Post 9/11 Thriller set in Tunisia
In memory of my father, Zoltan de Bary
BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
There is nothing either good or bad
but thinking makes
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
This book is based on a true event and persons of public interest are named within, however, the story and the characters, which appear in this work, are purely fictitious and any resemblance between them and real people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The author has made all reasonable efforts to provide current and accurate information for the reader of this book. The author will not be held liable for any unintentional errors or omissions that may be found and what is stated as fact at the time of this writing may become out dated. The accuracy and completeness of information and the opinions stated and provided herein are not necessarily representative of the author’s opinions.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
Table of Contents:
PART I: THE GIRLS
Chapter 1: On the Beach
Chapter 2: The Men of Djerba
Chapter 3: Undercover
Chapter 4: The Djerba Nights
Chapter 5: In the Land of the Setting Sun
Chapter 6: Sand between the Toes
Chapter 7: At First Light
Chapter 8: The Sacred Square
PART II: SUSPECTS AND SPIRITS
Chapter 9: Nine
Chapter 10: Tina
Chapter 11: The Green Light
Chapter 12: Pushing the Night
Chapter 13: Flames
Chapter 14: Bilal
Chapter 15: Fouad
Chapter 16: Tariq
PART II: MONICA
Chapter 17: Guns and Chocolates
Chapter 18: Palms by the Pool
Chapter 19: Over the Wall
Chapter 20: Hayat
Chapter 21: The Smell of Decay
Chapter 22: The Yellow Seat
Chapter 23: New Aspects
Chapter 24: The Stone
Chapter 25: The Headscarf
PART IV: THE MISSION
Chapter 26: Desert Marriage
Chapter 27: Island between the Continents
Chapter 28: The Last Dance
Chapter 29: In the Light of Day
Chapter 30: At the Airport
Chapter 31: The Silver Jeep
Chapter 32: White Lady
About the Author
PART I: THE GIRLS
Fear hugs her windpipe like a snake constrictor as she buckles over to kiss the wet sand cuffing her ankles. The entire weight of the night seems to press down on her, pushing her on, across the deserted beach even as the sound of her own breathing pounds against her eye sockets, muffling her senses, loud as a sledgehammer. She flings a fugitive glance over her shoulder. Strands of hair whip her in the eye. There it is, the SUV, looming large in the silvery light, its powerful whine heading straight for her. But the salt-drenched air, thick as resin, clogs her throat, and she can’t even scream.
Each time she torn away, the car had accelerated its pace as well, ripping through the texture of the night, its motor howling across the curve of deserted coastline to spear her. A spam makes her body twist like an African gazelle caught by in mid-air by a lion’s incisors, as she recaps the last hour. Next to her, the surf flogs the shore relentlessly. Every breath she takes feels like filigreed alveoli were busting apart in her lungs, and the circles she spins on the moist sand are growing smaller with each step, while the blast of her heartbeat overpowers the thrash of the breakers, rendering her dizzy to the point of utter exhaustion. Then the car surfaces out of the shadows again to pounce on her and it was as if the velvety night had her pinned fast, stranded on an abandoned spit of beach in a foreign country, unable to move.
The driver’s ongoing attempts to catch her have hammered the fact home that he’ll never give peace. Not until he gets what he wants. Her. A sharp tang of blood coats her lips, and she bends double at the notion of what the man has in store for her. Blood hurls through her veins, but apart from the sea’s silver foam and the distant stars there is nobody to witness her battle.
Low clouds, too dense for the moon’s blades to prick plunge her back into woolen darkness as she darts in and out between the mesh of waves, fanning out between her feet. Once the Mediterranean had been enticing, like on the TV ads. Now it was transformed into a primeval monster that mocked her every attempt at escape. Ensnared by this vision, she freezes in her tracks. All she wants is to coil up in an embryo position, dissolve like the foam of the waves, and vanish in the same way as the beach seems to do in both directions.
Then the SUV skids over the curve of the beach with deliberate ease, catching her frame against a naked stretch of sand, ready to strike, flaring searchlights set. “We’re here to get you”, the headlights seem to say and in the next second the jeep’s hood grazes her thigh. Instantly, the sweet smell of charcoaled flesh hits the air and the driver flings open the passenger door, jerking out his hand to grab her wrist. A lone sheen of moonlight arrowheads off his outstretched fingers as he probes the night and the sardonic glint in his eyes flashes within inches of her face. But she grids her jaws together and, crouching low, she instinctively takes a handful of sand to throw at the car’s windshield.
“Piss off”, she hollers.
Struck off guard by her sudden pluck, the driver rips the steering wheel around, making the jeep thunder into the sea, where it spins a circular fountain of spray, before the car’s erratic movements straighten and it returns for her, puffing up sand to sling.
She wants to run but the sand seems to hold her down. It was as if her toes were sprouting roots. Sand crumbles to her touch, shackling her down, sucking her under. With each stride she takes, she breaks through the beach’s upper treacherous layer. At the same time, her heart sinks in direct proportion to the speed with which the sand snaps at her shins. On her heels, the driver hammers down on the accelerator with renewed vengeance. It seems to give him unforeseen pleasure to hunt her across the beach and he gives a snort, and slams his fist down on the steering wheel again. His oldest hunting instincts have been awakened.
She is a thousand miles from home, and she’s never feared for her life like now. The salty breeze mingles with the salt of the tears streaming down her cheeks yet her heart continues to thunder like a pulsating Red Giant on the verge of its final flare. Debris, scattered on the shoreline, slashes her soles. The jeep’s engine, on the other hand, is made for mastering difficult terrain. Next to her, the silvery surf is steadily rising, wiping the ground from under her feet. In the distance, the night swallows up the spine of the beach. To the other, sand dunes tower high, blocking her passage to the rest of the island. In the sky above, inky darkness weighs pregnant with humidity. While, right in front of her, the gleam of the silver metallic car slithers along the water’s edge, fortifying the illusion that driver and car have metamorphosed into one single beast, part animal and part man. Concentrate, she tells herself. Then the vehicle leaps over the sand with the fierce roar of an enraged bull, slicing the air. Suddenly she knows where the car can’t reach her. She has to mount the dunes. And with a last ditch effort she turns on her heels. It’s her best shot.
But even if she makes it over the dunes, her plight wouldn’t be over. Beyond the dunes, lies the Blue Lagoon, a body of water, connected to and fed by the encircling sea through a tube-like passage only at one end. Behind it, however, is the road that forms the main arterial vein of the island. In what seems like a lifetime ago, she’d crossed that way before. Then the lagoon had shimmered mesmerizing turquoise and the sun had dripped from the sky to melt into the sea like teasel. Now, the water of the Blue Lagoon was bound to be pitch black and riddled with slimy creatures. She shudders.
The howl of the SUV permeates the night, betraying nothing good about the driver’s state of mind. Urgency sings in her ears. Will he be able to spot her in the weak moonlight when she wades cross the Blue Lagoon?The thought chokes her. She’d be like a fly, swimming in a plate of soup, waiting to be devoured. All he’ll need to do to is circle the body of dark water from the land-bound side to catch her.
With falling steps she attacks the nearest dune. The claw of an errant cloud’s shadow streaks her cheek. Beneath her, sand grains losen and her heels sink into the slope, till she slices down the length of the dune. Her dreams of a wonderful vacation had disintegrated in the same way as the ground now does below her, turning to dust even as she reaches out to grab them. In her mind, she struggles to assemble the jigsaw pieces and understand how things could become so nasty.
The man behind the steering wheel isn’t the person he’d pretended to be. If she managed to understand exactly what had happened she might still be able to undo her fate. With a final effort she wills the night to offer an unforeseen twist and, at that precise moment, the clouds part, allowing the moon to burst forth, and the premonition that powers beyond her influence were being set in motion fires her on.
Chapter 1: On the Beach
The day’s first call to prayer has just finished when the phone gives an angry ring.
“Mouna. Hello? Is it you?”
It’s Tariq’s voice on the other end. He’s her local right-hand man, and the only person she’s officially allowed to call her by her Arabic name. The others have followed suit without her consent. But why can’t he call her by her real name once in a while? Especially at the break of day, when her mind feels as woolen as the gray light filtering in through the window? Damn it, her name’s Monica. What’s so hard about that?She gives a grunt. Well, something important must have occurred, after all, she’s given Tariq strict instructions to only contact her after nine in the mornings.
“Who else should I be?”, she retorts into the mouthpiece in irritation, since she never functions gracefully at this time. Apart from that, the threads of a recurring nightmare still hold her captive by the hem. Her voice is hoarse. Normally the unease whether the respect Tariq owes her will suffer from the casualness of calling her Mouna subsides in the act. Not so today.
Life is normally relaxed on the vacation island London send her to. This is, however, her first official job for them, and, from the day she entered the rooms of the car-rental that served to disguise the firm’s local office, Tariq had flashed her with his irresistible charm. He had naturally been briefed as to her arrival, and, with that typical laconic gesture of his, he’d offered her his outstretched hand while he solemnly announced, “I’ll give you an Arabic name to go by. Everybody has one here, you know, and if you want to blend in you’ll need one as well.” Then his characteristic grin had split open across his tanned, even features, and his eyes had twinkled. “How about if I call you Mouna, Miss Monica, from now on…”, he continued, gallantly adding, “If it’s OK with you?”, as if he were throwing in a pinch of salt to taste. But his almond-shaped brown eyes said it all as they blinked at her playfully. He’d done what he always did, namely tie the bow to the trick with his irresistible charm, and Monica had instantly felt the pull this man would exert on her.
It hadn’t taken long, till most people on the island she came in contact with assumed that Tariq and her were having an affair. Yet, to pretend that this was so, was by no means an unwanted side effect. She was normally strictly against mixing the private with the professional — especially after what she had been through in regard to Arab men — but it still gave her a secret thrill. Apart from that, it provided Tariq and her with the opportunity to see each other after office hours and discuss their actual work.
“Mouna”, Tariq plunges on undeterred, pulling her away from the thoughts tumbling in on her as she holds the phone, and the disturbing images which had invaded her sleep seep away to the edges of her mind. His voice is raw, has the sting of urgency shining through.
Outside, darkness still lies crouched in the island’s crannies and leafy palm heads loom over the ploughed fields of the local farmers between the island’s many hotel resorts, humid with dew. A donkey bellows in the distance, and in a flash Monica shakes off her initial bad temper and takes her bearings.
“This is bloody important”, Tariq says in a coughed whisper, and Monica’s alarm bells suddenly ring out loud, and she leaps out of bed with a bolt.
“What the fuck is up?” she hisses, sliding a skirt over her legs.
In the background, Monica hears a siren’s sound waves grew shorter while she listens to her assistant clear his throat.
“That’s the Commissioner-in-Chief,” he informs her.
She’s fully irritated and half dressed by now.
“What the hell’s going on?” she demands. “Damn it! Speak up.”
Tariq’s voice tenses.
“You better come”.
Through the phone she hears cars honking and men yell. Her co-worker is apparently in the middle of the island’s main coastal road.
“Everybody’s on their way to the Blue Lagoon.”
Suppressed irritation laces his tone. Then silence slices the ether. But Monica is stark awake by now and ready for action.
For two and a half months, ever since she had been sent here, she’d been waiting, waiting for something to happen, for a clue or for something out of the ordinary to come along. She should be thrilled, but by now she’s reached the point where she’s internalized the island’s routine to the point that it needed an effort to embrace a change. The truth was that she had grown lazy and in love with both her assistant and the easy island life she had become part of. She gives an involuntary sigh, and with the momentary clarity we gain when we slip from one state of consciousness to the other, she knows that all that is over, and that she’s reached the point of no return.
The island is a world of its own, with its own particular melody. A magical place, where a fine shawl of dew covers the soil at night to evaporate at first light, leaving a dazzle to the sweeping white beaches and the humble homes of the inhabitants that always fills her with quiet joy. It was at those moments as if a promise was being pushed in by the surrounding waves and the cry of the sea gulls that raked the wave combs.
Normally she began her day with a jog along the coastal road in the hope of losing the extra pounds she’d gained on her first assignment to North of Africa, but, listening to her assistant’s breath over the mouthpiece, she has the foreboding that those days are over. The white heat which always invades the island at midday, making all physical effort exhausting, will cease to form the day’s central pause. From now on, other things will become important, and, instead of donning her dark shades and shifting down a gear with the sun at its peak, shining with the force a million floodlights, she’ll finally slip into the gear she was hired for working in.
Tariq’s call had awoken her in more than one way. Now, the moment when the first stars lighted up at night and life flared to its climax in the various vacation resorts lining the beaches would no longer be the day’s height of excitement. Now, all of that would be placed on hold. So why wasn’t she rejoicing?For the first couple of weeks, she’d wanted nothing more than to get a move on, and do the job she’d been sent here to do.
“Get a move on and pick me up. Now”, orders Monica as she flings a light jumper across her shoulders. “We’re heading for the beach too.”
Five minutes later, she’s seated next to her local scout in the company’s bright yellow Seat, with the slogan of the car rental that serves as their cover, painted across its side in bold letters. As they thunder through the night, the sky turns a notch violet in the east. Tariq concentrates on the road. His eyes are fuzzy, and Monica’s guess is that her colleague has spent the night haunting one of the wayside food stalls — their spits of meat sending smoke pillars into the sky till early in the morning every night — catching the latest tidbits of island gossip. On the streets, items of news are as quickly in everybody’s mouth as a bush fire. Monica knows this from years of living in Arabic countries. Tariq serves as her ears on the blood arteries of the island. After all, that’s the standard setup in the company they work for.
At an inconspicuous bend leading to the Blue Lagoon, they discover a soiled police vehicle guardingfurtheraccess to the strip ofuninhabited beach beyond. In a flash, Tariq hops out as soon as the car stops, shakes a cigarette out of his jacket, offers it to the cob on duty, and falls into talk with him. Casually, he points to Monica as she stamps a lump of sand. She hates it when things concerning her are discussed behind her back, but in these parts of the world it’s part of the game; a game she signed up for happily precisely because she knows the ropes. But before she can ponder the matter more, Tariq calls out to her.
“Mouna, come on. Let’s go.”
Their car snakes along the dusty track a little more, coming as close to the shore as it can without getting stuck in the sand.
“Some dead tourist’s been washed up”, Tariq annunciates.
Monica sucks in her breath.
Shortly thereafter, they abandon the vehicle and continue by foot over some sand dunes cutting the mile long stretch of beach off from the rest of the island. Their breathing accelerated, they reach the last summit, and contemplate the scene at their feet. Only SUVs can make it to the other side between the dunes. The sight across the width of beach is stunning. Salt and spray sprinkle the scene, lending the tongue of land that leads into the breaking dawn a mystical note. Straight across from them, a thin strip of blood-red dawn hangs roped to the horizon, looking like a whore’s garish quilt, caught in the act of being flung across a schoolgirl’s bed.
Monica rubs her eyes to wash the last shreds of sleep from them. Her legs feelwobbly. As she stamps down on the other side of the dune, the coat of sunlight is tossed up and a dynamic splash of magenta ejaculates into the sky to herald the new day. She blinks. All around her, rich hues of violet burst apart in an avalanche of pink rays. It has been a while since she’s witness such a magnificent sunrise, she realizes, while the intoxicating palette of colors painted above casts fate’s dice. At the far edges the last pockets of night are wrung like grit from a dish rag. The length of the beach below glimmers with a film of moisture, reflecting the explosion of color, multiplying the spectacular. It would be delightful, were it not for the seriousness of the event bringing them here.
It’s low tide and the beach is showing the full extent of its curve. High tide will set in soon. Scattered, the rebuked remains of the sea’s movements lie dumped on the humid slopes. They look like stranded treasure chests, and, with the ball of fire triumphantly erupting from the waves, even the smallest of objects caught in its wake are given monstrous shadows. From one moment to the next, the morning smacks her in the face, and she discovers four figures on the beach, etched dark against the backdrop of the sand. They stand assembled close to the surf, circling an awkward heap, vaguely reminiscent of a stranded walrus. Neither of the four men look up to witness the break of day, but the shadows their bodies throw across the beach almost touch the dunes that hem the beach. The men’s attention seems entirely occupied by the lifeless form at their feet, and they appear engrossed in a conversation, gesticulating and scribbling notes in booklets they draw forth specially for this purpose. When Tariq and Monica near, one of the men disentangles from the group and comes towards them looking more like he wants to shoo them away than welcome them.
Straight away Tariq irons out the situation with a well-chosen remark, because, let’s face it, that’s why he’s booked on the team. Her task, in comparison, consists in observing, in coordinating the information gathered in a coherent fashion. He is the field scout; she’s the higher ranked agent, even though she’s fairly new to the organization.
Tariq points at Monica while he speaks. In return, the four men nod at the good-looking French man in his early thirties, who speaks Arabic like a local, with sulky faces. Monica will be able to help identify the corpse, Tariq interjects. She’s already the island’s foremost tour guide and knows practically every tourist on the island, he tells them. Most of the holidaymakers are from France and the U.K., yet there are also always some Germans, and the occasional Spanish or Italian-speaking ones to round off the collection. The prices here just beak those in Europe. It would only be wise to have Miss Monica give the scene a look-over, he concludes.
Monica stays in the background, waiting for her assistant to introduce her with a flourish as is their usual tactic. After all, her primary aim is to act discreetly. So she takes position a few steps to the side, getting her feet soaked by the Mediterranean Sea when a wave swamps her shoes, and continues to watch the beauty of the composition splashed to the sky above.
Out of the corner of her eye, she squints at the victim lying to her feet. She doesn’t want to look, but she can’t help it. The corpse is a bloated, vile smelling mess, and the tang of seaweed hangs on the breeze. The body is contorted, and — on the inside — she’s revolting at the idea of having to touch the bluish flesh later on. To view the bare feet, stretched towards her, is already driving the fact home that the victim is a young woman, still barely a girl.
It strikes her that those feet, with its painted toenails only scarcely visible beneath a layer of fine grains, will never tread the ground again. The puffed up, ghostly limbs are badly soiled. Lumps of damp sand tangle the lengths of hair draping the inert body’s naked shoulders. The soles of the victim’s feet are covered with cuts and slashes. Sweat oils Monica’s frown, and it’s not due to the first rays of sunlight hitting her full blast in the face. She has recognized the victim.
Tariq’s call makes her stumble out of her footprints, and lurch towards the men mustering her with stern expressions. Tariq introduces her to them, one by one. Clockwise. She greets each one with a steady handshake, quickly placing her right hand over her heart, as it is customary to do in Muslim countries.
Listening to Tariq ramble on, her brain rattles off. She tries to place the assembled set of government employees. The most important man present is Achmed al-Benni, the Commissioner-in-Chief. Everybody knows him, even if he’s only been appointed to his office recently. After the fatal terrorist assault — the one she’s here to investigate in the name of her company — and a variety of fact-finding delegations from the country’s Capital had visited the island and as a result many high ranking officers had consequently lost their posts. Well, this was Tunisia, a small country in North Africa, straight across from Italy, next to Algeria and just north of Libya, but it had a good reputation in the tourist sector. Within 24 hours the late Commissioner-in-Chief was cut off and al-Benni replaced him. When and wherever al-Benni appeared, hotel employees and locals bend over double to open doors for him, and Monica had not failed to witness them even fall over each other to kiss his flabby hand when he passed by. Gestures of submission are an integral feature of ancient tradition, and only disappeared slowly in these regions of the world.
Dr. Thalamus Jelun stands next in line to the Commissioner-in-Chief. Carefully, he extends his tiny hand. He is a man of minute stature with nervous eyes, grotesquely enlarged by thick, circular glasses. Furthermore, he is the Chief of the island’s medical center.
“An extremely sad case”, he sighs in French, the language of the former colonial power. Then he rolls his dark button eyes across the width of the magnificent sunrise splashed to the horizon although one can tell how they long to revert to the revolting form at his feet.
“The neck of the victim is broken, as far as I can discern,” he lisps. Then Dr. Jelun frowns, and his gaze switches back into focus as it returns to the grotesquely deformed body twisted in the sand.
“As you can clearly see the body is completely inflated with water,” he exclaims in his bird-like voice. “The question is if the victim drowned.” Saying so, he smiles blankly at the surrounding group, but it is hard to detect more than extreme hyperopia in his expression.
“As I deduce from the way the skin has reacted to the salty element, the body was in the sea for way over a day. And, to be frank, the determination of T.O.D. — time of death — will be most complicated. But I, Dr. Jelun, will put my heart into it.”
He peers tentatively into the faces of his colleagues and pats his rounded stomach. He’s eager to do the autopsy, and points a probing finger at the mount of pale flesh. “Je suis désolé”, he says wiping his spectacles clean only to kill the dramatic impact of the moment by giving the Arab version of a condolatory platitude.
The other men solemnly repeat his last words. “Praised be the will of Allah”, they say. From habit Monica mumbles the words as well. And in that exact moment, the first direct wand of sun light makes the beach come to life. The sight to her feet makes her nauseous, and she realized that she’s not really prepared for how the day is turning out. A slice of light on the water’s surface darts out at her, pinching her eyes.
It’s easier to concentrate on the details, avoid the full impact of the frightful sight deposited on the beach. A shudder goes down her spine as she notes that the dead girl’s is missing an earring. She takes in the deformed, wax-like fingers, laced with silvery dew, and the corpse’s decomposing nostrils, undoubtedly nibbled at by innumerable fish. Then Monica’s heart gallops up her throat, knocking against her eardrums. A glimpse at the coffee brown hair, fanned in grainy strands around the bulk of bluish meat is actually sufficient. It confirms her first impression. She winches. Her palms go moist. This is the first time that she is confronted by a dead body, and, to be honest, she’s slithered into this job, into this life, into this whole bloody line of business, by chance and now the time has come to face the cruel reality waiting at the end.
Part of her wants to be sucked in by the waves, but she forces herself to look squarely at the disfigured face for the sake of the men present, who are holding their breaths, waiting for her to reveal the victim’s identity. Yet, what chills her more than she cares to admit, is how the inert lump of flesh, curled to a disfigured heap in the sand, executes an uncanny power over her, begging her to find out what happened.
Chapter 2: The Men of Djerba
(Seven days earlier)
The plane swept over and closed in on the island from the north in an elegant manoeuvre. Milky white wave-heads erupted across the surface of the peacock blue sea at random points, disappearing again as rapidly as they surfaced, and the children on board shoved each other to peak through the oval windows, and pointed their sticky fingers at them, excitedly asking their elders if those were dolphins jumping in the depth below. Then they spotted the island. It lay at barely a hand’s throw from the main land, looking like a sun-roasted teardrop, encircled from all sides by sandy banks amidst glistering aquamarine, azure and turquoise water. Excitedly they jumped up and down. They’d reached their holiday destination: a vibrant speck of land made of undiluted color, also known as the island of Djerba.
Djerba, a popular Tunisian vacation island off the coast of North Africa, is practically even-leveled and a large portion appears to be covered by sandy soil, blazing yellow in the heat of midday when seen from above. It’s an outpost of the Sahara, left behind when the Mediterranean filled up millions of years ago with water from the Atlantic, and the skeletal remains of marine life, compressed to chalky limestone, still carve its edges to this day. The aircraft swooped down gallantly, like a winged dolphin, flew parallel to the landing-strip, braced its wheels against the breeze and completed a touchdown with rattling wheels which was consequently greeted with overwhelming applause by the mainly British holidaymakers on board.
“Intoxicating”, whispered Stephanie Fields, barely eighteen, under her breath, when she stepped from the plane into the hot African air, and felt the upward rising current of hot air rising like a bird soaring on a warm draught for the first time in its life. So this was what it felt like to be truly alive!In that second, the vacation modus was cast. One wisp of Tunisian air had set it free, an avalanche of endocrines enforced it, and excitement flushed her veins. She wanted the whole world at that moment, the whole experience of what life had to offer; even if it meant feeling the downside, sweet pain, as well. At that moment, she didn’t care. “Take me and make me complete”, her sparkling eyes seemed to say as she looked around.
White light enveloped her, and the slim palms planted along the entrance to the airport nodded their mops of hair in the stark sunlight. Everything lulled her on, beckoned her to say “yes” to the universe, while heightening her craving to break away from drab daily life in good old England. Her girlfriend, Tina, was likewise thrilled to have reached their holiday destination. Giggling, and perfectly aware of the fiery glances the male ground staff of the Melittaairport shot at them, they gathered their luggage and proceeded towards the tourist bus waiting for them in the car lot.
Stephanie was a stunning young woman. Her chestnut hair fell straight down her back, flowing to a halt in the small of her back, and from beneath bushy eyebrows emerald green eyes gazed openly at the world. Sometimes they appeared to see beyond what others saw, but this only heightened the attention she caused wherever she went. Her friend, Tina Morningstar, was a head taller, and her chin-long hair enhanced her most prominent feature, her heart-shaped face. But she was no comparison to her best girlfriend.
In the town flat the two girls shared in Liverpool, Tina was the one who hovered* *(english expression for vacuum-clean) the floor and washed the dishes Stephanie left stacked in the sink. She was also the one who studied chemistry at the community collage while working part-time in a drug store. This holiday trip to Djerba had been a special offer, due to the tragic terrorist attack that had taken place some months earlier, making holidaymakers think twice about spending their vacation there. Some twenty odd people had been killed on the 11thof April that Spring by an explosion in the island’s Jewish Synagogue, and it was rumored that al-Qaeda was behind the terrible deed. The Tunisian tourist industry feared for its survival, and had thus readjusted its prizes accordingly. On the spur of a moment, Stephanie had decided she needed to treat herself to this exotic ten-day trip. After all, the fare had been a steal!And it had only taken a minimum of persuasion till Tina had been convinced to tag along.
There were plenty of empty seats on the coach which would take them to their hotel, so the girls each slumped into their seats each with a happy sigh. The tourist guide, up front, was a blonde woman with blue eyes the shade of Saxon rain, who regarded the new-arrivals sceptically from behind lowered reading glasses while she smoked a local cigarette and chatted amicably with the bus driver in fluent Arabic.
“Welcome to Djerba. Welcome in the south of Tunisia”, she greeted them, after all the passengers were comfortably seated. “My name’s Monica and I’m your personal touroperator on this trip.”
She exhaled one last, blue cloud of smoke into the heat of the parking lot and then the doors slammed shut. Finally, the bus put itself in motion and the eagerness the British girls felt rose still further. Their holiday had begun.
“Has anyone been to Djerba before?” Monica inquired, examining the newly arrivals over the rim of her reading glasses. Her articulation was loud and clear and, although her English was perfect, one couldn’t pinpoint her origins, but she had a self-ironical gaze and this made her sympathetic to the girls. An older man with a black goatee and checked shirt eagerly answered the question with an affirmative nod, and Monica promptly wove his gesture into the context of her following speech:
“A repeat offender! Well, why not? Welcome on board! Djerba offers the whitest beaches, the clearest water and the mildest summer evenings. It’s the quintessence of a perfect holiday. You’ll find everything your heart desires here, right in front of your nose: surfing, excursions, night life, golf, relaxation and colorful folklore.”
Without the slightest air of embarrassment she continued to provide further information.
“The leisure and sports-facilities are fantastic: sailing, diving, tennis, and once a week, there’s a big local market in the island’s capital, Houmt Souk. We’ll be passing through shortly. Take a look.”
As the bus shot down the road it past some of the island’s typical, neat white houses with their blue shutters and doors, the then the streets of Houmt Souk suddenly filled with pedestrians. Dhuhr, the midday prayer, had just finished, and the mostly male worshippers, wrapped in their ankle-long shirts, piled out of the town’s main mosque into the open, ready for lunch, obstructing the traffic till the bus almost came to a halt. The girls looked out of the window. England had many Pakistanis but here everything was drenched in sunlight, and the swaying long robes seemed to glow giving the scene a harmonious atmosphere.
As an afterthought Monica, the tourist guide, added, “There we go… please, look to the right. That’s the heart of the town’s Souk, which means market place. It’s charming, but be aware of the fake trainers they sell!”
The man with the goatee snorted loudly at this, and Tina couldn’t suppress a short hysterical laugh, while the slightly over-weight, fair-haired tourist guide picked up the thread of her speech.
“And now, hold on tight, ladies and gents… the absolute highlight on Djerba is a romantic excursion to the big sand dunes by the Blue Lagoon. It’s absolutely awesome! You shouldn’t miss the sunset from there: it’s unforgettable!”
She smiled encouragingly down the aisle.
“In case, you want to go, please, feel free to contact me. You’ll usually find me in the Rent-A-Car office of the Djerba Inn Hotel.”
Then she shook her blonde bob, finished her discourse, and turned back to the bus driver, laughing pleasantly. The girls from Liverpool locked eyes.
“Oh Tina, did you hear?” Stephanie exclaimed, her green eyes gleaming in the light reflected off the shimmering sea that invaded the bus. “An excursion to the Blue Lagoon! We’ve got to go there, sweetie!”
“Well… I don’t know”, answered Tina, hesitating, before she added. „It’s bound to be costly. We need to watch our expenses, Steph.”
“Who cares?” retorted Stephanie with a laugh, and switched her gaze back from a point somewhere between the horizon’s diffuse hues.
“Why are you always so strung up?” Her voice rang through the bus. “In the end, you’re the one who’ll get burnt!” She was not going to let her mood be spoiled by her friend, and she already felt the island unfolding its magic, carrying her along in the process.
In the first couple of days, the two women explored the private bay gracing the seafront of The Djerba Inn, the same hotel in which the tourist guide had her office. The water was crystal clear, and flocks of tiny silver fish would always nibble their painted toes when they strode in. Stephanie was delighted, whereas Tina’s mouth tended to twitch with suppressed unease when she only saw them scurry through the shallow water from a distance. At a minimal slope, the powder-white beach disappeared into the arms of the Mediterranean, looking exactly like on the postcard shot in the travel bureau that had caught Stephanie’s attention only a week earlier. White waves of foam raced in to meet them in soft ripples like bridal lace tumbling down a flight of stairs. The water itself was tepid as in a bathtub. For hours, Stephanie and Tina would sit in the natural water pools and watch each other’s skin flush from white to apricot, and slowly to honey brown. Later, after the first thrill wore off, they discovered new corners along the island’s coast, where the sea was deeper and the surf rougher.
Tina didn’t love the waves as much as her companion. She never leaped straight into them like her friend was prone to do. Instead, she’d study how the large waves chased each other up the shore’s slope, as if they were moving according to an ingrained rhythm, coming in faster each time, till they culminating in a climax reminiscent of a musical symphony. Then, after the furious spell had terminated, the tamer waves would follow, as if to introduce a new piece of music. This process repeated itself over and over again, and only during those mellower moments would she seize the opportunity to follow her friend into the water.
In the evenings, after Maghrib, the call to evening prayer, the girls would join the other guests in the hotel’s spacious dining hall. There, they sat beneath sterile rows of neon light, blinking, their cheeks rosy from the day’s sunbathing. Generally, there were two food distributions to satisfy the guest’s demand, because the Djerba Inn was not only an economic hotel, but also vastly popular with middle-class Tunisians guests from the main land. Every day, the same dishes where reproduced with only slight variations, and every night men of all nationalities turned their heads to stare at the British girls when they swayed by on their high heels and short dresses.
Waiters were dazzled by their appearance and dozens of husbands, strapped to family tables by invisible chains, would be stabbed between the ribs by their wives when they forgot to close their gaping mouths again in a timely fashion. Later on, after the meal, the twosome would walk the open reception area of the hotel with circling hips. There they listened to the Arabic folk musicians playing under the bougainvillea plants, and there they first tasted the sweet traditional peppermint tea. An ebony black waiter, clad in blue balloon trousers, poured it for them every evening. Taking careful aim, he would let the amber liquid flow through the air for a good foot, filling the dainty cup below with a theatrical splash.
Regularly all eyes flew to Stephanie, seizing her up. Tina, in turn, would shrug her shoulders. In Liverpool, it was the same. And it was not that Tina was not pretty in her own right. And, yes, sometimes, she was envious of the admiration her friend harvested.Was it her straight-backed posture that halted male admirers from coming closer? She’d asked herself that question a thousand times.
Quickly, the two girls accustomed themselves to taste of the Tunisian tea, the ataí,and to the shameless advances made by the local men. Their third day had barely passed, the tea-drinking had already become a fixed component of their daily routine, and by now they barely took note anymore of the upheaval they caused as they sauntered through the vast hotel resort. At least, it was like this until events began to overrun each other in the same fashion as the stormy waves did after a tranquil phases on the island’s beaches.
One of the fixed rituals the girls had established since coming to Djerba consisted in rubbing their bodies with coco-nut oil after the sun-bath, curing their hair from the weather and dressing with care for their nightly tour of the hotel dance club. The tight-fitting jeans and white top Tina wore left one of her slender shoulders exposed. Stephanie, on the other hand, wore a mini skirt of textile leather. Her blouse, made of the same material, allowed the rim of her busts to spill over the top. Both of them looked luscious. That evening, their eyes shone brighter than usually as they descended the stairs to welcome the night.
After the evening buffet had concluded, they planted themselves in rattan seats in the courtyard, ordered their far too heavily sugared peppermint tea, and waited for the evening to unfold. The hotel owned nightclub did not open until in another hour, leaving them enough time to take their bearings, fend off admirers. Three local musicians plunged into a folk tune and the heavy scent of jasmine saturated the air. People greeted each other in a mélange of different languages, waving to each other across the open space, styled in the form of the market place in Houmt Souk. It was a late summer evening like it would never be in England, sticky with anticipation, buzzing with cordial laughter and children of all ages, people from all countries, side by side. The girls leaned forward.
Promptly, a man, with a youthful gait, paraded by and flung them a conspirator’s smile. His age was strangely difficult to determine as he might have been anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-five. He noted how the girls, sitting nicely propped in their chairs, registered his presence so he immediately spun around and walked by a second time.
“How ya doing?” he asked with distinct pose, greeting them with a fake American accent, as if he were himself on travels. He wore a pink, hand-tailored shirt. At the same time, he presented them with a row of precisely evened white teeth. A golden Rolex watch hung alongside a colorful plaited hand band with frayed ends from his tanned wrist. The girls stared at him in astonishment, unsure of what to make of him.
“How ya like Djerba?” he said, elaborating his small talk, without missing a beat to the lively melody playing in the background.
Stephanie and Tina arched their eyebrows. The man seemed determined to make conversation with them. So Stephanie flashed him a radiant smile, spurred on by the flow of the moment and, waving her hand like a Hollywood starlet, she spouted: “Brilliant!”
Tina hiccupped. Why wasn’t she more like Stephanie? She thought. It made life much easier if one played dumb.
The small-build man showed off his most prominent trademark, his perfectly filed set of teeth. Due to the girl’s heavy accent he had been able to put his thumb on their nationality with ease. Confidently he blunted out: “My name’s Fouad and I love British chicks!”
An awkward instant of indecision arose before the girls exploded in laughter. Fouad’s arrogance was irritating, but the evening was young, and this was exciting!Without pounding the matter, Stephanie introduced herself and her girlfriend. To their further surprise, their new acquaintance instantaneously clasped the smaller one’s hand, held it to his mouth, and planted a neat kiss on it. Stephanie giggled coyly. The gesture was perfectly in keeping with the hotel’s arched, Moorish doorways and the colorful flickering artistic lamps illuminating the white domes which roofed many of the inn’s buildings. Actually, it was exactly like she had imagined her vacation to be, as exotic as in a tale in the 1001 Arabian Nights. The two friends shrieked with glee. Heads turned their way in amusement but Stephanie didn’t give a hoot. Obviously highly satisfied with the response to his exhibition of gallantry, Fouad let another beguiling smile spread over his sun-kissed face.
“You’re delightful, my dear!” he fluted, falling into self-contained rapture. “Are you what they call an English Rose, uh?”
“Oh, come off it”, countered Stephanie with a becoming smirk, suddenly well aware how everybody was watching them. “Don’t be a bloody idiot!”
Now it was Fouad turn to laugh good-naturedly. Well, look there, how he loved the cheeky type!He eyed the ravishing young woman with the long, chestnut colored hair, and decided that he wanted her. The girls could not help blushing. The full moon loomed in the background, and for a moment, Stephanie caught sight of their tour guide, Monica, as she threw them a glance across the open reception space. And the look in the older woman’s eye pricked her like the tip of a pin, making her twitch for a fleeting moment.
“Come with me”, exclaimed Fouad, noting her shudder. Easily he wrapped his arm around Stephanie’s waist until it lay losely on her shapely hips.
“I’ll show you what Djerba is all about. Yes! And I’ll take you to the Djerba Nights. There’s no place like it in the whole world! Believe me, cherí”, he bubbled, coasting on a new bout of enthusiasm. “Come on, I’ll introduce you and your lovely companion to everybody. You’ll love it. And...” , he winked knowingly, “they’ll love you too, dear Lady Green Eyes!”
The man with the pink silk shirt looked up into Stephanie’s face and laughed. He was half a head shorter than her, but an air of superiority distinguished him, never the less. At the same time, he was chummy, making it impossible for anyone to hold him a grudge for long. Tina looked over at the two of them, but their new acquaintance had not forgotten her after all.
“Tina, honey... come on,” he butted out and laid his other hand around the waist of the heart-faced girl, as well, so he that had a girl in each arm.
Confidently he led the two of them to his parked car, a silver-metallic SUV Jeep Cherokee shining sleekly in the flames of the torches illuminating the hotel entrance. It had barely taken ten minutes — from the moment of their first encounter till the moment they speeded into the night — to complete the show. Both shopkeepers and hotel guests chuckled at the entertaining performance they had been presented with. Then the crickets in the bushes around the hotel’s half-open lobby chirped out again noisily, the lush flowerbeds lining the walkways continued to hum with sub-tropical insects, and the traditional musicians picked up a new tune so that the daily dance of vanities could continue.
But Monica had not been the only one to take a special interest in the two girls. From behind a palm tree grove, another set of eyes had followed the young women with interest. For three days, this other man had stalked Stephanie without her noticing. The girl’s emerald eyes had bewitched him from the moment he’d first seen her, and time was running out on him if he wanted to catch her attention before her holiday came to an end.
Thus the evening that Stephanie and Tina met Fouad, who was originally from neighboring Libya and whose flamboyant style impressed them more than they cared to admit, came to an end. It was the first coincidence in a chain of coincidences, which would change the two women’s lives forever. But the man behind the palms, which shook their heads disapprovingly in the breeze, would also play a decisive role in the sequence of events to follow. Both of these men wanted the green-eyed beauty, and events soon would drive both of them to act they out of key.
In the West, scientists claim to have identified patterns of synchronicity within the apparent chaos governing every ever so random movement or sequence of actions or atoms. In Tunisia, as in all Muslim countries, people tended to believe in tradition and not in science. They believed in Fate, Qismah, also known as Kismet to the Jews. Allah the Allmighty, the Seer of all things in the Seven Heavens, mapped out people’s lives before their birth, and the young man hidden behind the bushes believed in al-qadā wa'l-qadar, the Islamic belief of divine preordainment. He believed that God had written everything beforehand on the “Preserved Tablet” and he felt that Stephanie was his personal Fate. At the same time, he believed that two guardian angels, Malāʾikah, stood by his side — one on his right, and one on his left — one good, one evil, who whispered in his ears, forever trying to influence his decisions. To him, life was the ultimate moral battlefield, and this notion of his was, in fact, very similar to the one which had dominated Western Christian thinking in the Middle Ages.
In the distance, the stars turned furry, outshone by the moon, and this made a distinction between reality and fancy difficult. Night time easily bewitched the senses, often turning things and thoughts from black to white in the flick of an eyelid.
Chapter 3: Undercover
Monica’s eyes are extremely sharp and the reading glasses she wears are as false as her job. In fact, she’s not the tourist guide she pretends to be, nor is she even British. The job is a cover, her nationality a farce. It is no more than a convenient way in which to hide her true mission, and an excellent means by which to gain access to places she would normally not be welcomed to as a woman in an Arabic country. In fact, she works for a secret intelligence organization called TROY I that sells intelligence to various government departments. She is Swiss by birth, and she is an international spy.
In the spring of the year 2001, she had applied for a job at the German Federal Bureau for Intelligence, the B.N.D. At this time, she was freshly divorced. German was her first mother tongue, French her second, and, since she had turned twelve, she was equally fluent in English. She had majored in Law before she turned to Islamic Studies at the University of Heidelberg, only a leap away from her native country. At this point in her life, she thought little about the synchronicity of seemingly random occurrences and had simply tried her luck, like hundreds of others did each week. What prompted her was that she needed a change. Her marriage hadn’t worked out, and she was disappointed. Concerning her application, she was fully aware that barely 1% of the unsolicited requests an intelligence agency received were selected, and so she was not really surprised when she wasn’t contacted. Yet her qualifications were, in comparison to the other applicants, above average and her name was added to a hand picked list, but she didn’t know that then, of course.
Half a year later, 9/11 struck, and secret services worldwide sounded alarm. From China to L.A., from Nairobi to Nagasaki; the new century had started with an blast. Terrorism was the new key word in everybody’s mouth. The Internet suddenly gained a hitherto unheard of significance. Even as the World Trade Centre crumbled, special force units sprung up across the globe, practically overnight, and they needed to stock up on their recruits. Fast. Within 48 hours, Monica got the call. More than half of her fellow agents were highly qualified experts, however, the explosive demand brought new concepts of personnel development to the table, and Monica had excellent potential, according to intern criteria.
Apart from English, Dutch, French and German Monica also spoke High Arabic. That was the cue. Furthermore, she could have easily found work as an attorney from Singapore to L.A., if it were no for a personal issue driving her. The upheaval her divorce had left her with.
She’d been married to an Egyptian for the last three years, and that had left a bitter mark. Furthermore, with thirty-four, her internal clock was ticking — not in respect to producing offspring — but in regards to getting her life organized, maybe even the world at large, before she got too old to care. There were ideas, burning beneath her fingers, itching to break lose. It was a question of now or never. Fucking hell, she only had one life, like everybody else.She’d received an emotional blow, and it felt like she’d reached her personal Ground Zero. Now, she needed to rebuild her world, and when she was invited to a private meeting in a Munich hotel in the name of the B.N.D., the intelligence agency of the of the Bundes Republik Deutschland, (The Federal Republic of Germany) she was ready.
The job interview was set for the following day, and she immediately jumped into her car to hurry across the Green Border from Switzerland, to be on time. Europe had opened up. Toward China. Toward its fellow countries in the European Market. The borders were disappearing, the EEC was thriving. It was no longer important if one came from Spain, from Norway, Portugal or France. She was only a little irritated that one hadn’t invited her directly to Pullach, the base camp of the B.N.D. But the thrill she felt rapidly overshadowed that thought.
Then she called to mind the devastating event, which had triggered the job opening in the first place; 9/11. It was as if the vast hole that had sprung up in the economic hub of New York had also created a virtual gap in the global structures. But little did she realize that her private world was on a brink of change which mirrored the one which faced the world as a whole at the turn of the 21stcentury.
Her pulse raced as she tugged through the thick carpet. In an armchair, at the back of the hotel suite in Munich, sat a well-groomed gentleman, who introduced himself as Mr. Schmitz. He looked her over keenly with pale, watery eyes while he continued to sip his Earl Grey. Then he inquired into her CV. “Hmm”, he said, drawing out the sound. Well, my dear, what is your motivation”, he inquired. Monica replied, mentally going through the notes she’d made in preparation, and, as she spoke, the elderly gentleman nodded thoughtfully, as though he too were ticking off a mental list.
Monica’s initial excitement seeped out of her fingers in Mr. Schmitz’s presence, and into the cup she held, making it tremble between her finger tips. The man seemed to have a soothing effect on her. Mr. Schmitz’s distinctly British accent peeled off the walls of the taStephul room, luring her to frankness and she soon forgot all about the mental notes she’d made. The idea to work for an intelligence agency intrigued her, she confessed, trying her most to come across as nonchalant. What she didn’t know was that Mr. Schmitz was not the man he pretended to be and only half as old as he presented himself.
Shortly before entering the room, he had completed his transformation. First, he had slipped a rubbery mask over his juvenile face. Then he had placed watery contact lenses on his naturally, clear gray eyes. And, to complete the show, he had carefully powdering his face to conceal the edges where the fake gray hairs of his wig gave the impression of sprouting from behind his ears. In fact, he was in his late twenties, and had studied psychology as well as political affairs in Oxford for a couple of years.
Manipulation was Mr. Schmitz’s second name, acting his passion. His usual tactic consisted of analyzing his opponent — and his co-workers — before submitting them to coordinated input with the aim of achieving the desired outcome. His mannerism when wearing his mask was modeled on the prototype of the English squire. This was a role he’d devised to inspire confidence, and he’d found that it worked the world over. Apparently everybody to love the elderly British gentleman! He’d even asked himself if the image of Santa Claus and the pictures of God with a white beard employed by the Church worked along the same lines. Probably. People were so easily mislead by an effective image, he’d found.
In fact, he was a fairly new employee of the news network he represented. Prior to working for TROY I, he’d been freshly awarded with a doctorate on how Islamist terror cells exploited the personal losses of those who sympathized with them to recruit suicide bombers. Furthermore, he’d learnt that women of Monica’s age tended to have unconscious father complexes. Ha, it was so easy once one know how people ticked! The woman in front of him, Monica, looked ideal for putting into action the thesis he had devised. She seemed to be made of the grit he knew how to harness.
Sucking in his breath, Mr. Schmitz explained the special nature of the “little organization” he represented. They were not, in fact, the B.N.D., he confessed with a smile, smoothing his conspicuously patterned tie, and they weren’t even German. Theirs was an international set up based in the City of London. His fake whiskers tickled him as he spoke, but he resisted the impulse to scratch them. To win her over, he confidentially assured the woman sitting in front of him, how his “little organization”, entertained excellent and close contact with all the major government agencies. They, he claimed, were the “good guys”. This was, of course, also why Monica’s application had safely been passed on to him, in the first place, he assured her with a wink.
The truth of this statement shone through and Monica nodded. Mr. Schmitz was the Head-of-Department of an intelligence agency called TROY I, he went on to explain. Its name had been carefully chosen in reference to the Trojan Horse, the most impressive act of deception in classical literature (and not even he knew — at this point — that there were more divisions called TROY II and a TROY III respectively). A glint of pride shone through his fake contact lenses at the mention of his organization’s name, and Monica instantly felt honored to have been selected. She couldn’t help it. Then he coaxed her on by telling her how her application photo had already impressed him. He admitted this almost shyly, and it served to wrap up his approach. And Monica felt pleased, despite the shadow of doubt that had shortly come over her.
“Hmm”, he then added, drawing out the sound, and carefully placing his tea on the table. Seeing her excellent record and ability for languages he wanted to send her to Arabic speaking countries. “Was she interested?”
Monica nodded eagerly. “Yes, indeed!”. She was all ears. This was exactly what she had had in mind, she answered, and she already saw herself as the next Matahari. Her interviewer watched her closely, bidding time. Then he came to the real point. His Earl Grey was firmly planted on the polished tabletop; time to elaborately clear his throat before he spoke.
“Well now…” he edged on. His pale blue contact lenses giving him a magisterial aura. “We”, Mr. Schmitz continued, “need people like you. Now, after 9/11 more than ever, and I’ll be completely frank here with you. You are a beautiful woman and you must have no illusions about this line of business. It’s all about procuring information, and we, TROY I that is, and the legitimate democratic governments around the world for which we work, we need attractive women like you, who know how to use their minds, as well as their bodies.”
Monica pricked her ears and tried out her poker face. Beneath it, her cheeks ached to switch to scarlet.
“It’s all about obtaining information, my dear”, he added, cracking his knuckles below the edge of the table, while he continued to speak in his business voice. The true implications of what he was saying, however, where not lost on her.
“This is a huge compliment to your attractiveness”, he interjected, eying her openly with approval when she refused to winch. For a moment, he even seemed to test batting an eye at her. But it was not a becoming sight.
“You’re in your best years”, he ventured on, noting how her reaction remained professionally superficial, “… and you will doubtlessly know exactly how to please the sexual expectations of Arabic men… am I not right?”
Mr. Schmitz smoothed his tie with the back of his artificially aged hand and discretely took a sip of his tea.
“How far you actually go is always up to you. But so many talented young women just like you work for us … and, what I tend to tell them, is that both intelligence and fantasy are the key words that make our “little organization” so great.”
Saying this, TROY I Head-of-Department thrust a pile of leaflets with general codes of conduct for employees in the Middle East, and a handbook on espionage in particular, in her direction. He’d dropped the bombshell. Now the next move was up to her. Monica was to study the material. “Take your time, my dear,” he said. “Come to terms with the idea of working for a company that doesn’t exist officially, and you’ll never be able to tell anybody about. But I want to know your decision by tomorrow.” What she did not grasp at this time was that in this way TROY I’s employees generally went further than they would need to.
Mr. Schmitz stood up with a show of difficulty, and extended his limp hand for her to shake. The veins of his neck were very pronounced, she noted. And then, with the words: “Do not speak with anybody under any circumstances about your possible collaboration with us”, the meeting came to an end. His rubber mask was itching and Monica’s legs felt weak. This was more than what she had bargained for.
All night long, Monica leafed through the reading material and her enthusiasm grew with each page she turned. Her memory was eidetic, and she was highly educated, furthermore, she was eager to tick off a point from her personal To-Do list. She had just been reading how to chart a suspect’s character to create a useful profile, and now she felt the urge to do the same with her own motives. Once she understood how she functioned, she might be able to reassemble the parts, become the person she chose. Was it possible to escape one’s shadow?
During her studies, she’d harbored a romantic concept of the Islamic religion. Only after her marriage, her awareness of the gulf between her husband’s culture and hers sharpened. Her eyes were opened, not only in respect to the world her husband came from, but also in regards to her own background. To truly understand the world from another perspective — one first needed to rip down all the concepts one had, for they unconsciously nurtured ones thought patterns, and soon she came to consider the entire school of Western thought as bias. It seemed directed towards discarding the views of other cultures, and not only the Middle Eastern ones, as valid starting points. In a way, everybody carried their cultural identity around their neck, the weight of which could pull one under, putting all objective reasoning at stake. As a truth seeker, she needed to understand both sides of the coin, so she’d most of what she’d been taught. And what she consequently learned was that the attraction of the exotic, as well as the fear of the unknown worked both ways. Prejudice was at home in both camps, in the Arab world to the same extent as in hers, their roots lying buried in the two culture’s mutual, bloody history.
Prejudice in the collective conciseness of both the occidental and the oriental world hadn’t changed much over the last thousand years. They even lived in different times! Why, look at how the Arabic world lived by a lunar calendar. In Europe, it was the year 2002. And what was it according to Islamic calculation? The year 1423 A.H. Come on, that said it all, didn’t it? The East and the West lived in parallel worlds. and her failed marriage was a perfect example of this.
Every night her ex-husband haunted her. For a year they’d been divorced but there it was; he was still there, in her dreams. Oh, how she hated it! Her idea to work for an organization such as TROY I was, in fact, a form of flight, an escape forward. Almost every night, her ex’s condescending face would hover above hers in her nightmares, tantalizing her, and she’d feel his cold spit reducing her to dust till she woke up hot and angry and close to tears. For almost three years, she’d done the splits between the chairs, between his world and hers, looking for a common denominator, and in the end, it had torn her apart.
Then another thought came to her. In Europe, State and Religion had been separated for over a hundred years while the Arab nations practiced a mixture of both. From a historical point of view, the Industrial Revolution had completely by-passed the Orient, even speeding up its exploitation by the colonial powers. Would the Arab world have their own, their social class system might also have been reorganized.
Islam, at its core, was structured upon the son/father relationship, exactly like al-Qaeda, although in Islam, God, Allah, the Heavenly Father, had “never bore nor was begotten by anyone”. This reminded one of the nontrinitarianian Arianists,that group of early Christians who had refused to believe in the Holy Trinity, and the whom the Catholic Church had consequently outlawed from the 4th century onward. Their religious teachings were, however, probably well familiar to the priest who influenced the orphaned Mohammad as a child, before he would become the Last Prophet of the Abrahamic tradition, the Prophet of Islam.
Since the time of the Crusades, a war had raged between the Arab and Christian worlds. Sometimes it was hot, at others cold. At first Roman Popes had called for the Holy city of Jerusalem, in Palestina, to be re-conquered. Then, much later, colonialists split the Ottoman Empire, to gain control of the area between Syria and Iraq, during the 19thcentury. Only recently, in the 20thcentury, had they been replaced by reinstalled national royals, or elected Presidents. But on 9/11, the day the ultimate symbol of capitalism, the World Trade Centre, was blown to bits, a new era of hatred began. That day the War on Terrorism was launched, yet the makers of the slogan could have just as well have called it the renewal of the War on Islam. Every Muslim, the world over, was now regarded as a potential terrorist. Yet this was quickly back-lashing, by sparking a new Arab defiance, and a self-confidence born from having been accused collectively.
Once again the time for change had come. People were coming forth to challenge each other’s God, in big style. Since the attack on the World Trade Center forces were forming fast, on both sides. In America, Red Alert blinked across the TV screens, causing panic. In Bagdad, the people feared for their safety. And now, thanks to mass media coverage, the whole world had become a witness, and fear had become the ultimate tool to control the masses.
Monica’s thoughts shifted. Outside, beyond the window of her hotel room, soiled mist washed down the Bavarian streets, draining them of people. The city’s turnip church towers pierced the veil of clouds reminded her of the mosque spires of Cairo, lifting out of the smog. Her ex-husband was physically absent, and yet he had not ceased to influence her. It was he, who had made all her sacrifices ridiculous overnight. Now, she wanted to get even with him, reshuffle the cards, and to work for Mr. Schmitz was her best bet. Thoughtfully she locked her knuckles to a fist before she continued skipping through the leaflets.
After her degrading experience in Egypt, she longed for retaliation. In this regard, it was of little use to understand the linguistic problem of diglossia, although it was one of the a major points standing in the way of the development of the Arabic speaking society as a whole. It denoted the gap between the Standard High Arabic, Fus’ha,based on the Quraish dialect spoken by the Prophet Muhammad’s clan, and the common Arabic used by people in everyday life. The written form of Arabic differentiated so much from the spoken reality in Islamic countries that the experiences that were essential for the modernization of the communities went lost. Maybe it was this, as well as the lack of industrial advancements, that stood in the way of bringing Muslim countries up to date. Because, without a way of expressing them, the thoughts of the mostly young generation was lost.
But something else also bothered Monica, something that undermined Arab day-to-day existence, regardless of social standing. She’d personally experienced it during her time in Egypt, even to the point that it became part of her daily life. She’d resided in a late Victorian villa in Downtown Cairo, with a family that was regarded as well versed in both Islamic and classical European traditions, and, never the less, this uncanny undercurrent that she had such problems putting her finger on had becometangible, like the inner lining of a coat, worn by both the wealthy and the poor.
According to Islamic tradition, seven worlds co-existed simultaneously, and one of these was inhabited by djinnii. These creatures were neither human nor angelic, and since most people Monica came in contact with believed in them, they forming a parallel flow of perception. Soon she too began to mumble bis ́millaheach time she crossed a dark puddle in the same way as everybody else, to protect herself from them. Before she began her dinner, or took a stroll through the untended, sooted gardens, she murmured these words. Soon she no longer even questioned what she was doing, so immersed she was in the habits that now surrounded her. Her husband, on the other hand, schooled in the American Collage of Cairo where he’d shared the bench with the offspring of his county’s military leader, later going on to take a job with the Egyptian Intelligence Division, was the only one who didn’t. Everybody else in the household did, servants, family, guests, everybody was always saying bis ́millah, and, when she thought about it, it seemed absurd to her although she had fallen into the pattern as well. In the end, her ex was send to far-away places and the irony was that she, the Swiss woman, was slowly becoming an Arab woman while he had left his habits behind, at least when it suited him.
“Have patience”, someone would be sure to say when once again a woman came to the Belle Époque house to spill out her sorrows while sipping an ataí. Monica had often seen these women. They’d cover their swollen faces with the hems of their shawls or finger dark sunglasses if they were formally educated, but they’d all lament the restrictions imposed on them. At those times, another woman would be sure to whisper: “Have patience, sister, in Paradise, you’ll harvest the fruits of your sacrifice. Alla’hu Akbar. God is great.”
Hearing this, Monica would secretly wonder if Muslim women underwent a sexual transformation after death, since otherwise it made little sense to be served by a flock of 72 virgins in Paradise. Then she remembered that the word “grapes”(hur)had been mistranslated with the word “paradise virgins”(huris) when the Qur’an was translated from ancient Syro-Aramaic, the language Jesus had probably spoken, the lingua franca, the official language, in the days before the Arabic language received its final form with the publication of the Qur’an. In those days, what was Syria today, had been inhabited by Christians. This meant that their symbolism had included grape vines, in allusion to the wine during the Last Supper.
Monica didn’t give a hoot about the Holy Book of the Muslims, nor any other Holy Book. How could people wage wars in their name? To her thinking, it was all religious hubris, and each religious school had long ago interpreted their book of preference to their liking, chiseling them to serve a political agenda. When would people understand there was only one basic belief? Love.Why fight about how regional language employed similes and metaphors? How could somebody take the proclamations in the Qur’an, Talmud and the Bible literally? Virgins or grapes? For crying out loud!
The world was a crazy place. To some the mere possibility that a single word had been ill translated put their entire belief in their Holy Book in question, because, in comparison to the Bible, the Qur’an attributed its text to only one, infallible author: God. The wonder consisting in that the Prophet Muhammad, who was illiterate, had memorized the passages dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel, word for word,
Then the day everything fell apart came. It was the day her ex told her that he was taking a second wife. The aftershock of this blow was what still made her wake up evil-tempered most days. It was not that she had loved him that much; it was the betrayal, the shame of falling straight into the abyss she’d tried to span. She was furious. Her husband’s new woman was a French interpreter, ten years her junior and by then happily pregnant in the fourth month. Was this to be her reward for trying to bridge the cultural gap? To be replaced by a younger version of herself? By a pathological narcissist? Boy, how she wanted her lost years back!For the other woman, however, she only felt pity.
Parading through the sitting parlors of her Egyptian family mansion with its iron-barred windows, her husband triumphantly claimed that the Qur’an gave him the right to have up to four wives. But Monica knew better. She was well familiar with the sura 4, verse Nr. 3, which her husband had in mind. Its subject was the social integration of widows of war into society, and it had been delivered following one of the Prophet Mohammed’s major military defeats. It was directly followed by the additional advice that it was best to wed only one woman, in times of peace. Since the Prophet had been raised an orphan he probably knew firsthand what a great the handicap was to be an unwanted child. But, if a man did take more than one wife, the Qur’an explicitly warned, he was obliged to treat them exactly the same; a seer impossible task.
“Your brain’s the size of a pea,” her haughty ex-husbandhurled at her. His tone was spiteful. “You’re obviously under-developed. Don’t you know that the brains of women are inferior?” His words hung from walls of the Victorian room while his laugh sliced down her spine.
InEgypt, however, like in most Maghreb countries north of the Sahara, polygamy was not forbidden, and when she returned to Switzerland the first thing she did was to join a karate club. She wanted nothing more than to kick her rage out like a bag of infectious cockroaches. Then she devised her master plan to work for a secret service, and get back at her ex with his own weapons. He had been involved with espionage. Now she would do the same. Now she’d disguise herself, act the prey, only to turn the game around at the last moment. Soon, she’d be the one to have four men at once. And, at the thought of this, she warmed further to the mission of working for TROY I. All night, she studied the firm’s handbook, and she understood one angle quickly: it was all a question of viewpoint, but if somebody was up to the job at hand, it was she. The next morning, first thing, Monica phoned the number Mr. Schmitz had given her.
“I’m ready,” she said without further ado, curbing her nerves. “When do I start?”
A dozen times, she’d filtered the words through the sieve of her mind, till the essence of what she wanted to say fell in her lap with a slap. Her counterpart chuckled.
“Have you weighed your decision carefully?”, the Head-of-Department asked.
“Yes, sir,” replied Monica, without a trace of drama. It had not dawned on her as yet that this line of business could end deadly.
“Is that so.” Mr. Schmitz’s chalky chuckle echoed down the line and she almost felt his watery eyes amicably trying to penetrate her thoughts.
“Well, then I herewith welcome you to the first phase of our “little organization,” he concluded with an audible wheeze. Then he gave a rusty cough. It was to be expected that he would launch into a long monolog so she pushed her spine into the back of her seat.
“Your further education will embrace four vital stadiums,” he began, “… and you will be trained in…”
What followed was, in fact, a recording of Mr. Schmitz’s standard monolog, and his cough had served to disguise the electronic manipulation. Precisely twenty-five minutes later, the account had touched on all the important aspects and the Head-of-Department of TROY I switched back to a direct phone line to follow up.
“Dear Monica, don’t expect too much from the first training unit, you’ll be appointed to. And never forget that we allow for no second chances.”
“I am honored to be onboard”, Monica countered, swallowing her eagerness.
“Good. We’re expecting you tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. sharp”, was Mr. Schmitz’s curt answer. “Ta-ta.”
And with that her new boss hung up. Her phone was naturally already being bugged. She knew this, because it stood in the company’s handbook. Slowly, she let the mobile drop into the bed. Then she gazed out of the window at the curtain of German drizzle. A month later, she had successfully finished her basic training in the mountains of Macedonia and was on her way to North Africa, on her ...