Terror, I -- in 3 parts
- essays in where my head was at -
1. CAFFEINE, NICOTINE AND THE PERSISTENCE OF HABIT
by Hanson R. Hosein, ©2000
I didn't smoke and still I yearned for a cigarette. It was a superfluous craving, something that would have permitted me more to posture with prop in mouth than to soothe my nerves. Would have.
A poor substitute, I lost myself in the murkiness of my coffee instead. Hypnotized, I swirled the grounds that floated near the mouth of the cup - near solids obscuring the liquid as steam from the hot drink continued to waft lazily away. Stirring only made things worse. This coffee was not about to settle down. Eventually, I would have to succumb, close my eyes and just sip.
A battle-scarred reporter should smoke and he should take his Turkish coffee like a man. Like a professional who had borne witness to the worst that the world had to offer, he should be able to dissolve into the background of an outdoor café in an exotic local, site of a clandestine rendezvous rife with the promise of international intrigue. During these days of peace and prosperity back at home, it was an encounter that promised something less than routine - but something more than habit, for someone who had seen it all. This breed of journalist should look forward to accumulating more scars, yet not be too numb or seasoned to ignore the infliction of the wounds.
Thus a coffee while waiting was a mere crutch, but to smoke had to be Divine. I dearly wanted to look like I belonged in this space - the calm eye in the center of this tumultuous storm of thunderous voices, desert winds and wave after wave of pungent incense and spices - but I would not manage that without a cigarette. I would not be close to God today. Put it down to integrity or blame it on self-inhibition, but there was only so far that I could go with my camouflage.
The voice that purred in my right ear rattled my nerves. I looked up from my coffee at the man who had addressed me. He had taken me by surprise precisely at the moment my introspection had made me drop my guard. I had vowed at the outset of my career to never let that happen. And it had - just when I had needed to keep my composure the most.
I already knew the answer. I was stalling for time, trying to restore my footing. I stood up quickly to greet him. Good manners and etiquette were essential in this part of the world.
He shook my hand.
"A great pleasure," he said.
I instantly assessed him in a way that only a journalist would bother to do. I noted the looseness of his grip, the warmth of his hand, and the somber intensity of his eyes. Not even a glimpse of his true nature peeked through this mid-afternoon café appearance of his. The man known as Khalil who now stood before me was no terrorist. He just played one on TV.
So I asked him if he wanted a coffee because it was the right thing to do, and he said yes. I ordered him one but really, I was studying his face because I was trying to read him.
He was not a person who shaved regularly. The dense hair spread uniformly across his face and neck. And yet, this was much more than the usual look of terrorist chic. Khalil had presence. He was regally distant as he gracefully sat down, as he put his hands on the table and as he gazed at me. His gold-rimmed glasses contrasted nicely with his dark skin. I could not help but compare his qualities to my own complexion, eyewear and facial hair. We were not much different from the other: two ostensibly well-educated men in their early thirties, possessing a modicum of classical fashion sense, sharing a drink in a crowded city center.
For now, we were entirely inconspicuous despite my slowly growing fame in the media world and Khalil's legendary destructive tendencies in the real one. Certainly, where I came from, he was Public Enemy Number One. However, Khalil was better known by name than by appearance. There was hardly any photographic evidence of his existence, other than a grainy photograph that had been taken by a security camera in a European airport eight months ago. I could not even be sure that this was the man with whom I had spent nearly a year trying to set up a meeting. Nonetheless, right here, I knew. That I was now in the presence of notoriety gave me a strange sense of accomplishment. Such are the small guilty pleasures for people of my profession.
Still, how does one begin a conversation with the man accused of murdering thousands of people? Only briefly did my sense of right and wrong go head to head with my journalistic alter ego, which rationalized every questionable encounter in the name of The Story. Happily, Khalil put me out of my misery before the noises in my head got out of hand.
"As a rule, I do not do this," he said. He looked directly into my eyes. "But for you, I make an exception. I think that maybe you understand?"
Khalil the Killer-Celebrity was not trying to flatter. Rather, he was giving me perhaps my last chance to get out of this. My next few words would seal my fate and seal the relationship between us. If I told him that I did understand, he would pour his heart out to me, but in return he would expect me to sympathize with him and his cause. If I fudged my answer, or indicated any lack of understanding, I could lose this interview.
And this was The Interview. By scoring Khalil, I had gotten the ungettable: an exclusive one-on-one with the shadowy master terrorist, mad bomber of three-star Michelin Guide sites and the affluent western tourists who visited them. An interview with Khalil was the foreign news equivalent of getting OJ Simpson back in 1995: your colleagues would look upon with you with devastated envy and wonder whether this would give you an overwhelming competitive edge in the world of journalism that could only last forever. I knew that the accolades had to be piling up already back home. The promos were shot and ready to air, the PR flack prepared to spin.
Unfortunately, I did understand what he was saying. I was trapped by my own self-promotion. I had used It to convince his people to grant me the exclusive, but I had prayed that It would never come up once we were face to face. I knew I had to steer away from discussing It immediately.
I smiled at Khalil.
"Well, I'm sure that you're aware that I called in every favor I had to get to you," I said. "I massaged every contact I knew. I had to let you know somehow that it was in our mutual best interests to meet."
I held my breath and awaited his reaction. In the meantime, Khalil's coffee had arrived, and without looking at the waiter who had brought it or the cup, he picked it up and immediately drank. His eyes were still disturbingly focused on me.
"I do think that we both know better than that Mister Khan," he said. "Your organization has more experienced reporters than you. There are more influential newspapers and television networks than your own. However, I say this to you. None of them have a Jamal Khan. I see you like I see my brother. At long last, I can rest easy and know that someone is finally is on our side - that we will finally see just and fair reporting about our oppressed people." He laughed and mercifully lifted his gaze away from me. "My heart tells me that this is the beginning of the end of the Zionist-controlled media."
He wasn't going to let me off easily. I gave in and took a sip of my own bittersweet coffee. I looked at Khalil as earnestly as I could while the grounds trickled down my throat. I resisted the huge temptation to gag.
"I will try my best," I said.
"I think you will," he replied.
Was that an affirmation or a threat? Despite my obfuscation, had I just made a deal with the devil?
"Excuse me for one moment," he said. "I would like to make this a bit more pleasant for us."
Khalil slashed his fingers through the air and brought the waiter running back to our table. Speaking like he owned the place, he commanded the waiter in Arab - which despite my ancestry and many trips to the region, I still scarcely understood.
A few seconds later, two men materialized from inside the café. One carried an ornate brass sheesha, the other carefully balanced a tray full of ashen-white coals, whose corners glowed a faint orange.
They set up the antique knee-high water pipe between Khalil and me. The second man delicately balanced three coals with golden tin tongs on the small tin-foil covered clay cupola that crowned the archaic nicotine delivery device. It was a common sight in most of the coffee shops and restaurants in this part of the world. The other man handed the narrow hose with its wooden nozzle and metal tip to Khalil, who thanked him with a handshake that concealed a few small bills. The attendant took the bills without counting them, and nodded in gratitude.
The man who was about to make or break my career sucked hard on the pipe. I heard the water gurgle below as vapor mixed with the tobacco fumes that lay in wait higher up the pipe. Khalil exhaled, eyes closed. Smoke billowed through his nose and mouth. The scent of burnt molasses and sweet apple filled the air. He passed me the nozzle.
I had no choice. I pulled gently on the silver tip, wet with a terrorist's saliva. I tried hard to prevent the smoke from passing beyond my tonsils - fearing that I would cough and show weakness in front of this man. I pursed my lips and let out a faltering stream of smoke. It was wholly unimpressive but Khalil was too polite to examine my Middle Eastern coffee shop technique too closely. And I suspected that exposing my lack prowess with an arcane water pipe was not necessarily what Khalil was trying to achieve. I believed that he wanted to make me feel like I belonged.
"Is it good?" he asked.
"Very nice," I replied. "Thank you."
"You are welcome." He took back the pipe and perched the tip in the corner of his mouth. "Now what is it that you wanted to ask me?"
I retrieved a small tape recorder from the inside breast pocket of my blazer.
I asked him if he minded and he said he didn't. His people had repeatedly stressed `no camera, no camera,' but that hadn't prevented me from packing a compact digital camcorder in my canvas tote just in case we became best friends later in the interview. My colleagues and I had toyed with the idea of using a hidden camera, especially because Khalil had had the audacity to suggest that we meet alone in a public place. However, I ultimately concluded that I would be burning bridges should Khalil's henchmen ever catch the footage on television. I decided to consider this a first interview and earn his trust for a second one on-camera later. Also, videotaping our encounter could put many people's lives in danger, including my own. Most importantly, I had made a deal. Call it honor among thieves.
I figured that a man like this did not spend too much time exposing himself to his enemies, so I got right to the point.
"Are you the same Khalil who the world has accused of being a violent, destructive terrorist?" I had decided to provoke him with a theatrical question. I hoped that it would stimulate a more compelling answer - and I also knew that my question would ultimately be heard on airwaves around the globe.
He didn't immediately respond. Smoke trickled out of the opposite corner of his mouth as he held the pipe sideways like a flute. I became aware of the whirring of the tape recorder.
"I will not bore you with the cliché that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter," he said. "But if you are asking whether I am the notorious Khalil, the scourge of the planet, shady and mysterious, wanted and hunted by countless international agencies, I tell you 'yes, it is I.'"
An admission. My heart jumped - I had done it. Of course, I really had no way of knowing for sure that this was indeed the infamous Khalil sitting next to me. I would have to insert the usual disclaimers when this interview finally entered into the public record -- "suspected terrorist," "alleged acts," "purported to be Khalil" - which everyone would ignore anyway.
Nevertheless, he did resemble that blurry photo that had been published and broadcast a thousand times, and his bravado out here in broad daylight somehow fit the picture of what we knew about this man. He was a person who took chances, flaunted his mystique, and terrified the world by using us in the media to speculate about his deeds and intentions.
I had to check anyway and he didn't hesitate to describe the incidents that he had been responsible for, and disavow the countless others for which he had been blamed. He described his technique, and went into detail about the kind of explosives he used, and how he recruited the legions of suicide bombers. I mentally cross-checked what he told me with the unpublished information that I had gathered from my intelligence sources and concluded that he knew too much detail not to be Khalil or at worse, some well-briefed underling.
All of a sudden I felt vulnerable out here in this partly shaded square in the old quarter of the city. Had countless spooks and spies from a variety of intelligence agencies followed me, tapped my phone, knowing that I was about to meet with the man they dearly wanted to assassinate, apprehend, or at the very least, positively identify? Then I thought again - that was highly improbable. Few people knew of my newfound interest in international terrorism, and in any case, everyone in the business was fruitlessly pursuing an interview with Khalil - I just happened to get it. In any case, this was not an easy country to enter, and Khalil was smart enough to cover his tracks. He had probably chosen this café for a reason. More likely than not, I was completely surrounded by his henchmen, who were keeping a close eye on their fearless leader and a wary eye on me. I looked around at the coarse men seated at the other tables. They spoke loudly to each other, and gestured wildly with their hands. They smoked and drank just like us. I relaxed. We fit in.
"Why do you do it?" I asked. I was angling for the dramatic confession now. "The hotel in London. The biblical site in Jordan. The New Year's Eve celebrations in Seattle. So many innocent people murdered. Why?"
Khalil took the pipe from his mouth and passed it on to me. I politely declined this time. I sipped my coffee and awaited his response.
"My brother, why do you ask me such a question?" he said. I winced as he toyed with my so-called journalistic independence. He was trying to draw me into his fraternity of righteousness and death with a wink and nod. "You already know this answer." He sighed. "But I suppose that you must play the part. You are the agent of others. You do not represent yourself and your true beliefs but instead those who sit in their offices in New York waiting to hear whatever I am about to tell you. So here is your soundbite. Our people are fragile. Their plight is ignored. Our leadership is corrupt. We are no match for our powerful enemy, but we must somehow make our situation better. We want back what was taken from us. We fight however we can. This is not a battlefield of honor, but a dirty war. We will terrify them. We will remind them that the weak will not remain weak, and that the strong will not always be strong."
"But what about the many people who have died at your hand. Those who had no part to play in your struggle?"
"If only the guilty and evil perished, then I would say there is justice in this world," Khalil said. "But there is no justice, which is why the innocent - especially my people - suffer. And if we only struck against the guilty and the evil, no one would pay us any attention." He picked up a tiny spoon from the table and used the back of it to flatten the softening coals atop the pipe. "You know this. I know this. We are playing the part in a drama. I am an actor, and I am also the director. To bring our condition to the world's attention, we must cast the appropriate characters for your media. The right blood must be spilled, in places where life is valued above all else - where it is a precious commodity. The daily routine in the safe and self-secure west must be threatened. Unfortunately, the innocent must die. You would not be here, speaking to me otherwise if I had not attracted your attention with my deeds. I have distracted you from your mundane lives. You are at once horrified and captivated by the destruction we have wrought. We have reintroduced an element of danger to the risk-free existence you have built in your world of convenience and security. And this excites you."
My practiced ears picked up a plethora of compelling soundbites while I listened to Khalil's long-winded but gentle tirade. His English was formal but precise. He spoke like a visiting professor from another country at a college lecture. Not to say that I had not paid attention to the substance of what he had said, but such was my training. Soundbite detection was second nature and essential while conducting an interview - it determined whether you had to ask the question another way or whether you could move on to another topic, or even end the interview altogether once you had heard what you needed. Khalil spoke well. I wanted him to say more. And I didn't want to let him off the hook so easily.
"You certainly have our attention," I said. "I have seen the raw footage that we do not dare put on the air - the shattered bits of flesh, the bloodied and screaming faces of the survivors. But the bottom line is that you have murdered so many people. How can you possibly do such a thing? 'You' as an individual, not as some ideologue or militant leader."
"How is it that you cannot not show death and human pain as they truly are?" Khalil said. He chuckled. "That you do not show the blood and guts on television. You are afraid of the reality of life I think, but yet the hint of destruction attracts you. We are avid students of your media." He stirred his coffee. "We know what turns you on. Not a train crash in India that kills hundreds, not a plane crash in Africa full of blacks. Those are just statistics in places where life is cheap. But six American tourists who are blown up in the entranceway to a museum is far more interesting is it not? And then you are drawn to us. You seek me out with abandon. I become like one of your decadent pornographic films that you so-called decent people cannot help but watch, despite your superficial disgust."
Come now, it's me not you, isn't it?
"When you see the pictures on television though, even if we do edit them," I said, conceding his point. "How can you see yourself as human?"
"You are an Arab like me, are you not?" Khalil asked.
It was about me.
"Yes." I could avoid It no longer. It was time to go down this path. I decided to give the same light-hearted response to Khalil that I shared with everyone else who asked me about my origins. I hoped that my self-deprecating tone would deter him from further inquiry and let me off the hook. "My grandparents were from the Middle East. I was born in Chicago. But I am not a very good Muslim. And as you see, I can't speak Arabic."
"If you do not speak Arabic, you cannot properly understand what is in the Koran," he said.
"How can you raise your children properly then?"
"No children, so far."
"Children are a blessing from Allah," he said. "Are you married?"
My interview was going badly.
"She is a Muslim?"
"No. She is a Catholic."
"I see." Khalil inhaled deeply from the sheesha. He held his peace for a long time, and I didn't know what else I could say. Then he leaned over the table and spoke directly into the tape recorder. His lips nearly touched the microphone.
"For the record," he said. "I have three children and one wife. I pray five times a day. Two times I have done the haj to Mecca. I support my people anyway that I can. I have seen death up close. I have lost everything. I believe that I am more human than most."
Khalil must have known before I told him that I was not a practicing Muslim. Our conversation was in English. My marriage last year to a high-ranking senator's daughter was well-publicized and a society event.
He had tried to adopt me as his brother, inviting me into his cause as one of "us" versus "them." The truth was that he was trying to bully me with guilt, and it was working. Of course I had used my parents' religion and my Islamic-sounding family name to full advantage in order to secure the interview with Khalil. I had to. Any good journalist would resort to his strengths to get what he needed. It was the nature of the beast. But now that I was fully exposed, I had been put into an indefensible position.
"How can you consider yourself a good Muslim?" I asked. "Isn't Islam about surrender to God? About tolerance, peace and love? It is the final world, the last chapter on the subject, more advanced and civilized than Judaism or Christianity? And now you slaughter innocent people and call yourself a humanist?"
"To achieve justice, yes," Khalil said. My overblown accusations did not upset him. He probably thought that I was already preaching to my audience, which was only partially true. This terrorist had succeeded in getting under my skin. "Christians and Jews have killed innocent people in the name of God so as to further their cause, or to secure their homes. Are we not allowed to do the same? Must we remain under the boot of our oppressors without recourse? Can we not evolve?"
"Excuse me, I'm so sorry to interrupt you." I was startled by the soft sound of American-accented English. We both looked up and saw a young woman - a tourist - holding the handles of a stroller that cradled a toddler. "I'm so relieved to hear someone speak English around here," she said.
"Can we help you?" I asked. I quickly switched off the tape recorder. Although I should have been annoyed by the break in the momentum of our interview, I welcomed the well-timed disruption and decided to put on my most helpful North American face. I could momentarily return to the easy and the familiar: the luxury of dispassionate intercourse, uninvolved common decency and a predictable social code among ordinary people.
"I'm so sorry to bother you," she said, her eyes roving over my well-manicured goatee and Italian silk tie. "But you sounded like you might be American, and I'm desperate. I'm on this organized tour and we got separated from them. We've been looking for them for over an hour, and I'm dying to go to the ladies room. But it's not the kind of place where I want to take my daughter, and I'm afraid to leave her outside by herself." She leaned over and drew me into her conspiracy. "You know how hard it is to trust anyone around here. And their lack of hygiene is appalling. I'm afraid to step inside that bathroom."
Journalists are trained observers of others, so we learn to keep an open mind and embrace difference. It's a necessary talent. To hear this woman condemn the locals in such a manner annoyed me. I was also concerned that Khalil would respond badly to such an insult. Fortunately, one quick glance assured me that he was content to ignore our exchange and had returned to his water pipe. He was happy to let me play the role of Samaritan. And I did appreciate the woman's effort to hang on to a shred of civilization, her sour attitude notwithstanding. I decided to help out my fellow citizen.
"Of course we'll keep an eye on her while you're away," I said. "Please, go ahead. We'll be here when you return."
Despite the urgency of her need, she managed to thank me a number of times before she ran off and disappeared through the door of the coffee shop.
To my surprise, the little redhead sitting in the stroller did not protest her mother's absence at all. Instead, she studied Khalil, her green eyes wide open with curiosity. I was captivated by the image of this beautiful and pure girl trading stares with the notorious terrorist. I thought of my wife Michelle and how her presence in my life had softened me. I now had someone to live for, which made me lose some of my daredevil abandon as an intrepid reporter on the scene of earthquakes, wars and crime scenes. Suddenly, I had an idea. I switched the tape recorder back on.
"When you look at a child like this," I said to Khalil, "I'm sure she's no different from any of your children. No different from the children who have died at your hands." The girl held a stuffed camel that her mother must have bought for her at one of the souvenir shops. Without paying any attention to me, she extended her arms and offered the toy to Khalil without a word. I would have killed to have had a camera running to capture the moment. "Can you destroy even this girl in the name of your cause?" I asked. "Does she deserve such a fate?"
He took the camel from the girl and looked at it thoughtfully.
"As a reporter you have committed the worst crime possible," Khalil said. "Even worse than not telling the truth, you distort the picture by reducing a complex issue to base emotion and one poignant image. You may be an Arab, you may see yourself as a good journalist, but still you refuse to understand. I will answer your question nonetheless."
He took the camel and played with its legs, making it appear as if it were galloping across the table, leaping over coffee cups and an ashtray. The little girl was delighted. She giggled and clapped her hands. He grinned back at her, his white teeth gleaming in contrast to the darkness of his beard.
"No one deserves their fate," he said. "Certainly not my people." He looked closer at the child and passed the camel back, patting her on the head. "I would like the killing to stop one day as well. I too want peace. But I seek a just peace, not a peace forced upon us by a conqueror. It must be a peace between equals. And I am willing to fight for that." He continued to stare at the girl. "Still, I do not ignore what you are saying. I wish there was another way." He rubbed his chin, his fingers disappearing under his beard. "We all have to try a little harder."
Khalil dropped his gaze. He fell silent. The girl's mother returned just then, bearing a relieved look. She thanked us many more times and then walked away quickly.
Khalil suddenly stood up. He pulled on the ends of his jacket, and patted his pockets. "I am sorry," he said. "I must go. Perhaps we will talk again."
Before I could protest, he walked off rapidly in the same direction as the woman and her daughter. I sat back in my chair, defeated. I ordered another coffee, even if I knew I was not going to enjoy it. Would Khalil return if I waited long enough? Had it been the great "get" that I thought it would be? Had I somehow managed to change his convictions?
A hot gust of air from behind blasted me from my chair and threw me down to the pavement. My head hit the sheesha and it toppled to the ground, the dust from the coals spreading over the sidewalk. My senses then finally registered the chaos: the shattering glass, the piercing cries of injured people around me, the screams of car alarms set off by the explosion.
That evening the news led with the massive car bomb that had claimed thirty lives in the heart of the city, including four American tourists. There was the image of a child's stuffed camel, charred and disfigured, found near the mangled remains of a stroller, which captured everyone's imagination and brought the horror home to them. After all, that was the most effective way to get your message across. That one poignant picture was beamed around the world and I suddenly had an exclusive. Once again terrorism had prevailed. So far, no one had claimed any responsibility. Still, it was fairly obvious who had done what.
2. IDENTITY CRISIS
©August 2001 Hanson R. Hosein
I love to travel. The ability to travel reminds me that I can escape my life at any given moment. It is a gift, and a privilege.
I hate airports. Those hermetically sealed suburban behemoths remind me that hard as I may try, I can never overcome the life into which I was born.
Even before I get to the airport before my flight, I am filled immediately with a sickening tension. Am I early enough for my flight? Do I have too much baggage? Is the plane overbooked? And most importantly, will I be set aside for the usual special treatment, just because of how I look, how I am named, and where I come from? I must tell you that when I check in, I am usually given ample reason to become angry, to be humbled, to be humiliated. And this is what inspires me in my ongoing struggle. It is deliciously ironic.
"Bonjour Monsieur -" the airline counter attendant says by rote. She does not even spare the effort to look up from her computer screen. Then she reads the ticket I have placed before her. And then she looks up. She instantly registers my complexion and my beard into her own, personal passenger screening device, which is replete with her prejudices and ignorance.
The final nail. An Islamic surname. I have gone and done it. I have struck fear into the heart of this airport employee, as it has occurred so many times in the past.
I know, I could try harder. I could show up cleanly shaven. I could have changed my name. But I abhor the idea that I have to change who I am simply to suit the preconceived notions of an army of bureaucratic minions who are conditioned by racist ethnic profiling propelled by sensationalistic headlines.
Idealism aside, I find that I enjoy provoking these people, just to prove that their policy of ostracism and domination is an ongoing one, and that I am just another one of their victims. Our suffering has been long-lasting and widespread. I bear the embarrassment for an entire race proudly. And eventually, I act upon it.
She had spit out my name like a detective encountering a murder suspect for the first time. She has already convicted me of whatever crime I may commit now or in the future. It is a dirty feeling to be accused prior to any commission real or imagined. However, I learned years ago to contain my demeanor despite my easily-triggered fury.
She switches to English.
"May I see your passport please?"
I pull out a burgundy-covered document from my breast pocket. For this particular trip, I have decided to be German. Such is the luxury of multiple nationalities, I can choose my flag of convenience at will. Many Arabs emigrated to Germany as foreign workers over the last thirty years. So other than being automatically branded as a terrorist by any police officer or travel official, this particular nationality raises few eyebrows. I have merely banked on the hope that no one will try to communicate with me in what is supposed to be my native tongue. I have not had this passport very long, and I have hardly had any time to master the complexities of a language that has four declensions. Then again, no Western language approached the impossible nuances or beauty of Arabic, my mother tongue.
"Your seat is 22B" she says, handing me my boarding pass. Of course, I have been awarded the middle seat, at the back of the plane. According to her, this is my birthright. I understand. I will live with the humiliation for now. My dignity comes from the conviction that revenge will come one day.
She tags my luggage. I know that once it disappears when the conveyor belt turns the corner that it will be x-rayed once again, even physically searched. That is not my concern. I have always been very careful when I pack. I acquire the tools of my trade locally and I do not waste time with airplanes. Such a cliché. It is almost expected these days, but no one goes after them except for criminals and the insane. In my line of work, it does help to have an imagination. It is the best way to catch people by surprise.
Although I have checked in at this terminal, we are quickly bussed to another. This change is not listed on the departures screen. It is a ruse. They think they are fooling the people with evil intentions through this airline version of the shell game: see if you can uncover the true gate for the flight heading towards the country most despised by terrorists. Trust me, they are not fooling anyone. We have all taken this route - on many occasions.
Finished with check-in, I am hit by my usual feeling of being this persona non grata. All the places I have been and not one frequent flyer mile to my name -- not one documented perk for all of my labors. It is a problem when you have so many names. Allah is said to have ninety-nine. I have about thirty-six. Seven nationalities, seven passports, fifteen driver's licenses, ten hats, various hair dyes and a multiplicity of spectacles. Mohammed, Sasha, Iqbal, Ousman, Stephan, and of course Khalil, how will by thy name? My life as a fugitive is a tiring one. I do crave normality from time to time, and for some reason, more often than not after the airport check-in. But what I believe in will not allow that to happen.
It is time for Duty-free. I must find something for my wife and children. Actually, I will do that later, on the last leg of my trip, before I return. I will describe it to them as a very successful business trip. That is enough. Farida is intelligent -- she is smart enough not to ask too many questions - not unlike a mobster's wife who reaps all the rewards but will not accept the reality of her husband's chosen craft. She has learned over the years that this is the best way to remain happily married to me, for both of our sakes. I appreciate being with her and my three children, Leilah, Abdullah and Fareid. We do not see each other often, but for Farida and myself at least, it somehow suits us both just fine.
Because of the nature of my profession, I sometimes feel as if I am the invisible man. I am this furtive non-person with no fixed identity, running from city to city, assignment to assignment, and when I feel like it, from bed to bed. It is loyal, trusting Farida who helps define me. She reminds me that I am not this ghostly figure whom no one has ever been able to firmly describe. I have no bank accounts (they are in her name) or credit cards (at least no legitimate ones). That said, if I am truly not real and substantial, then I am blessed with the greatest freedom of all: I bear no responsibilities. For a man of thirty-five, this is quite an accomplishment. This freedom is to be savored, but yet again, to live like a phantom is not for the faint of heart. And above all, my heart beats strongly.
I must correct myself. I do have one responsibility. It is to my people. And with that in mind, I pause to buy a newspaper.
"KHALIL STRIKES AGAIN" screams the headline.
A bomb in the Metro. A train derailed. Sixty people dead. Eight wounded. A certain type of explosive, not to be publicly disclosed, but for sure a signature of the notorious terrorist Khalil. No claim of responsibility, no surprise there. Clearly a signal to the government to cease its support of the murderous regime that oppresses Khalil's people. No one knows who this man is or what he looks like. Reportedly, celebrations on the street of small town in his native land. No one knows, but it seems a great many people know.
"HIGH ALERT!" The front page of every newspaper - that is quite an achievement.
"TERROR UNSTOPPABLE?" The sweetest success. Why claim anything outright when it will do merely to drop hints and essentially make life unlivable for the Western world as they retreat into paranoia and finger-pointing after each incident. The inevitable aftermath is more savory than the commission of the act itself. Terrorism succeeds not with the act of terror, but with the ensuing laager-mentality as the caravans of public opinion circle in a reflexive self-defense. Security increases, suspect they neighbor.
Three men in dark blue uniforms walk by me. They deftly balance machine gun sidearms as they are on the lookout. This does not stop them from engaging in deep discussion about last night's soccer match. One of them sizes me up, but then haphazardly notices my gold-rimmed eyeglasses, expensive-looking attaché case and the simple fact that I am wearing a necktie. His simplistic, single-tasking terror processing-unit discounts me as a suspect. I was never worried. Certainly, since the attack, security has intensified. But they have no idea about what they are looking for. For now, to console a nervous electorate, they are putting in an appearance. (For that matter so am I.). Anyone who knows can easily circumvent their meager defenses. (I know.)
Of course, I have no interest in having them notice me, but I am a little insulted nonetheless. Sometimes I feel so compelled to climb to the top of some minaret and scream my name out loud and list what I have achieved so that my people will understand my accomplishments and what I have done for them. I truly want to be "someone." The irony can be overwhelming: I am famous and feared, and yet no one knows who I am. It is a variation on the "tree falling in a forest" theme. If I am notorious, but no one knows me, do I truly exist?
Behind-the-scenes was never my style, but that is where my choice of career has relegated me. I make a big blast, then a big headline splash, but you will not find me the next day live on a television talk show. Instead, I must suffer through endless speculation by experts who know nothing. How I long to set them straight. To do what I do requires ego, pride, and a great deal of bravado. As the Jews say, it takes chutzpah. To stifle these qualities after committing the acts that I commit is unnatural. But I suppose there is nothing particularly natural about me, for I am Khalil.
I finally reach the departure gate. Another security check, another metal detector and x-ray. A man in a beige trenchcoat studies my face and asks to see my passport. I kept it in my breast pocket, expecting this to happen. It was all part of the security crisis routine.
"What do you do Mr. Mohammed?" the man asks me.
"I am a travel agent," I say. "I am taking a trip paid by the company that is hosting me at my destination. This way, I am able to sample the delights of the country. Then I will try to sell it as a vacation destination to my clients back home."
"Home is Berlin?" he asks, looking for dishonesty in my eyes.
I betray nothing.
"Ja, Ja," I say. I gamble on the fact that his breed of people are so preoccupied with their own language that they are incapable of speaking anything other than heavily accented English.
"Thank you," he says, already forgetting me. "Have a nice trip."
"Imbecile," I say - but not out loud.
Once I pass the last line of security defense, I survey the waiting area, looking for an opportune place to sit. This particular flight always seems to attract an inordinate amount of large families with their young children crawling all over the chairs, running up to strangers and staring at them insolently, or pressing their faces against the glass looking at the planes,
I opt for the smoking section where the degenerates of the world tend to unite. I feel much more comfortable with these people who maintain a healthy disregard for their lives and for other people's comfort. It is almost as if they have figured out how ludicrous our existence truly is, and have decided to blow smoke in the faces of all those who uphold civic value and social behavior.
I see her sitting alone. Apparently, no man dare sit directly next to her, but every man in that section cannot help but ogle her every twenty seconds. She has sandy blonde hair, and lovely bronzed skin - however nothing is overdone or out of place. Her sunglasses are perched on her head, she wears a white blouse, black trousers that are form-fitting enough to reveal her trim shape, but not so tight as to appear as if she is blatantly calling for attention. Her medium-heeled sandals envelop a pair of exquisitely well-manicured feet whose toenails are painted with pink polish. This is a well-appointed woman who makes an effort to look sophisticatedly sexy. And she is reading the International Herald Tribune, which is just the icing on the cake for any man of good breeding and international adventure. I am enthralled.
I sit directly opposite her. The banks of plastic seats are so close to each other that our knees nearly touch. She does not look up from her paper. The headlines scream out my deeds. I am proud. Unfortunately, there is not a thing I can do or feel beyond that. Yesterday's news, my next source of feedback can only come from another set of headlines at some point in the future.
I pull out a copy of The Economist magazine from my briefcase. I have learned that elitist publications tend to attract like-minded people.
"Would you like to exchange reading material when you are done?" I ask loudly, projecting my voice directly at her. There is no way that she could possibly think that I was speaking to anyone else but her.
She closes her newspaper's pages but keep it unfolded and looks straight at me. She hits her target on the first attempt. I feel her glare and it makes me dizzy. This woman is truly shameless.
"Thank you, but I do not think I will be finished before the plane takes off," she says, without a smile. Her accent has that heavy East European drag, her voice slightly husky - and she is not even smoking. Her intonation is even and openly declares a high-class education.
"Perhaps on the plane then," I say. I pursue the line of conversation because I am not easily intimidated and always like to see how far I can go in any given situation.
"Perhaps," she says, and erects her newsprint wall again. And thus it ends. It is over. But then... "Should we be sitting anywhere near each other that is."
Her addendum was wholly unnecessary and just the encouragement I needed. She could have shunted me aside with "perhaps," but it seems as if she does not mind continuing the conversation, albeit from the shelter of a newspaper, behind which she need not bear the consequences of my various reactions. I yearned to be with this woman.
"My name is Mohammed," I say, continuing the charade. "What is yours?"
"Of course it is," she says. "Every other Muslim man's name is Mohammed."
It is an insulting reply, and a heretical one. But I will set aside my faith for now because I feel as if I am close to success.
"Are you insulting my people?" I say. This is not me throwing down the gauntlet. Far from it in fact. I pray that she can detect the playfulness in my voice.
"Do not get so upset Ayatollah," she says. "There is no need for a Fatwa. I am no Rushdie." She puts down the newspaper for good. She takes out a cigarette. I hasten to lean over and light it with my metallic gold Zippo. "I am a Muslim, just like you."
I am struck dumb. This beautiful woman, also a Muslim? Fortune had to be smiling on me today.
"You should not be so surprised," she continues. "If you were a proper Mohammedan, you would know very well that Arabs are not the only Muslims. There are more of us in Indonesia than in the whole of the Arab world. And of course, you must know about the Balkans."
Sure I know. I have been to all those places. I was simply not prepared for such a perfect specimen of a Muslim female to be presented before me. Initially, I was merely interested in a tryst, but know I was beginning to think of the possibilities. Where I came from, women like this did not grow on trees. We did not permit it. She was a lioness to be tamed. And I knew that many Muslims from southeastern Europe tended to be followers of Allah in name only. They lagged far behind in practice. In any case, I was entitled to three more wives.
"Ahhh, you are from there," I say, recovering as quickly as possible. "Things are not going so well for your people right now."
She looked down at her perfect fingernails.
"No, they are not. It seems as if they never do. Now I am worried for my family."
"Maybe my people will help?"
"I doubt it," she replies. "Some of your leaders have more in common with the monster who wants to exterminate us then they do with you and me."
I am aching for this woman. I like how she speaks of forbidden things. She offends me so that I am entirely aroused.
"I do not think that is fair," I say. "Some men who are not politicians do good deeds by themselves."
She gives me a dispassionate once-over, taking in my cheap suit and worn leather shoes. I could not afford to be debonair as a foreign-born travel agent from Germany. I had only dressed for modest success. It could stand up to a security guard's scrutiny, but not the evaluation of an eligible woman with status on her mind. I was heavily regretting my disguise at this moment.
"At this time, I cannot think of even one," she says, and picks up her damn newspaper again.
I feel as if I should scream. I bite my lip so hard I am sure it will bleed! I must make this woman know who I really am. I must impress her somehow. I have nothing else to show her but my deeds.
I decide to play with fire, inspired by the front page of her Herald Tribune.
"What about him?" I ask.
I hear her sigh, as if she cannot believe the conversation with this unshaven man in the cheap suit continues. She closes the paper and sees me pointing at the headline.
"Him?" she says. "He is a barbarian and a coward. He thinks he is working for some greater cause. But instead, he is damaging the good reputation of his people with the acts that he commits in their name. He insults humanity and he insults God."
"You could not possible understand these things!" I say. My heart is beating faster, and I find it hard to suppress my raging emotions. "You must tell me your name! We cannot be having a conversation of such gravity without knowing each other better."
"I know you are not only interested in having a conversation with me," she says. "And despite where we are both going, you must understand, nothing will ever happen between us. But since you ask, and I should be somewhat polite, I am Marina."
"Marina," I say. "You should not underestimate what I am able to make happen. Unusual things can happen in unusual places, and we are both traveling to such a country, a place where neither of us belongs."
"I am attending a human rights conference there," Marina says. "Upon my arrival I shall meet my husband. There is nothing unusual about that."
I know better than that. There is no ring on her finger. I believe that she is telling me some story about a husband to stop my pursuit of her. I will not take it seriously.
But she is not finished with me yet.
"What is unusual to me is how a pious, married man such as yourself, can make such a fool of himself in front of someone he does not know."
...No more thinking...no more playing...just act...
"What do you know you stupid woman!" I say. In a split second, my self-control has vanished. I am unleashed. I feel good.
"I know you pursue women in airports," Marina says. "You sit in the smoking section and do not smoke. You admire murderers. That is enough for me."
She folds her newspaper and puts it inside her carry-on bag. She is clearly finished with it but is not about to accept my offer to trade. I want to rip the sunglasses from her head and crush them with my feet.
"I admire men who defend their own people," I say. "Men who do not lie there waiting meekly to be herded off into camps, to be pushed off the land they have lived on for centuries. Men who act when no one else will act on their behalf!"
"Principled men who believe that women should remain in the kitchen and at home while they run off and kill and make love to other women who are not their wives?" Marina asks. "Such admirable ideals! This must make men like you feel so manly!"
...cannot take it anymore. I lean forward and clamp my hands on her thighs. I squeeze tightly and feel her tense, muscular warmth. I feel as I will lose my head. I cannot tell whether anger or lust has taken control of me.
"You know nothing!" I scream. "You do not know who I am!"
The men who had ceased to throw glances Marina's way since I had initiated contact with her (they realized that they did not possess the willpower that I have) now turn to see what is happening. I look at them. I can see the indecision in their eyes. They want to come to this damsel's rescue, but they are weakened by their society's constraints. They fear getting involved. They do not want to make a scene. Incidents such as these are only for the movie theater, not for mundane airport waiting areas. I know them. They are fools and sheep. They are not men. They will do nothing.
"I know enough!" Marina hisses, undaunted by my loud voice. "You are some pitiful man in a cheap suit! And if you do not let go of me immediately, I shall should for help. And you will be arrested!"
"I do not care!" I say. "Nothing can happen to me! And you cannot talk to me like that woman! You are a whore! You disgust me with your temptress clothing and sluttish ways!"
I get to my feet and grab her carry-on bag. I unzip it and pull out the newspaper. I rip the front page down the middle.
"This is who I am!" I say, running my hands over the torn headlines. "I am Khalil! And I shall have whatever I want!"
I have gone and said it. I have exposed myself to the world. But it feels so good! Like a never-ending orgasm, I register the fear my fellow passengers' faces as they recognize my strength through my notoriety.
A large family sitting close by is suddenly herded away by their bearded father in a black hat with a curly lock of hair. They fear Khalil. They fear me.
There is a slight delay after that, and then the entire waiting area erupts as every person abandons their personal effects and runs for the exit. I have done nothing but raise my voice, but that is enough to make them cower in fear. I have no gun. I have no explosives. I am merely a bearer of terror and a name. But that is enough.
But I have not frightened Marina it seems. She is a fighter. Such a woman. Why did it have to end this way?
"You are mad!" she says. "Help! Police!"
And with the uproar, the three uniformed men who had so cavalierly discounted me earlier suddenly appear from behind the metal detector. Their firearms are cocked and they are running. They are right on time, and I could not care less. They are coming for me.
"I am Khalil! I am Khalil! Look at me! FEAR ME!"
They policemen grab me quickly. I struggle. I shall never go quietly.
"This man threatened me," Marina tells them. I barely hear her in my angry haze. "He is insane!"
Baton to my stomach bends me over. Another to my back brings me to the floor. I barely feel the pain. Marina still does not understand who I am. She must! I need her to!
"He says he is Khalil, the terrorist!" a man's voice shouts from nowhere.
Good, that is good. Keep telling them.
"We do not care who you are," a policeman says. "You are not going anywhere."
...kicks me in my ribs...continue to struggle...must prove it to her.
"I am..." I say. I look straight into the eyes of the other policemen. I am short of breath, but I keep my gaze icy and entirely sane. "I am...Khalil. C-4 explosive in a Carte Noire coffee canister. Sebastopol Metro. You must know. Tell her!"
Their eyes widen. Will they believe me? They take turns kicking me violently. From the ground, I look up at Marina. I see the growing horror in her eyes. She has finally grasped the truth. The assault continues. It barely hurts. Nothing can overcome the relief I now feel. I smile. My teeth must be covered in blood. I am what I am. I know what I am. And now, she knows it too.
3. STOLEN FIRE
© Hanson Hosein November 2002
This is not paradise.
The virgins are not here to greet me at the gate.
But I did not do it for that.
It was the sense of purpose. The mission, the cause. It made me feel like I belonged again.
I am a man.
Never a poor one. Nor especially religious.
Truth be told, I never felt that oppressed.
Now I do.
I never believed in much, despite calling on God to do his bidding, through my prayers. Truth be told, I paid lip service to faith, like a man mumbling his prayers.
Now I believe.
Too late. I am beyond salvation. God is not here.
I am sorry.
I had no idea.
It was not supposed to work out this way.
I am not like those others, who sacrifice themselves in the process.
No, I am hit and run.
I need to see the fruits of my labor, the secrets of my success, the final oeuvre of that initial hint of inspiration. This work I did was transitory enough, ephemeral in time, easily cleaned up - even if the memory lingered, like some powerful television image played back in slow motion.
I not only see it now, I am living it. No, I know better than that. This is not living. This is beyond life. This is all a slow motion repeat rewind.
I made an error in judgment. It was bad timing, and maybe a little arrogant. But I had gotten away with it up to then," the prisoner said.
His captor said nothing. They were alone. And there was nothing much he wanted to add. It was not yet that time. It would come whether he confessed or not.
The prisoner had nothing else to do He had and all the time in this world and any other -- so he decided to keep talking. Maybe it would spare him at least this once. But this would repeat itself. Infinitely. Ad nauseum. Ad castrare.
"It was a small city, in the middle of nowhere, certainly off the radar and well off any hit list. It was for me, what would you call it -- like the Witness Protection Program? A place to take refuge, where no one knew me, no one expected anything of me. Who would expect that from me?
So I turned off the career machine.
I forgot about the expectations of the world. Why did I need to continually outdo myself?
I focused my efforts on someone else.
And I freefell into a life, I had never expected to have.
One I had never wanted -- one that was alien to me.
It was as foreign as losing.
As foreign, as getting caught.
I admit it now.
It was a mistake. Yes, yet another mistake. Let us call it the mistake within a larger mistake.
But one I cannot afford to regret.
And certainly, one I could not afford not to make.
Before the big move, I was getting sloppy, lazy. I no longer cared. I had forgotten what cause I was fighting for.
I had to know what it was like to step aside.
To take a bow, to allow others to pass me by, to do the work I had once done and basked in its glory.
I had to know what it really meant to take a chance on myself, and on the true love of another.
I had to try the normal life. I had to recover from whatever it was I had inflicted on myself -- this disease of the ego that had made me go so crazy, that had people hardly remembering who I once was. That had me abandon my first wife and my children.
The pain of this new “normal life” was terrible. But I knew that it did not harm. I was able to repair myself daily. It only hurt mightily.
I was healthy.
In my previous life, the abnormal one, pleasure did not hurt, but it did begin to harm me. My nerves were unaware of it even as it all rang falsely with the wishes of my world. Still, who was I to reject this odd harmony that chimed so easily and inspired so many?
Now, the bells are still, the choirs are silent. Because this music is difficult to understand, and is even harder to sing along to.
Despite my love marriage and life within this newly-established peaceable kingdom, I was solo, a capella, all by myself at the foot of the stage -- and no longer on it.
What drove me to throw it all away and move to this, my mistake within a mistake? What feeling did I have that my true path was really elsewhere?
Yes, I threw it all away. And then I felt I had lost myself. But it felt wrong. So I was forced to pick it up again.
Why did I decide to resume the path along the familiar? The one to where I already knew the awful destination? Was the solitary promenade so difficult that I couldn't bear yet another step through the untrodden grass? Because all I could see ahead in that quiet place was the dense forest. It darkened, it beckoned and it frightened me. I would be forever forgotten, forever searching for a way out, forever tortured by what could have been.
His captor decided it was now time.
To speak at least.
"I know what happened. You know I've heard it all before. You got bored. You grew tired of the complacency you saw around yourself. And the mediocrity. It egged you on. `It couldn't happen around here' everyone said, `no not here. This is the place to buy a house, it's safe, and it's far from the big city. There aren't any skyscrapers here. What could they possibly want to hit?'
But we know better don't we?
Terror is most effective at the height of the perpetrator's imagination and at the peak of the victim's surprise. The most effective horror writers took the ordinary and mundane and created unspeakable acts of horror.
There are millions of little acts in a person's life that can so easily be turned against them, from which no extra security can protect him. Crossing a bridge, going to the gym, a visit to the hospital, sleeping in a towering city apartment building, filling your car with gas, going shopping. When your enemy has it in for you, when he doesn't care who dies after the dust has cleared, you just can't escape, you can't stop it, and most terribly, you can't predict it.
You probably thought that this was just supposed to be a trial balloon, maybe more a shock to the System, than an overwhelming act of devastation. Out here, no one could possibly suspect you."
"Yes, you are right," the prisoner said. "It had been nearly a year since I had arrived. A relaxing year at that. We bought a small house close to the lake and sat back to try and enjoy the scenery, and the news, and the world whipped itself into a frenzy. I could not help but watch my colleagues do the work I had once done. Television is the great entrancer, and sapper of my soul. For I felt as if it should have been me out there.
I knew I had to lie low. Still, it just got to be too hard. I could not deny my true nature.
So I decided it was time to move. Return to what I knew best. Even it wasn't good for me. It wasn't good for anyone. That was the Great Mistake.
It was perfect that the retirement center was in the same building as the school. The town was a magnet for old people, and a place of revulsion for the young. So demographics dictated that schools were shut and senior homes were open, and in this case, it just made sense that part of the school be used for the people who were quickly taking the town over. - a place where people came to die.
So I decided to pay a visit, and accelerate that process. I told them it was to see if there was a suitable place for my ageing father. The device was in my briefcase, I was going to plant it in the bathroom at the right time when I excused myself from the tour.
But then you, the big man police officer visiting his mother saw a few wires sticking out of the briefcase, and you followed me into the bathroom...You suspected."
And now the captor resumed the story, because he knew how it ended.
"With my finger on the trigger and yours on the detonator, I told you I was not afraid to die. But I pleaded with you, not to do it. For although I was not afraid in principle, I desperately did not want to die now. Fear of the ultimate, and fear of bad timing, are two very different things.
I fell to my knees. I begged you to let go. But you had not learned how to do that.
I too was once a daredevil, happy to face danger, feeling invincible in my youth and in my lust for all there was to absorb in life. Then, I thought, if the worst were to happen, let it happen. I could handle it. Still, I secretly hoped it never would happen.
But now, in that bathroom in the seniors' center, I had a strong need to survive. It was no longer about me, it wasn't a selfish instinctual urge. It was about love, and my love for another. My death would destroy the source of that love.
Death is always a possibility in my profession. When I got married and we had a baby, I never lost my courage as a policeman, but I stopped taking ridiculous chances. Because some things just aren't worth it. And some things are worth as much as life itself.
There, as I faced you down, in the final moments of my life, I could not conceive of an existence without my wife and baby son -- the most precious things in the world to me, the source of all my happiness and joy, the reason for all my efforts, my drive to survive. It hurt nearly as bad to imagine their lives without me in it anymore. The void itself didn't worry me. It was the immense loss of this love. For me, that is an eternal sentence in Hell.
I tried to explain that to you. I cried out and told you about my family.
'We love each other so much, we need each other so much, don't you understand?' And then, I cursed you. That if I were to spend an eternity in Hell, you would too, and I swore I would be your tormentor until the end of time."
"I did understand," the prisoner said. "And I began to cry too, you just could not see the tears. They fell for the one who I loved who I was about to lose, they fell for me, for not being able to deny my true nature. I could not live with the peace. A life of quiet was not for me, which meant others would have to suffer for my benefit. Hardship and the pain of others were my inspiration. I thrived when others died.
Certainly, I felt the power of your curse. I knew these were not the desperate words of a frustrated, angry man. They were uttered with sadness, and resignation. They would follow me to my grave. And beyond. For if I am the Destroyer, I am also the Self-Destroyer."
After all that, there had been a huge explosion.
Then there was the great flash.
Then the screams.
The blood. The bodies. The tears.
Then -- nothing.
Neither prisoner nor captor had been spared.
Around them both, dark inky blackness. It was the breathtaking vacuum of loneliness, an infinite sea without bottom, without a shore. Here, there's no reason to be, no being whatsoever. This was cold Oblivion -- unrecognized, uncharted, unknown. For them both, this was Hell.
"Your child and wife suffer without you until they die," the prisoner said.
"You are forgotten," his captor said. "And ignored. Your work was futile."
They looked at each other without sharing another word.
The captor held up the knife. He approached the bound prisoner without hesitation. He knew what to do.
With a few short, even movements, he sliced the prisoner's testicles off with the sharp blade. It took only a few seconds. But for his victim, it was like it lasted forever. His scream of anguish certainly did.
The tormentor held them before the Destroyer's eyes, which were propped open by toothpicks. He had no choice but to look. There was no opportunity to rest. Or to deny. For this was the fervent wish of a billion souls.
If time existed in this dark place, perhaps he would heal by tomorrow.
And then they would do it all over again.
The pain was eternal.
So was the torture.
They would endure it, forever. Together.
E N D