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     Volume 7 Issue 37 | September 12, 2008 |

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Writing the Wrong

My American Un-Intelligence

Sharbari Ahmed

I think by now, those of you who have been reading me somewhat regularly have gleaned that I tend to get myself into “situations”. And by situations I mean things that ultimately become fodder for columns, memoirs that have aspirations of being instructive, and at the very least, entertaining dinner conversations.

It appears though I have known this for years-- the boys and girls of the American Intelligence agencies (an oxymoron to be sure as the recent popularity of vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin indicates) know who I am and have a file on me. The thickness and contents of the file are a mystery. Dismal SAT scores perhaps. A small, but significant run in with Chinese police when two Frenchmen, a rich Japanese American girl and I attempted to steal a Chinese flag off of a statute in Tian'anmen Square after the killings in 1989, or maybe the incident which occurred in Abu Dhabi in 2001 before 9/11.

I will say this and I can say it now with something resembling glee, though at the time I was terrified in a way I have not experienced sincethat for a split second, I might have had the CIA and the White House scrambling to figure out who I was and who I worked for. This is mere speculation of course (officially) but it was serious enough that I was frightened out of my wits. And the person who imparted the information to me seemed to really believe it.

In 2001 I was living in Abu Dhabi with my spouse and cute toddler. It was a rarefied and bizarre environment, living in a staggeringly wealthy Muslim theocracy as a Muslim woman who had very different notions of what being Muslim meant. I was told many times that I was not a real Muslim. Since I had not seen sustained evidence of real Islam in my entire life, and certainly not in the Emirates I did not really know what being a real one was. I am still searching for the real thing by the way. I have feeling that it will be revealed to me in the 11th hour when I can't do anything with it.

We enjoyed our time there but sometimes it seemed to resemble a Twilight Zone episode. It was a heightened, wacky period that was similar to being stuck in the Ritz Carleton 24/7, only if a guest broke the rules they were taken into the desert and shot in the back of the head. Okay overkill, what I meant was, they were taken into the desert and left to rot in an open air prison where their embassy could not intervene and one had to rely on Amnesty International petitions on the internet to make it out. But the shopping malls were great. I did not have a job there so I started work on a novel that I am sure will never see the light of day. I wrote seven hundred pages! It was called The Certainty of Dust, taken from a Jorge Luis Borges poem, and I think influenced by the fact that I was surrounded by sand. My father felt the title was morbid and told me as much.

The story, set in New York and Dhaka had a character in it who worked for the American Embassy. The kind of expat, who thinks Bengalis are precious and ends up donning kurtas by the end of their stint there but really never get to know any of the locals except the rich ones. This type could be from the most humble background in the world but by the very “virtue” of being white gets to hobnob with wealthy industrialist sons and daughters and enjoy all the privilege of upper class Dhaka. These folks are usually harmless as was my character, but learn nothing from living in Dhaka except to notice that their parent's split level ranch in Lodi, New Jersey, suddenly looks shabby compared to their digs in Baridhara. Also somehow, cleaning one's own toilet becomes soul sapping more than normally so. (To my friends who think I am talking about them I am NOT my cronies are above reproach) This was my character. I gave him a name, Luke Rossi. He was cute and meant well. Got a degree in public policy and international relations from some revered Ivy League institution and really believed that working for the State Department would give him a shot at saving the world. I had those particulars down only I knew nothing of the inner workings of the American Embassy in a place like Dhaka. I knew something about the ins and outs of places like the UN or other moderately effectual or rather, in-effectual, do-gooding organizations (the World Bank, The IMF, etc etc.) I liked Luke, still do actually, maybe I will trot him out in something else, and just so you know, by the end of Dust, the veil is lifted from Luke's eyes and he sees that he has been living like the British Raj never ended and seeks a higher truth. Like I said this is fiction.

So I am telling a new friend of mine this story and I say to him that I really need to find out how the embassy works. This friend tells me he knows someone at the US consulate in Abu Dhabi and can get me in to see them.

As it happened a few weeks earlier I had been in a cafe with some friends, my husband and a passel of US Marines. Americans abroad sometimes gravitate towards one another especially if the country or city-state they are living in at the time seems distinctly hostile to their American-ness, thus of course making them all the more patriotic. So before we all knew it we were all making merry together.

In the midst of the revelry, a young marine revealed to me that he always wanted to be a writer and had poetry published. We bonded, and in typical me fashion, I was filled with misguided bravado and said to him (only God knows why really I was still young and stupid enough to really want people to like me I am rapidly letting go of that by the way),

“So, who's your CIA station chief?”
Silence ensued as all three marines blinked at me and then looked at one another.

“That's really specific language,” the poet Marine said to me. And that is all I remember of that conversation. But it was enough apparently to land me in some hot water.

Fast forward to a Tuesday evening in Abu Dhabi. We are all bored, we decide to go to the Consulate to play pool and hang out at some club they have there. Tuesday nights they let un-Americans into the club as well. So we grab our hodge podge posse and head over. We have to go through a checkpoint (this is all pre 9/11 mind you), and show our passports. My poet Marine pal is manning the door. He greets me warmly, makes small talk, asks about the novel. I make noises about the torments of really wanting to write well. He lets me through and all is fine in Denmark, Sheboygen, where ever.

Fast forward to conversation with pal who has connection at Consulate. He indeed sets up the meeting. I walk into the office and shake hands with a man in his mid-thirties. On the coffee table is displayed prominently a certificate extolling his achievements on excellent intelligence gathering in Afghanistan. This piques my interest and I ask him about it. It's that pesky bravado again, sigh. She still pops up at the most inopportune moments even now.

I say to him, “So you are with the CIA?”
“What makes you say that?” he says to me, smiling.
“That,” I say and point to the certificate on the table.
“If I were, why would I put something like that on display”.
“Maybe to make people think exactly that. You know? Reverse psychology.”

And, just like in a movie, in this case a tragic-comedy, Mr. I am so not CIA, blinks at me and then suddenly stands up and says, “Will you excuse me a moment?”

He leaves, and his secretary, a grandmotherly woman in spectacles, comes in to “keep me company” almost as soon as he exits.

Eventually he returns, visibly calmer, and we start talking about the novel. He gives me a lot of practical info, is friendly. He asks me about myself. I tell him in no particular order, that I am a Muslim-American, used to live in China, speak passable Mandarin and have traveled extensively.

“You should work for us,” he said, at the end of the meeting.

“Thanks,” I say. “I will mention your name in my acknowledgements page.”

“I would rather you did not,” he said, still smiling, only this time I got the creeps.

I need to wrap this up: Long story, short, he and the US consulate assumed I was working for an enemy outfit. I was Muslim, female, had spent time in a Communist country and spoke the language. When he left the room I had been told it was because someone had called about me, saying, she seems clean, but I don't know, she could be someone of interest. The poet marine had alerted the Consulate about me saying I had used the words CIA station chief and had given them my passport number. Any spy novel aficionado would know that language, but it was the combination of Islam and China, I think that made them worry.

I was told through my friend to keep a low profile, my mouth shut and stay away from marines. I was also told that I should consider, as an American, working for the outfit.

“They were scrambling for sure,” my friend said. “For a nano-second, they did not know who you were and they were worried.”

That is where the government and I are on the same page we are both trying to figure out who I am. Imagine that.

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