Love is a common word, hackneyed, overused for everything but what the poets intended.
Love is not words or emotions; love is not music, lyrics or quotes.
Love is feeling, sharing, supporting, understanding~love is touching.
Love is commitment without qualification.
Love supports, it doesn’t judge.
Love is lasting; it doesn’t end with words or
deeds or circumstances.
It’s a continuum that survives the darkness of life and supports us, makes us whole.
Love is the elixir of life; we can’t survive without it, we merely exist. It’s the difference that makes us soar, rising above the ugliness, the sadness, the despair.
If you’re not loved and don’t love, your potential erodes one depressing day after another.
When you meet someone for the first time, there is a reaction. You form an instant opinion, good, bad or indifferent. Is this fair, not really but it’s human.
So many things come into play: age, appearance, a tone of voice, demeanor. It isn’t until later that we find the spark, that feeling that washes over us like a tidal wave. We discover that appearances are fleeting. We find that touch is more important than words, that feeling is more important than emotion.
Can it be love in an instant, maybe, but you have to be lucky, very, very lucky.
When serving as a contractor in Pakistan some years ago, I worked with a young Muslim man as my translator and local guide. He was born in Pakistan and educated with an advanced degree in economics.
His name is Fareed; he’s married, and his wife is expecting their first child. I asked him if he followed the Muslim custom of family arranged marriages? He said yes. Unfeelingly, I expressed sympathy that he didn’t have the opportunity to fall in love first. His expression, when answering, was of total surprise. His pushback was quick and unequivocal.
“I’m in full agreement with the custom; I never laid eyes on my wife until two weeks before our wedding. Our families did a perfect job; we’re perfectly matched, not the mismatch so often behind the high divorce rate in the West. We both come from the same religion, culture, education, background and family circumstances.
Fareed felt that once the heat of romance cooled the real work of togetherness begins. He said he and his wife are a perfect match and agree on most things without tension. The one exception he was his Mother. She played an intimate role in their marriage. A man’s mother never believes his wife is good enough for him, in Pakistan that means a young man’s wife is under the thumb of his mother, not a good thing as Martha Stewart would tell us.
Typically the Mother lives under the same roof and dominates domestic life. Pakistani’s with means live in large houses, more like small hotels with four or five floors. The whole multi-generational family lives there. Siblings on the upper floors with their own apartments, grandparents, and great-grandparents on lower floors. The ground floor is reserved for communal cooking, eating and socializing. The men are in the center of the room puffing on a hookah, the ancient water pipe preferred by Muslims. The women are on the periphery, huddled together gossiping in hushed tones so as not to disturb the men.
This arrangement is not a love affair, it’s a business partnership, there is no feeling, just the emotion of staying true to the tenets of their Koran.
“A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.
This may sound easy. It isn’t.
A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.
Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”
The first time I visited this bustling city I was captivated, her sights, sounds and smells seduced me like an exotic dancer.
Lahore is the industrial hub and commercial center of Pakistan but don’t let that fool you, she is also beautiful, mysterious and enticing, the perfect first date.
She heightens your senses and speaks to you in a cacophony of dialects and sounds. Her personality embraces you one-minute and insults you the next.
I spent six months living with this woman, we worked, we played, and we loved. We shared our passions and dreams in a mélange of intimacy and secrecy.
The merchant on the corner selling birds in a cage, the spice dealer perfuming the air, the women in burqas negotiating for a plucked chicken and the trucks, buses, and tuk-tuk tricycles covered with graffiti as an art-form, a cultural expression not vandalism.
It all comes together in a kaleidoscopic assemblage of bits and pieces, some smooth and colorful others sharp and dull but when twisted together their attraction is electric.
I was enthralled by all this, the city had a personality of its own, I couldn’t get enough of her, I was in love.
Lahore became my teacher, my muse, my constant companion and yes, my lover.
I was having an affair, as intense and passionate as a doxy in a Paris Pied-a’-Terre.
Being attracted to a woman outside of marriage is like walking the cobblestones of Lahore at midnight, exciting and dangerous. There’s fear, tension and arousal and the constant channeling of sensations to a separate silo of your mind, hidden and secret from those you love.
My love affair with Lahore was not physical, it didn’t violate trust, but it was as intense and self-satisfying as that left-bank lover who couldn’t get enough of me.
Lahore isn’t Paris, London or Rome those fine ladies of Europe whose discipline carefully defines their guardrails. Lahore is a proletariat, a woman who’s passion spills over in a cascade of undisciplined enthusiasm.
I’ll return to Lahore; her siren song is irresistible.
For months I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a blog, a brief summation of my feelings, thoughts, opinions, and ideas about the creative process, world events, and our State Of The Union!
As many of my FB family and friends know I’ve traveled the developing world for the past 20 years learning, experiencing and discovering that we in America are not the only ones occupying this fragile place called Planet Earth and that we have so much to learn from our neighbors, politically, culturally and religiously.
Will my writings be unbiased, of course not, they will reflect 78 years of living, failing, succeeding and finding my way in a world beset with contradiction, disappointment, and danger?
The blog will publish monthly to start, I’ll see how it goes and what kind of response I get from you, my readers and friends, if positive I can move it up a notch to bi-weekly :)))
Come along with me on this improbable journey through a life I’m still living, inshallah!!
“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
—US government officials’ oath of office
Owen Wintour, the recently appointed US Ambassador to Pakistan, is taking his wife Sally and seventeen-year-old daughter Alex on a long-promised home leave to the States when it happens.
They’re in the middle of a three-car caravan to Benazir Bhutto International Airport. Jim Carlisle, embassy chargé affairs’, is with them. He’ll be the acting ambassador in Wintour’s absence. Carlisle is sitting in the jump seat facing Owen. Alex and Sally are in the backseat, near the double cargo doors and the luggage.
The driver and security guard are Pakistani.
The weather is warm, humid and overcast, typically late summer in Pakistan. They’re on the Kak Pul Bridge, spanning the Soan, that fetid river running through Islamabad, the smell told them where they were.
It was sudden, the lead truck, a Ford Expedition, explodes in a blinding flash. There’s a delayed sound; it’s deafening and accompanied by the unmistakable smell of high-explosive cordite, the bridge sways under the blast. The truck leaps off the road, erupting in a mushroom cloud of vapor and fire settling back in a smoking pile of melting plastic, glass, and metal.
Their driver slams on the brakes, gears grind into reverse. He twists his body for a view out the rear door windows. It’s too late. The following truck meets the same fate, they’re bookended by smoldering heaps of scrap metal.
A black van arrives immediately from the opposite direction, zig-zagging to avoid the smoldering wreckage and screeches to a halt beside Wintour’s SUV. The driver wears mirrored RayBans over the vision slit on his mask. The motor keeps running, five men jump from the sliding starboard door. They’re equipped like special forces, black jumpsuits, canvas flight boots, bulletproof vests, webbed ammunition belts and shoulder holsters holding Glock-45 side arms. They carry AK-47 automatic rifles with Trijicon mounted sights, they’re also wearing black ski masks and RayBans. Their black wireless headsets are outside the masks, the mics adjusted against the mesh opening for their mouth.
All Alex could think of was Halloween, but this isn’t trick or treat, these guys are a professional hit team and they know exactly what they’re doing.
The smaller one has a knapsack, black, too big for him. He turns his back to a teammate who yanks the zipper, the flap falls exposing a single mound of putty-like substance about the size of a softball, it’s high explosive C-4. It’s heavier than it appears, the attacker struggles to pull it loose from the Velcro binding. He inserts a detonator and cap and sets the timer. Cargo doors are most vulnerable at their locking point, he slaps the putty against the lock and steps around the side of the truck stooping low with the others. The explosion shatters the lock, both doors swing open and dangle from damaged hinges barely able to hold them.
The small one jumps in, throwing out luggage and scrambling toward Alex. The security guard is leveling his own Glock 45 at the man, but he hesitates a moment too long. The red dot from the Trijicon sight, aimed by the backup shooter, finds the center of his forehead. Bone and brain fragment from the melon-sized exit wound splatter the windshield. The driver goes for a concealed weapon but reconsiders; the truck is surrounded.
The leader taps the driver’s side glass with the barrel of his automatic—not hard, almost politely. The driver gets the message; all locks release at the touch of a button.
Two of them grab Carlisle from the jump seat and throw him to the ground. Owen moves to protect Sally and Alex, he’s met with a crushing blow to the temple. The Ambassador crumples to his knees.
Alex is screaming. The short one holds her around the waist with one hand while jamming a rag against her face with the other. Chloroform permeates the truck. She goes limp in seconds.
Holding her under the arms, he drags her out the door and back steps into the van, a teammate has her legs. The truck is moving as her feet disappear, the team scrambles aboard, the van sideswipes the wreckage and is off the bridge in seconds.
This kidnapping is not random, their intended victim is not a US Ambassador or his wife; it’s their daughter.
Ambulances and fire trucks arrive first, ahead of the police. There’s pandemonium—people shouting, pointing, and crying. Owen is back on his feet, waving off the EMT from himself and directing them to the security guard lying face down on the pavement and the men scattered about the wreckage fore and aft. They don’t need an EMT; they need a coroner.
Jim Carlisle holds his head; the percussion has ruptured both eardrums. Owen and Sally are okay but in shock. The gash on Owen’s head looks worse than it is.
Sally, sobbing, runs into Owen’s arms.
“Why Alex Owen, why not you or me?”
Wintour knows the answer. He puts one arm around his wife while hitting speed dial to the embassy with the other.
Sally Wintour is not happy about this posting. Her husband is a career foreign service officer and she always supported him, but Pakistan is different, a country increasingly less stable. US drone attacks targeting Al Qaeda leadership are on the rise with collateral consequences for non-combatants. For every US attack, the reprisals are swift and devastating. Suicide bombings of Western hotels and shopping centers, and, of course, kidnappings. US State Department policy on negotiating with kidnappers is unequivocal: they won’t pay ransom in any form under any circumstances—the cost is too high. In the case of kidnapping, the ends, no matter how emotionally charged, will not justify the means.
Sally considered remaining in Abu Dhabi with Alex; the United Arab Emirates (UAE) states are stable, prosperous, and supportive of the US. When Owen was appointed ambassador there during the last Bush administration, she hoped it would be permanent. Living in the UAE is like Disneyland for state department officers. Moving from there to Islamabad will be a nightmare. What had they done to deserve this? With Barack Obama in the White House and Hilary Clinton as secretary of state, the politics of international diplomacy intensified. It isn’t what you know or how good you are; it’s who you know and how political you are.
Owen Wintour is not a politician, he’s a career diplomat who does his job according to his oath of office without regard for safety and comfort.
His wife and daughter didn’t take that oath.
When Michael Corbin was appointed Owen’s replacement in the UAE by President Obama in 2012, Owen never flinched. In his mind, there had to be a good reason for the switch; the influence of politics never occurred to him. When you’re a career diplomat, appointments are supposed to be apolitical. It was true that Corbin had a distinguished record, including a posting to Syria by Republican President George W. Bush, but that he was also a man of color had to be more than a coincidence.
The Wintours arrived in Islamabad with full diplomatic immunity, meaning no customs inspection or document checks. Owen would present his credentials to President Asif Ali Zardari in the morning. In Pakistan, the president is a figurehead; his office is largely ceremonial, limited to diplomatic functions. The real power rests with the Prime Minister, currently Yousef Raza Gilani, who controls the military, the security forces, and the nuclear arsenal.
Owen replaced Cameron Munter, the US ambassador since 2010. Munter had become politically toxic since his publicly expressed views on drones that contradicted official US policy. He resigned in 2012 ahead of his being asked to do so by President Obama.
Obama showed confidence in Owen when appointing him to this politically sensitive region. Pakistan is a nuclear power at war with another nuclear power, India and generally thought to be an incubator for Islamic extremists.
Owen was noncommittal on the use of drones; his job is to support and defend American interests in Pakistan regardless of personal views. Other foreign service officers have succumbed to local pressure, allowing their public statements to differ from US policy. Owen is not one of them. His twenty-one years of service with spotless performance reviews speaks to his oath of office, at least until now.
This is their story.
God, I’ve hated this trip. I told Mom it made no sense for us. Dad is a senior diplomat, a US ambassador. He’s paid his dues, and then some. Dubai is where we belonged. “Unless, of course, they need someone in London or Paris,” I say with a grin.
Mom smiles at that remark; she knows that I know you have to donate a few million dollars to a president’s election campaign to get a Western capital. It’s one of the reasons our ambassadors in Europe are such dorks—they’re political appointees, not trained diplomats like Dad. Washington is clueless.
The Air Emirates flight is totally cool; their entertainment menu is awesome. On top of that, we’re going business class. Frequent flyer points on foreign flag carriers is a recent State Department concession.
I love the online WiFi. I can text Billy at forty thousand feet. He’ll be jealous since the UK hasn’t allowed airline points yet. Wait till he hears about my compartment and bed-sized reclining seat.
I know what he’ll say: “Christ, Alex, I should be there. We would have joined the Mile High Club before we left the ground.”
Billy Watson is my heartthrob. He’s a pain in the neck sometimes, but we have lots in common. We’re both foreign expats living a charmed life as children of prominent diplomats from Western countries.
I lost my virginity to Billy in the backseat of his mom’s Range Rover, which has diplomatic plates. It’s the only bedroom in the UAE with parking privileges.
He’s my friend and confidant. I’m not sure what love means, but if it’s about having someone who makes you laugh, makes you trust, and, oh yes, makes you hot, I guess I love Billy. I’ll miss him.
We arrive at Benazir Bhutto International Airport in the spring of 2011. Bhutto was a hero to millions of Muslim women. These women believe they’re not equal to men—not as smart, creative, or dominant. They’re told that only men can be leaders and activists; women are to acquiesce and follow. Bhutto was changing that. Her commitment to education for girls in a culture steeped in millennia of tradition cost her life.
How do I show these people that an educated young woman can have the strength and passion for leading without appearing emotional or arrogant? Should I, a seventeen-year-old American girl, expose my independence in a culture that considers it a crime? How do I explain the tears when I’m thinking about Bhutto? This is emotion, not passion. Emotion is feeling, passion is a belief, and a great leader needs both.
Benazir Bhutto was a great leader.
US chargé d’affaires Jim Carlisle is waiting for us with three junior staff members. He’s serving as interim ambassador since Cameron Munter stepped down under a cloud.
Three Suburbans are parked at the curb. The diplomatic plates guarantee immunity from local traffic laws and confer status to the drivers. Everyone knows they’re armed and vetted for driving skill, knowledge of the city, and discretion. These men are attached to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the secret agency of Pakistan, similar to our CIA.
It’s early morning. The city is waking up, and government bureaucrats are preparing for another mindless day of paper shuffling and endless meetings. This is our first visit to Pakistan, and as in all new postings, the unfamiliar sights and sounds are intoxicating.
Mom is staying positive, pointing out city landmarks. But I’m not interested. I’m not happy about this move. I’ll miss Dubai and my friends in the diplomatic community there, especially Billy. I know Mom and Dad are trying to put a positive spin on things for my benefit, but this move sucks—no other way to say it.
The windows of the SUV are tinted; we can see out but no one can see in. We enter a traffic roundabout and spin out on a surface road, just missing a truck decorated in the most outrageous fashion. Graffiti is endemic to US cities, but here they take the art form to a new level. Vehicles are covered from bumper to bumper with elaborate colors and designs; windshields are festooned with dangling talos symbols. This is not protest art—this is a cultural expression, and it’s wonderful. The trucks, buses, and three-wheeled rickshaws, known as took-tooks, move in a chaotic dance. In this colorful cacophony of constantly honking horns, there are no apparent rules except the loudest has the right-of-way.
The graffiti is the first thing about Pakistan to get my attention. I want to get out of the truck and take pictures, but the guard riding shotgun shakes his head. It isn’t safe to stop or slow down, much less get out of an official vehicle on a crowded street. Pakistan is a dangerous place, especially for Westerners.
The Ambassador’s residence in Islamabad is a fortress, a formidable multi-storied building surrounded by a twelve-foot wall enclosing a courtyard. The wall is topped with razor wire and shards of broken glass. There’s a solid metal gate with a small peephole and a pedestrian door cut into one side. The security details are heavily armed, on duty twenty-four hours a day in rotating shifts.
Families with money in Pakistan live this way—several generations under one roof, each with an apartment on upper floors. There are rooms for cooking, eating, and socializing on the ground level. My State briefing book explained all this, but it’s hard to visualize, you need to see it.
As an ambassador’s family, we’ve always lived well, not in luxury but with amenities befitting the status of a senior American diplomat. We have the household staff, a security detail, and living quarters comparable to US standards whenever possible. Local staff is vetted for loyalty and discretion; the process is intense.
The truck noses close to the gate, not leaving a gap for someone to enter ahead of us. The driver honks three times, pauses then honks once more. The gate swings in and armed guards flank the entrance. We enter the courtyard. Five people are standing in front of the main house: three women in traditional hijab and two men dressed in black pants and white shirts. Outbuildings are grouped around the courtyard: a guard house adjacent to the gate, a large garage or perhaps storage facility, and separate living quarters for staff. The guard house is small, with sleeping cots and a brazier for heating tea.
A third man stands to the side, separating himself from the rest. He is tall and muscular with prematurely salt-and-pepper hair and four days’ growth highlighting a rugged if not handsome face. There’s a tattoo, small vertical letters on his neck beneath the right ear; it spells DELIA, a woman’s name, Israeli, unusual for a Muslim.
He’s in designer jeans, a black turban, a New York Yankees jacket, and Converse sneakers, no laces. His complexion is Pakistani, and except for the turban he’s dressed like an American. The bulge on the back of his waist explains the jacket, which he wears in spite of the heat. This is Mustafa Hesbani. The name means “Warrior of Islam,” a fitting description for the man responsible for my security.
I learned a few things about Mustafa from the State Department dossier, which covers his background, but the security photos hardly do him justice. He’s a dominant figure, the kind of man who stands out in a crowd. You can’t ignore him.
My dad, Owen Wintour, is a loving father and husband. He’s a fine ambassador with a carefully honed sense of loyalty to his family, his office, and his staff.
Mustafa Hesbani is none of that. He’s a warrior, and it shows.
His chiseled features and swarthy complexion give him an air of danger. A woman feels vulnerable in his presence. Mom and I are no exceptions.
“Is that my handler, Mom?” I haven’t felt this animated since leaving Abu Dhabi.
She gives me one of her looks. “Please, Alex, must you use that term? Mr. Mustafa is your security detail, not your handler.”
“Whatever. He sure is cute.”
Mom shakes her head.
The house is intimidating, with double wide front doors—more like an estate than a residence. The security is discreet, but they break ranks and nod when they see me. I know these men— friends and fellow agents. They know that assigning a Muslim educated and trained in the States to protect a US ambassador’s daughter in Pakistan is not exactly the norm.
I also know the household staff. They’re nationals, I’m one of them, born and raised from the same mud. These are my people—loyal, dedicated, and committed to serving the new ambassador and his family.
This meeting is to be informal, not in the embassy conference room but the Wintours’ private quarters. Owen and Sally Wintour want a better understanding of who is protecting their daughter.
The Wintours are entrusting their prized possession to a Muslim, a stranger who wears a turban and was born in Karachi, a hotbed of insurgent activity.
There are traditional refreshments, tea, and sweets on a glass coffee table; three comfortable chairs, small plates, spoons, and napkins. Food is served family style; fruit preserves are eaten directly from the spoon, not as a spread on toast or crackers. Tea is poured by the person sitting to your right, a gesture of hospitality.
The Wintours are adopting our ways sooner than I had expected.
I’m not dressed for a special occasion; casual clothes reflect who I am. This is work, this is how they’ll always see me, ready to protect their daughter.
Owen opens the conversation with the question I expected. “Be seated Mustafa. Tell us why you’ve been selected for this duty.”
Why indeed, a dark skinned Pakistani Muslim, born in Karachi, not the American Embassy security guard he had expected.
I avoid familiarity, I sit apart from the Wintours, body language reflecting my professional status—not formal, just ready for work. Owen is the senior US official in Pakistan; he will have my respect, if not my admiration—that must be earned.
I know they have my CV and the State briefing book. Christ, what more do I have to say? My experience with Task Force 121, the US Department of Defense’s special operations multi-service force, speaks for itself.
My approach to this guy will be cautious, lead from strength I tell myself. My career, if not my life, depends on having confidence in myself. I’ve been trained to act first, fast, and hard and deal with consequences later.
I want to come across as a man comfortable in his own skin, a man used to control his circumstances, someone who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. I suspect Owen Wintour is the same kind of man. This should be interesting.
“Please call me Musa, Mr. Ambassador. My friends do.”
“Of course, Musa. Thank you. Please go on.”
He didn’t suggest I call him Owen, the chain of command was clear.
“I’m a Muslim, I pause for that to sink in, “I was born in Karachi, with family ties to the Karachi business community. I understand the culture and know what motivates the terrorists. I’m also a US Navy SEAL, a member of Seals Team Six and Task Force 121.
Wintour nodded his approval, he knew what it took to be selected for Task Force 121.
When I was thirteen, my parents and I moved to the US. They had earned PhDs in education and accepted professorships at Kansas State University. Our family speaks British English and Urdu, the official Hindustani language of Pakistan. I speak both plus Pashto, Arabic, Mandarin, and Russian.”
I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but he has to know I’m not a babysitter, that I understand my value to him, his daughter, and the Embassy, and why I’m sitting here instead of some random security contractor.
My stomach just flipped, I’m about to challenge a US Ambassador with access to the most powerful man on earth and his secretary of state, the woman who runs our foreign policy and Wintour’s direct report. I’m not nervous about being in the presence of authority, I’ve been there before, but this time it’s different—this is personal. We’re talking about their only child, a seventeen-year-old girl, the daughter of a senior diplomat; she has the experience and training of a girl twice her age but still a teenager.
I go on. “We’re the same, you and me.” Holy shit, did I say that. “We both want peace and prosperity for ourselves and our families. My parents escaped the Muslim world for that reason; I want my life and my service to be a beacon of hope for Muslims. I’m not a carpetbagging Pakistani with an American spoon in his mouth.
Muslims around the world are subject to humiliation, that ugly emotion that destroys pride, humiliates and leads people to extremes. To be humiliated is to be debased, the West doesn’t understand this, their view of the Muslim world is cursory and self-dealing. The good books, yours and mine, tells us the same thing: ‘Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.’ For most Americans to understand Muslims, they’d need several miles.”
He smiles at this. Oh shit, there I go again, pushing the envelope. Will Wintour be offended by an E-7 telling an Ambassador how things go down in Muslim-American relations?
I’m committed now, either this guy accepts that his daughter will be protected by a highly trained Pakistani convert to America with deep feelings for the Muslim condition or I go down in flames. I step on the throttle and double down.
“As you know, Mr. Ambassador, my parents and I hold dual citizenship with the US and Pakistan.
“We know the difference between training and education. Education is the foundation for all that follows, including training. Terrorists are trained, not educated. If every aid dollar and military expense were devoted to third world education, our global problems would be solved in a generation. With all due respect, USAID, UKAID, the Asian Development Bank, the UN, the Gates Foundation, et cetera, only scratch the surface. We need a global initiative led by a small, educated, nonnuclear nation. A country with the balls to take the first step by scrapping giveaway programs and replacing them with professional educators, state-of-the-art school facilities, and hope for a future free of poverty and humiliation.”
I let this sink in a minute. I’m challenging my new boss—not usually a good idea.
No going back now. I’ll either leave this house without a job or with the respect of a senior American diplomat.
I continued with greater emphasis. “When I was taking courses at Columbia, there was a chapter of the Black Business Students Association (BBSA). These kids were the best and the brightest; most came from East Africa—Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Most would stay in the US; the East African brain drain is epidemic. Look, I know that black business students at one of the finest universities in the world does not equate with Muslims in poverty-ridden third world countries, but stay with me, Mr. Ambassador, please.”
“I’m with you, Musa. Go on.”
This ambassador may be okay; he’s showing me management, not vanity.
Feeling a bit sheepish, I cough, nod and plow ahead. “But I digress, Mr. Ambassador. These social issues are a sore point for me, better left for another conversation. I apologize for getting off topic and not discussing your daughter’s safety.”
The Wintours blank stare looked like they had seen the mess hall dishwasher walk in and interrupt our conversation. I was way beyond my pay grade.
Would Alex Wintour be the safest expat teenager in the third world? I don’t know; I haven’t met her yet.
When I mention combat training, the Wintours look at each other. The sounds in the room change from tinkling teacups to screeching chairs as the couple uncross their legs and move closer to the table.
She’s scared, he’s puzzled. They want answers. Why is it new expats arrive with stars in their eyes, only to discover that reality crushes expectations?
They’re not well informed. This is tough love, what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.
Pakistan is a dangerous place. Officially, the country maintains an aura of respectability in world affairs and accepts the US as a friend and ally; the reality is quite different. That respect is bought and paid for with foreign aid, most of which winds up in the pockets of corrupt officials in the form of ill-defined taxes and user fees. If the cash flow stopped, Pakistani loyalty would fold like a tent.
The government is losing the support of the people; jihadi terrorists are gaining a foothold in the mosques. The political situation is fragile, and while the prime minister and his generals control the military and the nuclear stockpile, their loyalty to the US is suspect. The extremists are gaining control of the hearts and minds of the people, providing sophistry and charisma in place of economic and political reform.
“Mr. Ambassador,” I begin, “I’m not certain how much of what I’m going to say you’ve learned from State briefings, so please stop me if I’m being redundant.”
I tell him Islamabad is not a combat zone, at least not yet. That could change overnight.
Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan with the seventh-largest population in the world. It’s a tinderbox, with impoverished, mostly illiterate people grasping at any straw that promises a path out of poverty and despair.
The country is 98 percent Muslim. Of those, 80 percent are Sunni, 20 percent Shia. The Shia are a powerful and politically active minority. The animosity between these tribes goes back thousands of years. Shia mosques are cauldrons of agitation with charismatic imams preaching a literal interpretation of the Koran. It wouldn’t take much to drive Karachi into riots that could extend to Islamabad and Lahore.
Trying to hide my growing exasperation I plow on.
“Local authorities are not responsible for Alex Wintour’s safety or, for that matter, that of any foreign expat in the country. Our embassy and their service providers are responsible for their own security, most of which is contracted out to private companies or PMCs, private military corporations. The best-known of these is the US-based Blackwater Agency, noted for the training and experience of their agents. The State Department often uses them when their own security staff is spread thin, which was not the case in Islamabad. I, along with a hand-picked team of agents skilled in security issues, will be personally responsible for Alex’s safety. We’ll be with her day and night except when she’s in this building.”
I let my silence linger.
Owen speaks first. “You obviously know the dangers of living here, Musa, and you have the right training. The issue will be Alex and how you two interact. She’s very bright, well educated, and used to make her own decisions. Alex is familiar with embassy procedures and security measures. Use tact and, if you’ll pardon the word, diplomacy when talking to her. She respects authority but won’t suffer fools gladly.”
I smile at “Fools gladly.”
“I understand, Mr. Ambassador. I’ll be tactful, but at the same time, Alex must accept the constraints of living in Pakistan. This is not the UAE. I would ask that you both explain to Alex that everything I or my team does is for her safety. We won’t enforce needless restrictions but will insist she take instructions seriously. And we’ll explain the need to in detail, not just issue directives.”
Sally replies, “Alex has lived in the developing world since she was born in Armenia. Most of our assignments have been in relatively safe places, but she’s heard enough horror stories from expat friends to take your word, Musa. If you’re straight with her, she’ll be a model client. If you’re not, she may wander off the reservation and worry all of us.”
The meeting ends with assurances to reconvene regularly and my promise to have lunch with Alex.
Seals Team Six is a legend in Pakistan, headed up by Navy Master Chief Bull Casey, a ball-busting E-9, the highest ranking noncommissioned officer (NCO) in the Navy. The tattoo on his forearm, “Don’t Tread on Me,” isn’t a joke; it’s a warning.
Casey got his stripes the old-fashioned way, through the ranks—he earned them. He’s always been respected by his peers and loved by his men, and there’s never been a man on the team who wouldn’t take a bullet for Bull Casey.
I was a recruit and Casey a drill sergeant when we met in basic training. He’s a first-class son of a bitch; he busted my balls for seven long weeks of BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training at Coronado. He was determined to expose me as a Muslim zealot, more interested in praying seven times a day than defending the United States.
Casey was wrong. I was top of my class at Boston Latin, Georgetown, and the Farm (the CIA training facility at Camp Peary). I did advanced training as a Navy SEAL before being recruited by the Department of Defense for Task Force 121. For me, respect outranked love every time. It took Casey a while to understand that, but once it sunk in, we were equals in all but rank.
I haven’t seen Casey since graduation, but finding him here is not surprising. Bull Casey would resign, take his twenty-year pension, and go to work for Blackwater Security before the Navy would put him behind a desk.
The base NCO Club is crowded. I smile when the waitress says the beer is on the gentleman sitting at the bar. I turn, stare, and shake my head. That is no gentleman; it’s the legendary Bull Casey. The insignia on the sleeve of his dress blues tells you all you need to know. Red stripes, three stars, and an eagle. This SOB is a US Navy master chief.
I meet Casey’s smile while tipping my longneck bottle forward in salute. Casey does the same as he heads for my table.
As if we see each other every day, he begins talking. No preamble. No “Hi, Musa, how’re they hanging?” He takes a deep swig on the longneck. “What’s going down, Hesbani? What brings you to this godforsaken shit hole? You must have fucked up real bad to get here.”
All I can think of is, The SOB hasn’t changed. It’s one of the reasons I respect this guy—no BS, straight talk, right to the point.
“Nice to see you, Chief. How’s the family? Is the weather in Islamabad to your liking?” I grin from ear to ear.
He growls, “Okay, Hesbani, I get it. How the fuck have you been?”
“A-OK on my end, Chief. As you know, I was born and raised in Pakistan. It may be a shit hole, but it’s my shit hole.” I say this with a smile.
He smiles back; we still understand each other.
Alex arrives at the Taliban safe house in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, she’s terrified.
As soon as I walked in, an old woman shuffled up to me, she was creepy, the hair on her upper lip was right out of a freak show. She grabbed my elbow, I pulled away from her, she uttered something unintelligible and grabbed me back, this time with surprising force for an old hag.
The room was large with typical ceiling lights, three bulbs in frosted glass shades in the middle of a slow moving fan. There are eight men, seated around a low coffee table speaking in low tones and smoking, the foul smelling French Gauloises permeated the room. I began to cough, the hag yanked on my arm, it hurt.
God, I’m scared. I’m thinking of Patty Hurst, she was about my age when she was kidnapped. The idea of falling for one of these creeps and actually participating in their lifestyle turned my stomach.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban are both terrorist groups but they differ in their founding principals and tribal allegiance. The Taliban follow a combination of Sharia law and tribal codes with a mission of sustaining a community lifestyle based upon a literal and extreme interpretation of the Koran. Al Qaeda also follows Sharia law but pursues a global agenda, one designed to disrupt the Western power structure. They work together as long as there is compensation. Money is the grease that makes their wheels turn, regardless of who controls the wheels.
The one issuing orders is young, he doesn’t look older than me but of course, he has to be. They call him Omar. His beard is about four days old, like the European guys and now fashionable with Americans. His hair is long, tied back in a bob. He’s dressed in a black Jubba from neck to toe. He’s average in height and build and handsome, in a dark masculine way. In spite of my impossible circumstances, I find myself strangely attracted to him; I keep thinking of Patty Hurst.
That creepy woman from the kitchen takes me by the elbow again, she leads me down a dark smelly hallway, everything about this place is smelly. She pushes me into a small room, there are a cot, a sink and a stinking hole in the floor surrounded by stained, cracked, porcelain with ribbed foot placements. A poor excuse for a toilet, no paper, only a bucket of water and a dirty rag for washing your hands. There’s a single low wattage lightbulb in the ceiling, and a window, small, close to the ceiling, with bars. The glass is opaque. Light comes through but you can’t see out. I’m cold, no heat, there was a small brazier burning charcoal in the common room and, I assume, in the “talker’s” bedroom.
The kitchen woman leaves, her key rattles in the lock, I’m alone, it’s quiet and I’m scared.
The key back in the lock fractures the silence, Christ, she’s back.
She grunts when she enters and throws a pile of cotton on the bed; a thin blanket, a burka, a hajib, and flip-flops. Her hand motions make it clear, I’m to change into these clothes. I turn my back to her and pull off my jeans, slowly, one leg at a time. As I unbuttoned my blouse she moves to the front of me, leering, with a grin, this broad is a pervert. My underwear is disgusting, the same thong and bra I was wearing the day of the explosion, ten days ago. I would wash it in the sink if the water worked.
I turn again, in a useless effort to avoid her stare. Pulling the burka over my head is difficult, the cloth is scratchy and stiff like you get with line drying cotton in low humidity.
She takes my jeans and blouse and leaves, will I ever see them again, I doubt it.
Jesus, I’m so freaking tired, and the cold, it creeps out of every seam in the building. I’m shivering and coughing, I can feel my temperature rising. Please God, send Mustafa, I don’t know how long I can last here.
I fold over the thin cotton blanket, bunch up the hijab as a pillow and pass out.
I don’t know how long I slept. I woke to the noise, It was distant at first, scratchy static, then the voice came through loud and clear, it was the Muadhan, the person who delivers the Adhan, or call to prayer, recited five times a day starting at daybreak.
That creep showed up without warning, no knock on the door, only the key turning in the lock.
She motioned to the hijab, it was a wrinkled mess from a restless night. The creep didn’t look happy, her hand language made it clear she wanted me dressed, now!
She went for my elbow again, I pushed her shoulder with a guttural “back the fuck off lady”.
She doesn’t speak English but understood the universal language, she got my meaning.