflected nothing, only returning the stare. “We slit their throats.” Khalil said, as if an afterthought.
“Do you rape?”
“Not personally. I would not do that in front of my men.”
George watched Khalil’s face, a slight twitch in the left eye. Khalil shouldn’t have said ‘my men’, and George had realized his mistake. Khalil continued on, pretending that he hadn’t slipped.
“Others rape. Sexual defilement prevents entry to paradise. It is a very effective tool in jihad.”
George rolled his eyes, choosing an obvious gesture to make a point. The boast of a waste of time – he had heard it all before. Khalil shook his head, acknowledging George’s gesture.
“You want pretty pictures of war?” Khalil asked. “You must be kidding. My country has been at war for decades. Against the imperialist French. Civil war. Car bombings, massacres, torture. The government itself is now the biggest murderer of all.
“Do you know what the police do if they capture someone like me?” Khalil continued. He was animated, and he’d picked up his recruiter persona, with its smooth voice and deep conviction. “Chalumeau. A blowtorch is used to burn off a man’s skin. Gegene, an electroshock to a man’s genitals. The chiffon, a man is tied up and his mouth stuffed with a cloth and then dirty water mixed with detergents or chemicals. Beatings, hand drills and mock executions.”
George began to get annoyed. More repetitive crap. Still, George had to admit, if only to himself, that he didn’t like to face the reality of it. He crossed one knee over the other. No other defenses in the squat cell.
“I know what your country and countrymen have suffered,” George said. The conversation was veering too far off course. “That doesn’t justify attacks on America. We haven’t done anything to you.” Weak retort.
Khalil smiled. “Ah, but you have.” His voice was soft, almost seductive. “But I have done nothing against your country. Indeed, it is America that has harmed me by holding me captive.” The voice was harsh now, strong in its direction. George looked directly at the slight man. His neatly trimmed beard, which he had grown over the last week, made him look more sinister.
“Look, I couldn’t keep you here if you hadn’t been tied to a U.S. related terrorist act, could I?” His voice mirrored as best he could Khalil’s more strident and confident tone. And George did have a link. A recent detainee, Mohammed Doha, had been plotting a car bomb in San Diego. He had recently been captured and identified Khalil as having trained him in Pakistan a year before. But Khalil didn’t know that Doha had been caught. Or did he?
“Have you heard of the Geneva Convention? Have you heard of lawyers? Of being charged with a crime and not held indefinitely? Have you heard of sleep deprivations, threats of a return to Algeria, electric shots and a few kicks here and there? What about being stripped naked and forced to crouch for hours on end? That is the great United States.” Khalil opened his hands.
“I don’t care what happened to you before you got here,” George said. He felt the spittle leave his mouth as he began speaking too fast. Tough shit. He was staying in control today. And for this discussion that meant hardass, though he usually didn’t like that style. Khalil enjoyed pushing people around. That much had become obvious. And George wasn’t going to allow it. He may not have grown up in a war zone but there were other ways of being tough than behind the barrel of a gun. He continued, his tone severe. It was the tone he had used when his son, then fifteen, had come home late and drunk.
“I didn’t cause any of this mess. Sure I vote. So what. We are all doing the best we can and that includes me. I haven’t laid a hand on you and if I see anyone do so I personally will get them court martialed.
“The choice is yours Khalil.” George continued. “We can debate all day. We can discuss each and every tragedy. Or, you can cooperate. Give me information, and perhaps you can set yourself free. We have enough information to convict you. And we will. Or, you can help, and get yourself a deal.”
Khalil shrugged his shoulders. “What else do you want to know about my father?” Wily bastard, George thought. He will continue playing games, no matter how often I exert control.
“I don’t want to talk about your father. I got enough about your father.” George made a squiggly doodle on his notepad while Khalil waited. What a game.
They just sat. It was a simple technique, but remarkably potent. He who speaks first looses. The instigator eventually had to give up if he wanted to restart the interrogation. Although, sometimes he didn’t. Khalil had used that tactic before. Sitting, sometimes days on end, staring at the face of a man you didn’t trust. It was unnerving.
Well, he had nothing to say. George could carry the burden. Khalil breathed deeply and closed his eyes. That was an effective counter tactic – remove yourself, any way you could. The removal would be more complete if he could utter his prayers. But that would be speaking.
“The itsy, bitsy spider climbed up the garden spout.” George was singing. It sounded like a children’s song. Khalil didn’t know what he should do – open his eyes, keep them closed? The man was ridiculous. And so Khalil started to laugh. This wasn’t a serious interrogation was it? They were just playing with him.
He opened his eyes and saw George smiling. He had pulled a magazine out of his ever-present briefcase. The Economist. Had Khalil any idea of the date he would have checked to see if it was a current issue. He gazed in bewilderment at George, who seemed to be enjoying himself. Totally out of place behavior in a decrepit jail cell.
“I thought you might like to catch up on some news. No, I won’t tell you how current it is.”
He stacked two Twix bars, more cigarettes and a collection of poems. Great. Khalil hated poetry. Who had the patience to read words that had been pretentiously strung together in an attempt to create a meaning? At least the rest was welcome.
George couldn’t really believe that presents would soften him up, could he? Nothing could be more ridiculous. He was fighting to the death. Khalil would welcome death. What did this world hold for him but pain?
Until then, he would try to stay strong. Nothing would break him. Not ever. And the chocolate would help soothe him a little.
If only he could figure out George’s game.
Props. Distractions. Interrogation wasn’t all that different from dealing with toddlers – something George could only vaguely remember since his kids were now in college. Any time a toddler misbehaved you just redirected their attention elsewhere. Indeed, interrogation wasn’t all that different from therapy. Most people never grew up. And the ones that did, never grew up completely. Hence therapy’s never ending discussion of events that happened during childhood. Well, perhaps he was oversimplifying. Perhaps.
To be fair to Khalil, these prisoners were reduced to mental children. Totally out of control and dependent. No escape. No one to bond with other than their captors. Like an abused child, they had no source of comfort other than their abuser – the jailor. George would be a fool not to capitalize on it. Hence, he had brought presents. Then, after Santa’s gifts were handed out the conversation would resume.
Even humor – these men were dying to laugh. Tough freedom fighters and all, they were still just men.
“Tell me about the scar on your wrist.” George said.
Khalil’s eyes were on the Twix. He hesitated for a moment before deciding to take it. He unwrapped the candy and took a bite. His eyes were fixed on George and had an intentness that would be funny in any other context. But not this one. He seemed to be willing George away from his candy, as if silently commanding him, while also begging him not to take it away. God, we reduce them to so little, don’t we? George permitted himself to think before redirecting his attention back to the interrogation, not the person being interrogated. Pitiful.
Khalil started to speak, his mouth still containing candy. The bar’s remains were clasped in his fist. “I was in Amsterdam.” He smiled wryly. George could see dark stains on his teeth from chocolate. The delicate smell had already perfumed the cell – it was so small. “I was late at a prayer meeting.”
“Read terrorist planning session.” George smiled, trying to keep the mood light. No need for another standoff today.
“Whatever you want to believe is up to you. Anyway, I was at a prayer session late. I was walking back to my hotel. It was very close. Two guys jumped me. They had knives. The story is a familiar one. Demands for cash. Racist statements. Threats to kill me.”
He paused, taking another bite of the Twix.
“So, what happened? Why did they cut you?”
“They surprised me. I hadn’t liked the look of them as they were walking toward me, but I hadn’t expected them to jump me. As I knocked one down, the other got in a jab with his knife.”
“How did you get away?” George was startled thus far by the answer. The great warrior scared by a few thugs.
“I killed them.”
“Yes, yes, of course. That would be a way to solve the problem.” George tried to keep sarcasm out of his voice. It was one of his defenses, and one that he couldn’t fully control – unfortunately. He just could never treat murder, even in self-defense, so naturally. As if it just happened. Then again, it didn’t just happen in his world. But it did in Khalil’s.
“It worked.” The voice had an undertone of danger in it.
“So, what did you think of Amsterdam?”
Khalil stared at him hard. Then he took another bite of candy. Once again the smile flashed across his face. “When will you let me out of here?”
“When will you give me good information?” George asked.
“Could you recognize it if you heard it?” Khalil replied.
George thought for a minute. He stared into the still eyes before him. They were thoughtful, yet betrayed little else from the depths of their darkness. It was an interesting question, and one he had never considered.
“Some things are senseless.” Khalil waited for George’s response.
“That is useful information.” The sarcasm again. “Much of life is senseless, Khalil. Certainly you have realized that by now.” George looked suddenly older, but not more mature. His shoulders had deflated a bit. Khalil wasn’t sure what to make of this unexpected response. He would wait as George continued.
“All the death and destruction you have seen. All of that which you created. What did any of it achieve?”
“America pulled troops out of Saudi Arabia. The Soviets, a great power, were defeated by the backward Afghanis. Spain pulled out of Iraq. A lot of good things have come out of the jihad, George. You are just too corrupted to see them.” Or, perhaps it was just a lack of visibility. Night was falling and the cell’s fluorescent lights hadn’t come on yet. Something about conserving energy by turning the lights off for four hours each afternoon.
“So you support Al Qaeda?” The eyes staring at him were dead but Khalil could see the trap already. They would battle on, George pointing out the inconsistencies in what he said.
And Khalil was tired. He wanted to be left alone. Perhaps he wanted to nap or just stare at the ceiling. But he had no autonomy whatsoever, did he?
“So you support Al Qaeda and what they do?” George persisted.
“Sure I do. That doesn’t make me Al Qaeda? Most of the Islamic world supports what Al Qaeda does.” Khalil said.
“That point is debatable. Give me some names. Then I will leave. George said, still pushing.
So, the best defense is a good offense. Okay.
“The idea of evil – you paint me as such.” Khalil said. “Isn’t that always the best way to dehumanize someone, to dehumanize a whole group of someones? Just classify us as evil and ignore that some of what we say is true? How many dead children have you seen personally?”
Always the children. Khalil kept bringing them up. And, truth be told, the image worked on George everytime. It upset him and threw him off ever so slightly – which was the best advantage Khalil could hope for, wasn’t it? George was annoyed with himself for so consistently falling for such a cheap trick.
“I didn’t use the word evil. I would like to get away from using such words.” George’s voice was measured. His tone was the same reassuring one he used with his psychology patients when they uttered those words, the tone he used to steer them in a new direction. Psychologists all knew – extremes never amounted to anything constructive. Did he think Khalil was evil? No, he mustn’t think that way – to even ask. He needed information, not to condemn Khalil for his lack of humanity. George continued. “We both used ‘senseless’. The tragedy of the World Trade Center was senseless. What good came out of it? I want you to help me prevent more bloodshed, Khalil. Increasingly, I believe that you can.”
George’s own ploy wasn’t much better than Khalil’s. But it was an old interrogation technique. Appeal to their better side, rewarding them heavily for it. Admiration, flattery, all of that would soon follow. Hopefully Khalil would take the bait.
“Yes, the World Trade Center. I wondered when you would bring that up.” Khalil said.
George didn’t like Khalil’s tone. It was too something. Reflective, controlled, restrained?
“Well, your group is now part of Al Qaeda.” George waited. He knew Khalil would hit him with something soon – it was hanging over him in the dollhouse-sized room – almost crushing him. Luckily, it wouldn’t be about dead children. Khalil only pulled that once each session.
“Such organizations only very loosely exist.” Khalil sounded dismissive. With his next words his voice softened. His cobra tone, as George now called it, hypnotically lulling people gently into his lair. “I saw pictures of the World Trade Center after the strike. You know what it reminded me of?”
The pause was dramatic, for effect. Here it comes, George told himself.
“Kabul. Have you been to Afghanistan, George? The twisted metal, the debris, laying so thick no man could ever walk through it. Buildings flattened. What had once housed families now serving as tombs. The stench of rotting flesh. Twisted limbs lying useless on the grounds. The smoke of dying fires. The eerie silence that settles when no life exists to break it. Rubble, and more rubble – and all of it dusted with ash. The edges of everything blurred so that the landscape no longer looks as if it belongs in this world. And it doesn’t, it is a playground for ghosts. Ghosts and small children who have nowhere else to play.
“The pictures of the World Trade Center reminded me of Kabul as it is today.” Khalil continued. “It is no longer the beautiful and graceful city I saw years ago. Nothing much is left. A wasteland.
Khalil paused, bright in his orange. Then he began his diatribe anew. His body swayed with his words, a gesture more artificial than hypnotic. George tried to listen. Another monologue from a self-righteous extremist.
“And, George, what if Bin Laden is right?” Khalil babbled on. “What if it’s just his means you don’t like? What if the Muslim holy land shouldn’t be under American troops? What if our children shouldn’t be used as cannon fodder? What if Afghanistan deserves better than to be annihilated because it is strategically located next to Russia, your Cold War enemy? Why should America be allowed to send its corruption around the world? Historically, Arabs have settled things through the use of blood feuds. We had no other means of justice. We still have no other means of ensuring fairness. Bin Laden’s army can’t match you weapon wise. But they can defeat you with strategy, conviction and the blessing of Allah’s will. What is wrong with fighting for equal rights for the billions of Muslims in the world? Maybe you Americans just can’t accept the truth.” Khalil was shaking as he spoke. Was the emotion real?
“Are you done?” George used the coldest tone he could muster. “What if, indeed. Bin Laden may be right about some things. Why do you call it ‘his army’ when you know that it’s yours as well. By the way, you are right about Kabul. I have been there, and I have seen for myself how little is left. I have seen the desperation and pain of the people. We are trying to help those people. Kabul is rebuilding now.” George saw Khalil roll his eyes. He continued, ignoring the gesture.
“But Khalil, how is your network of terrorists helping anyone, except for the people at the top of your organization? Where is your swell of popular support? What have you really accomplished? You are as useless as the communists you replaced. It is all just an ideological basis for imposing your views on the rest of the world. And, to add insult to injury, your leaders often live like kings.” The chair squeaked as George shifted his foot, which had fallen asleep.
“Bin Laden doesn’t,” Khalil said. “He is a pious and unassuming man. Why should you and your countrymen have the right to define terrorism? I reject your definition. We are fighting for the right to live our own way – in Algeria. Allah be blessed, each man will find his salvation. Many of those you label terrorists are searching for salvation. They are following Allah’s words. What gives you the right to judge?” Khalil waived his hand in the air, as if in dismissal.
“By killing innocents deliberately. By targeting them.” George held firm.
“See, you don’t get it.” Khalil’s tone was patronizing. George couldn’t help feeling that Khalil was once again starting on a well-practiced speech. At least he had opened up, right? “Al Qaeda wasn’t targeting civilians on September 11. They target landmarks. They were after the World Trade Center, not the people in it.”
“So they crashed two planes during morning rush hour. What about Bali? That nightclub was also a landmark? Discos, restaurants and trains?” George heard the sarcasm dripping as he spoke. Then he changed the tone back to flattering. “Khalil, you are too smart for this life. Get a deal for yourself. Call Jennifer.”
Again the look. Jennifer continued to strike a chord inside Khalil. Good, get him rattled.
“Strike a deal and go where? Do what with my life? Go back to Algeria? Didn’t we discuss that already – what happens to me if I go back?” No mention of Jennifer.
“Get a U.S. passport. Call Jennifer.” George said.
“Enough of Jennifer. Stop. She was a girl I fucked long ago – that’s it. What kind of a dog interrogator are you anyway?” Khalil shook his head. He looked disgusted.
“Tell me more about Bin Laden? Have you met him?” Bait and switch.
The exasperated look again. “I am GSPC, not Al Qaeda.”
“GSPC is affiliated with Al Qaeda.”
“Only certain branches. Not mine.”
“Do you know Hassan Hattab?”
“A leader of the GSPC – of course I know of him, but not personally.”
“Hasn’t he spent some time in London – as you have- where the real brains behind terrorism have historically been located?”
“You are getting boorish.” Khalil said. “What sort of insinuations are you making? I stick with Algerian related issues.”
“Which is why you spend time in Pakistan?” George smiled coldly.
“Pakistan?” Khalil asked.
“And, more importantly, who were you calling in Los Angeles?”
“Why would I call anyone in Los Angeles?”
“Why would your cell phone have a number in Los Angeles programmed in if you weren’t calling it?” George pushed.
“It wasn’t my phone.” Khalil sighed. George could tell that Khalil knew what to expect. It was going to be a long night. That was always the best way to get your answers in an interrogation. Learn your guy; find his weak spots, his escapes and memorized responses. Then sit in a room for ten, twelve or more hours. Asking the same questions, over and over.