I am holidaying in my favourite foreign location when all of a sudden an incident occurs that changes everything. I am grabbed roughly from behind, my arms are pinned to my side and a cloth is thrust over my face. I struggle, I try to hold my breath, but something pungent fills my lungs and consciousness slips away.
“This isn’t the one, you imbeciles.”
“Of course he is. That’s why he has a British passport, you idiot. Are you going to explain this when we get back? Which parts do you want to lose first? Ears? Nose? Your eyes don’t seem much use to anybody.”
“We can dump him and go back.”
“No time. He’ll have to do. Burn his passport and pray to Allah that he can act American.”
A few days have passed. So far I haven’t been treated badly, although the journey here, bound, gagged and blindfolded, was far from pleasant. My passport, money, wallet, watch and clothes have all been taken from me. I am dressed in a threadbare djellaba over my M&S underpants. I haven’t shaved since my kidnap. I feel like Rasputin.
“There are cookies on the sidewalk,” I observe.
“Cookies on the sidewalk,” they agree.
“And garbage in the elevator,” I assert.
“Garbage in the elevator,” they affirm.
“Is the motor under the hood or in the trunk this fall?” I inquire.
It is an important question and deserves to be asked again. My pupils oblige. They must surely see through me, some of them speak excellent English. But they, like me, are new here. They don’t know what to expect. Maybe all this is normal for an Al-Qaeda training camp?
It’s been several weeks now and still nobody has blown the whistle on me. The fluent English-speakers sit in sceptical wonder, snared by their own curiosity about what I might say next. Besides, if they tell tales now somebody will want to know why they kept quiet for so long. The rest seem uncertain but willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.
I press on. Does anyone have anything they’d like me to explain?
“What is ‘I put a cap in your ass’, please?”
“A cap is an American policeman,” I explain. “It’s spelled cee-oh-pee, but pronounced ‘cap’. A cap in your ass is a policeman in your donkey.”
“What do this means, please?”
“It’s just an American saying. It’s considered very witty and amusing. You’ll hear it in many American films.”
They nod. They love American films, although they wouldn’t admit it to each other. I must be right. You can’t argue with Hollywood.
“It can be used as a greeting,” I barge on recklessly. I mime shaking someone’s hand, give a broad wink, and repeat the phrase to demonstrate how it’s done. Some of them are making notes.
I don’t feel guilty about teaching conversational American to terrorists. If they follow my advice they won’t get past the airport. I picture my gang of bunnies rolling off a flight and, with sunny smiles on their faces, offering to put caps in the asses of airport security staff. Terrorist Plot Foiled – they’ll probably give me the Congressional Medal of Honour. At the very least I’ll get to (see how my American is progressing? – ‘get to’) shake hands with someone who once saw Barack Obama on TV.
During the day, when duties permit, I have the run of the compound, apart from the enclosures where the vehicles and ammunition stores reside. I can even go outside. There’s a small hill just outside the perimeter, more of a mound really, and I often climb to the top of it in the evenings to consider my position. There’s no chance of escape, there’s nowhere to go. The camp is in the middle of a desert. Not the romantic Lawrence of Arabia kind with camels, bedouin tents and oases. Here we have mile upon mile of baked red-brown earth with occasional scraps of scrubby vegetation. Everything in the compound is camouflaged red-brown. My djellaba is red-brown. My hair is red-brown. I can now distinguish over fifty different shades of red-brown. Close to the compound are the marks from vehicles that come and go, but they never take a direct route to avoid creating tracks that could be observed or followed. They avoid making the very thing I’d need to guide me to help and safety.
Today we have been talking about the American education system. I have already explained Mister Hat and Principal Skinner. I have told them how, in America, everybody gets a degree. If you’re no good at lessons, you can do sports instead and they’ll give you a degree for that. We’ve also done show and tell – I’ll show you mine if you tell me how to get at yours – and cheerleaders – they show their knickers to cheer up depressed students – and now we’re on to homecoming queens. I haven’t got a clue what a homecoming queen is – who’s coming home from where, and why is there a queen of it? Search me. But I stagger on.
“They don’t really have queens in America,” I improvise. “Well, they do, but they call them faggots. The poor are particularly keen on them. American poor people are called rednecks. They like George Bush, beer, Jesus, guns and pizza. To make friends with them you should make a point of asking about their homecoming faggots.”
I wonder if I’ve gone too far this time. Two of my proteges are stoutly pretending not to be attracted to one another. Allah wouldn’t like it. Nor would their murderous classmates. But another day passes without incident and I retire to my tent to sleep.
This evening, in an inexplicable gesture, one of the officers – I don’t know what they call themselves, but that’s how I think of them - takes me aside and gives me a bottle of ale. He can’t partake himself, it is against his religion, but one of the drivers left it behind and he thought I might like it. Aren’t the drivers Moslems too? I wonder, but it is a kind thought and I am touched. The beer is flat but very welcome all the same. The he thanks me for my services. I am confused. I wonder if I have finally been grassed up and am about to be shot, then for a second I feel guilty about having led them all astray, until I remember how they intend to utilise my teachings. Finally he returns my watch and a couple of photographs of my children from my wallet. I don’t care about the watch, but I haven’t seen my children for so long that I weep at the sight of those creased and dog-eared photos. He averts his eyes at this un-manly behaviour. I return to my tent in a state of great turbulence, but drowsiness soon overcomes me and I sleep soundly.
I am usually up quite early, but when I awoke this morning it was almost mid-day. I crawled bleary-eyed from my tent and the compound was empty. Everybody had vanished. All the vehicles were gone, all but one ancient, rusting truck. I took a look at it earlier. There’s nothing wrong with it that a new engine, chassis, bodywork, wheels and tyres wouldn’t cure. The beer was drugged, of course, that’s why it was flat, and that’s how they got away without waking me. I am grateful they didn’t shoot me. They have even left me water and some bread and pressed milk curds. Now I am sitting atop my mound and wondering what to do next. Stay here? Who will come? Walk away and try to find help before my water gives out? Which direction should I choose?
I am back in the compound sifting the rubbish for anything that might assist me when I hear the sound of an engine in the distance. My first thought is that they’ve all been on a jolly picnic and are now coming home again, but that’s ridiculous. The noise is becoming louder, it’s an unusual sound but one that I distantly recognise. A lawnmower? Don’t be silly! I shield my eyes, but can’t see the expected cloud of dust. Then I look up. It’s a helicopter! How did they know where I was? I jump and wave my arms, so afraid they’ll miss me. Moments later the helicopter is hovering almost directly above me. The rubbish is blowing everywhere and some of it wraps itself around my legs. Somebody in military uniform is at the opening at the side of the machine, yelling at me through a loudhailer. I have to lie face-down on the ground with my hands in front of me – doubtless a precaution in case I’m blown over when the helicopter lands. I smile and wave and thank them. Somebody else is pointing a gun of some kind at me. I hope the safety catch is on.
The helicopter is hovering a few feet above the ground. Some soldiers, three or four maybe, have leapt to the ground. Two come towards me, following their guns, the others move cautiously off to the side in opposite directions, guns at the ready, yelling loud soldier-noises at the rubbish in the compound. I move to get up, but the soldiers don’t appear to want that. They have the guns, so I stay where I am. When they are close enough I hear one say, “We’ve got one” to a crackling walkie-talkie. I’m surprised to hear that, I’m certain I’m alone. Then I realise they mean me. I raise my head and try to tell them I’m English, I was a captive, I want to go home. “Shut your fucking mouth, Abdul,” says one of the soldiers while the other fastens my hands behind my back. I feel that they would dearly love to put a policeman in my donkey, but there are too many witnesses. I keep quiet and do as they say. What else can I do?
I was interrogated. It was explained to me subsequently that no atrocities took place, that I was not tortured, and that if I ever wanted to see my children again I’d stop making things up. I was not an expert on what was and was not torture, so how could I possibly know whether I’d been tortured or not? As for atrocities, after an earlier embarrassment the Americans had put an end to them by the simple expedient of confiscating all cameras and mobile phones from their troops. Now there were none. I did want to see my children, if my eyes ever recovered, so I stopped lying the truth. I wondered if this was how terrorists were made, but the Americans are very proficient at it and doubtless have many different methods.
As I enter the lift I see that somebody has left a sack of rubbish inside. The contents are spilling onto the floor. I walk around it and press the button for the ground floor. Outside it is a fine Autumn day. A light breeze is stirring the fallen leaves, as breezes will. On the pavement there lies a packet of biscuits, doubtless it has fallen from someone’s shopping bag. It has burst open and broken biscuits have been distributed for yards on either side by the feet of passers-by. A middle-aged woman is waiting patiently while her dog finishes fouling the steps of my apartment building. “There are cookies on the sidewalk,” I observe. “Cookies on the sidewalk,” she agrees. “And garbage in the elevator,” I assert. We agree that something should be done about it, although what and by whom we are as yet undecided. She walks off without cleaning up after her dog – it isn’t on the pavement so she doesn’t have to. Quite soon it will be a nice gift for one of my neighbours. “How’s your homecoming faggot?” I call after her, but she is too far away to hear.
I walk towards the street where the car will be parked. I look again at the scrap of paper on which the registration number is written. I memorise the number and burn the paper. I see the car, parked just where I expect it. I wonder whether the motor, as we call it, has been placed under the bonnet or in the boot, but I don’t really care. My job is simply to drive the car to its destination and get away as quickly and unobtrusively as I can. The ‘motor’ will do the rest. I don’t intend to take part in the show, I’m not a Moslem and my rewards are all here on earth. Right now I feel old, but later I will feel young again, at least for a while. Then I’ll have to go again and again and again until eventually my wounds heal or I am caught. I feel nothing any more and neither outcome arouses any emotion.
Once I went on holiday to my favourite destination and then everything changed. God bless America!