Having remained dormant for three months, the predatory monster stirred chillingly all at once. It was in the early morning, about one week past the probation period, when I received that ominous phone call. The foreign section secretariat was calling its most recent recruits to an urgent meeting at the establishment’s security office. Lexicons of the entire world would have been inadequate to describe the panic and foreboding with which I received the bidding. This was in spite of the fact that I knew that the tyrannical regime surrounded us with spying eyes and ears on every side. To acknowledge the perilous reality, however, was one thing but to face it was another. Hence, my turning into an excruciating mix of nerves and trepidation was quite justifiable and not merely the response of my inexperience and youth, since life-threatening outcomes could ensue. Desperate for reassurance, I rushed impulsively to Fury. ‘I wouldn’t have the slightest clue what it is about, Lu’, Fury replied, clearly at a loss for an explanation. Well, what reassurance could the poor thing have offered any way when she too was in the same boat? My sense of consternation spiralled further as I noticed how awash with concern she was; her blanched face challenged mine. The apprehensive wait of nearly two hours, which separated me from the appointed time, ironically turned every passing minute into an excruciating drag. Fear pressed heavily, and it grew too large for me as to cope with. I raced to the phone, calling now my fellow Christian Sumer. I spoke to her deliberately in Aramaic. Under the circumstances, it just seemed in my naivety a good ‘precautionary’ vehicle, which didn’t carry much political significance. Sumer, however, was not only too numb with fear to speak, but she too had a dire need to be comforted. Running like fire through dry stalks, the presentiment of some looming terror gripped the girls and me, rendering us bundles of nerves. Incoherent with dismay and agonizing apprehension, I was petrified and trembled from head to toe the closer we got to eleven; unbearable waves of stomach cramp, which I always endured in times of happiness as well as in times of anxiety, now hit me persistently. My mouth was dry, and my hands and feet were frozen.
Under the xenophobic regime, any contact with foreigners would have corresponded to a time-bomb capable of detonation at any moment. The regime’s cunning spies infested the foreign companies operating in Iraq. Despite the relatively higher incomes, jobs with foreign companies carried life-threatening perils, and were therefore unpopular. Employment by foreign embassies and cultural centres came with even greater risks.
Propagated in the name of patriotism, the regime’s xenophobia stigmatised whoever and whatever fell under the label of ‘foreign’; the same was true of Iraqis working with foreigners. They were invariably eyed with fatal suspicion and deemed as collaborators, if they dared to deny the regime their full and unconditional cooperation. The detrimental fallout from disregarding such a ‘patriotic’ call was not inconsequential.
Notwithstanding their affable and hospitable nature, Iraqis working with foreigners strictly shunned unreserved socialization and occasions for gregarious camaraderie with them, since these could lead to harmful interpretations. Always perpetrated and vindicated in the name of hollow patriotism, the backwash from the journey into the regime’s ill-famed prisons was the fear that it instilled indelibly upon every Iraqi.
The despotic regime strategically targeted the bottom segments of Iraqi society for its spies. Semi-literate, destitute and often avaricious, they wouldn’t hesitate to sell themselves to Mephistopheles, in return for authority and lucrative compensation. While ingratiating themselves with the bloody regime, they who were its tails not only played an instrumental role in tightening the regime’s iron grip on the people, but they also seized the opportunity to fatten their own philistinism, settle personal scores and satisfy their villainous disposition. All this was attained through fabricated reports, which conveyed not only all the wheeling and dealing that occurred in various departments, but also much that had never happened.
Despite being considered the lesser evil because assignment to them was at the discretion of government departments rather than through individual choice, secondments to foreign sections of government departments were considered to be as risky as appointments to foreign companies that operated in Iraq. But then, given the relatively bigger sizes of the government businesses and the availability of numerous sections and departments, the staff of governmental foreign sections, could take advantage of the loophole of being able to transfer into other sections that were by far much safer.
I sat, oblivious to the world, trying to recall as many as I could of the romantic exchanges with Martin, seeking to ensure that none of the ‘names’, which Sandy’s sincere advice had unfolded, had been around to chance upon our covert relations. My personal situation was beyond anyone’s envy. Given my fledgling life sapience, and the complexity of the regime’s politics that had turned the area to which I was assigned into a crucially sensitive one, a romantic relationship with any foreigner, much less an American, was total insanity. In spite of the vigilance and caution Martin and I exercised, and our extreme effort to conceal our relationship, leakage could not be ruled out.
Under the circumstances, calling Sandy was an utmost imperative; ten minutes into the nerve-wracking wait she appeared in my office. She comforted me and indicated that she would be present at the meeting, as would two other girls who, to my shock, ‘appeared’ to be in charge of security issues at the foreign section. Asking too many questions or betraying too much concern wasn’t wise. However, incited by my irrepressible fear, I persisted with my questions, but Sandy wouldn’t divulge the reason behind the meeting. ‘That’s it’, I thought to myself, relinquishing the last of my remaining hope. ‘I’m done. I will, most definitely, be branded with espionage. And I will be held up as a memorable ‘patriotic’ lesson, for all these girls, of the awful sin of ‘treason’ entailed in falling in love with someone from the enemy’s camp’.
Martin turned up on his second visit around ten. His discerning eyes wouldn’t have missed the change in my ashen face. He followed me silently to the Xerox machine, and stood aside observing my patently nervous demeanour, seeking to puzzle out this abrupt topsy-turvy that had occurred in the space of an hour. ‘Why so pale honey? Something wrong?’ He asked in his usual warm and tender tone. Speechlessly, I looked at him, as tears welled up in my eyes. I rushed out of the room, leaving him with his conjectures. God only knew how desperate I was for Martin’s reassurance, let alone his soothing love and his protection. Despite my consternation, I would have rather died than confided in him. For what would telling him have achieved other than to have him also consumed with worries about my safety? At any event, he must have ultimately pinned the blame down upon my childish behaviour, which his pampering love and exuberant affection had contrived to indulge further. He finally left, as unwitting of the cause as I wished him to be.
Waiting multiplied my apprehension. Moments crept tardily by, taxing what little patience I had.
As instructed, I informed Jack around ten to eleven of the necessity to attend a work-related meeting scheduled for the girls of the foreign section at the headquarters. Jack’s eyes scanned my pallid face. ‘Are you alright, Liana?’ ‘Yea, yea, I’m fine’, I mumbled in an undertone, as though I was thinking aloud, which must have aroused Jack’s suspicions. Enwrapped in heavy silence, all the new recruits marched en masse to the security office at the headquarters.
We were admitted upon arrival at eleven, into a huge, stylishly furnished office. Towards the rear end, at the centre, was a large wooden desk placed in front of a window and facing the door by which we entered. Numerous luxurious velvet-covered chairs and couches lined the three sides of the room. The floor was covered by a huge, presumably Persian, carpet. An atmosphere of apprehensive silence permeated the place; the wait seemed everlasting. I sat on one of the couches, wedged between Fury and Mai, less than a meter away from the left side of the desk. Countless dreadful scenarios of ‘could be’ and ‘would be’ were crowding one another out in my mind. God has one judgment day, but the Bathists had countless judgment days. This was surely one of them.
The hideous visit three months previously of Almukhtar and Lammen Alaama, in order to verify the details of my job application, flashed so vividly and clearly in my memory. It seemed as if it had been only a few moments ago. Back then, there was no ‘Martin’ yet.
‘Dear Lord, keep them away please, keep their evil away from me and from the girls, please God, please’, I pleaded, praying wholeheartedly. I lost count of how many ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Our Heavenly Fathers’ I recited fervently in my heart during those seemingly never-ending few moments.
I looked around. The girls’ pallid faces registered their enormous dismay. Our only means of communication were our eyes as we shared nervous glances.
All of a sudden, the door swung open, and a guy with a crocodile smile burst into the room.
To Be Continued.......