Afarin stared out of the starboard window of the Boeing 737. She had watched the approach over the sea and the turn to line up with the runway. Below were the eastern suburbs of Tel Aviv with busy multi-lane highways, blocks of flats and suburban houses. The country below was to be her home for the next six or seven months.
The 737 thudded down on the runway and the reverse thrust went on. Some of the passengers started clapping, probably holiday makers. Afarin closed the book on her lap and waited for the seatbelt signs to go off. The book was The Little Drummer Girl, which she thought was strangely apt.
The aircraft came to a halt and Afarin retrieved her day sack from under the seat and put the book inside, grabbing her passport. She waited for the eager throng to disembark from the aircraft and walked down the steps towards the terminal building. She was warmed by the heat of a Mediterranean sun and inundated with strange smells, the sea and pine forests.
She was wearing a knee-length skirt, a tight, sleeveless top under a linen jacket. Afarin recalled last nights long and languid lovemaking with Jean-Claude, who seemed strangely subdued when he dropped her off at Stanstead Airport. As she went through the security checks, she knew she was being profiled and a sky martial had sat on the opposite aisle seat to her during the flight. She got it. She was a Moslem travelling on an El Al jet and in many ways, she couldn’t blame them.
She collected her bergen from the baggage reclaim and followed the exit signs. At passport control, her British passport was scrutinised minutely, the official turning to the page where it indicated nationality and type of employment.
“Good afternoon, Ms Khan. What is the nature of your visit?” he asked in English.
“I will be training with the Israeli Defence Force for six months.”
He looked up and scrutinised her, closed the passport and handed it back to her, “Good luck, Ms Khan.”
Her next port of all was the car hire desks, where she hired a Datsun Micra for dropping off and collection at another location. The car hire was expensive. While the young woman from Hertz filled in the paperwork, she asked Afarin:
“Where are you going, Ma’am?”
“Camp Mitkan Adam.”
The Hertz woman smiled.
“Do you know it?” Afarin asked.
“We are all reservists in this airport, Ms Khan. I did my basic infantry training in Mitkan Adam, and later a tank gunner and layer in the Merkava,”
Afarin stared with surprise at this slight, blonde girl, having to heave rounds into the breach of a tank gun, “Is it far?”
“Oh no, just a thirty-minute drive from the airport,” She showed her on a map, “Israel isn’t a big country. Blum will take you to your car.”
“Thank you.” Afarin said to her.
She looked at Afarin’s bergen and said: “Good luck.”
That’s it. Everybody wishes me good luck, not welcome to Israel or have a good trip. Do they know something I don’t?
The Hertz employee called Blum drove her a short distance to the hire car lot, got her to sign for the condition of the vehicle and wished her well. At least he didn’t say: good luck.
In the car she scrutinised a map and marked a route in highlighter, and then set off. Out of the airport she picked up the Route 1, signposted as the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. The suburbs of Tel Aviv had given way to hills and then forests of firs. The air smelled aromatic and fresh as she drove with the windows open. It was very like the South of France, even the climate similar to France in the summer.
At a large interchange on the road, she followed the 443 and all the traffic was ordered to pull over, to allow a convoy of Merkava tanks on transporters to take a turning onto a side road. She reasoned she was getting near and in a few miles, she spotted the signs for Mitkan Adam. Afarin turned off the main road at a dangerous junction and then followed the signs, that were in Hebrew and she was still struggling with the written language. Up ahead was a myriad of single-storey buildings and blocks of flats. There was a barrier across the road and what was instantly recognisable as a guard house.
Afarin pulled into the visitors’ parking bays, got out of the car and headed for the reception. There was a glass window that slid open and she was staring at an Israeli NCO, who managed to look spectacularly un-military.
“Good afternoon,” she said in greeting, “I am a member of the British Special Forces and I’m here for entry number six eight. Here are my joining instr…”
“Yeah, we’ve been expecting you. You are a secret squirrel?”
“Well, I suppose you could put it that way.”
“Wait here and I’ll phone Hoffman.”
Afarin watched a Sikorski CH 53 dropping off troops, half listening to the orderly sergeant.
“Hoff, your British lady James Bond is here… Well, you’ll see for yourself and just to let you know, she’s an Aravush.”
He hung up, “Staff Sergeant Hoffman will be along shortly.”
Afarin smiled sweetly at him, “Thank you, sergeant and for your information, I am not an Arab, or as you put it, an Aravush. I am a Persian from the mountains of the Kirtaka. Now, perhaps you can tell me what to do with the hire car.” The sergeant grinned and his sidekick in the guard room, a corporal snickered.
“Put the keys and paperwork in the folder and give them to me. They collect all the hire cars once a week.”
She collected the paperwork and her gear and waited. In ten minutes, a Senior NCO pitched up. He was the epitome of a career soldier in as much as he looked the part, down to the starched fatigues and special combat pip on his stripes and his deep red beret.
“Are you Afarin Khan?”
“Yes, I am, sergeant.”
“Staff sergeant, but I’ll overlook it this time. Is that all of your kit?”
She noticed he made no attempt to help her carry her bergen and day sack.
“You will be accommodated in the apartments, which will give you more privacy for study. I’m sure you don’t want to be accommodated with the female recruits. It’s their basic training and they can be a little exuberant, first time away from home and some of them are discovering their sexuality, if you follow my drift.”
“You don’t want us to be pestered by those with a desire to discover sapphic tendencies.”
“Of course, it all changes when they come together with the male recruits, which is a bloody nightmare. These are the apartments. Leave your rucksack and day sack in the room and we’ll go and collect your kit.”
They walked across a dusty parade square where some of the recruits were engaged in outdoor PT with pine poles.
“For my sins, I am your section sergeant and I will be looking after you. Ha! Do not come to me with relationship or woman problems. There’s a medical centre for that. I don’t care if you’re worried or lonely. You are to become one of Israel’s elite units, and if you don’t cut it, you’re on the next flight home. Understood?”
They went inside a store, complete with banks of clothes and equipment and a long counter. Hoffman said to the two corporals behind the counter: “Could you fit her out please, short legs but a big arse, everything she’ll need.”
And it started coming. A large bergen first and she put the items in it as they were pushed across the counter. The four sets of fatigues were plain dark khaki with a bodyless undershirt and a warm under jacket. Then boots, socks and PT kit including training shoes. The Ephod Combat Vest, an equipment carrier as well as being body armour. Then a combat helmet with a Mitznefet helmet cover, the large, baggy piece of material that broke up a soldier’s profile and kept him or her shaded from the sun. A single water bottle, but she asked for a second one and was issued the neatest mess tins she had seen.
“The colour of the fatigues is called “Golden Green,” he told her, “We don’t have many camouflaged uniforms.”
Then there was an IWI Tavor Assault rifle, bullpup design and a calibre of 5.56 mm rounds and six x 30 round magazines of ammunition. The last item was a Jericho 941 9mm pistol with two magazines of 19 rounds. The corporal put a dipstick in each magazine to prove they were full and Afarin hefted the bergen, again while Hoffman watched.
“Where is the armoury, staff sergeant?”
“There isn’t one for you. From now on, you will carry those weapons everywhere you go, including off base.”
They walked back across the parade square, the afternoon sun was warm. Hoffman seemed to have relaxed slightly and he spoke with her, asking questions.
“So, you’re in the Special Air Service.”
“No, I’m in the Special Reconnaissance Regiment which is attached to the SAS. The regiment conducts a wide range of classified activities related to covert surveillance and reconnaissance. The SRR draws its personnel from existing units and can recruit male and female volunteers from any branch of the British Armed Forces.”
“You’re British Army?”
“No, Air Force, but it seems so long ago.”
“And have you done any of this in anger? I have to ask these questions to tailor your training to your existing skills.”
“Yes, In Afghanistan and Basra.”
“Have you drawn your weapon with deadly intent.”
“Yes. I had to kill three Iranian Revolutionary Guard. A combat shotgun and I blew their heads off.”
“I bet you’re a laugh a minute when you have PMT.”
She smiled. Staff Sergeant Hoffman must have missed the equality and diversity workshop, “They wanted me to go over the border into Iran with them. I don’t think they were going to play nicely with me.”
“Well Ms Khan, the rest of the day is yours to read the literature and prep your kit.” He handed her a card, “That is my work phone number. Only call me if the world is going to be destroyed by an asteroid. The mess hall is behind these apartments where you can get a halal meal. We have a fair percentage of Arabs in the IDF. I will come and get you at 06:45. Wear your PT gear under the fatigues, fully kitted up with weapons. You will meet the other members of your team. They have already completed basic training together, so you will be a bit of an outsider until they get to know you. And then it’s PT, which you’ll do twice a day, circuit training or a run in the morning, football or hockey in the evening. After the Sabbath, you can use the swimming pool, but not if it’s your time of month and you will have to wear a bathing cap.”
“What when I’m swimming or all the time to show it’s my time of the month?” she asked mischievously.
“Very amusing. When I come and get you, you will be dressed in full combat gear, your helmet carried wearing normal headwear. I do not want to find you still powdering your nose when I arrive.”
When he had gone, she looked round the apartment. There was a wet room, a small kitchen with a washing machine and a refrigerator, a three-quarter bed in an alcove, a sofa and two chairs and a small table. It felt like a dream. Just a few short hours before she had kissed Jean-Claude goodbye. He had promised to keep her updated on the house buying.
That late afternoon she went into the busy mess hall, ate a meal alone and watched the young, Israeli recruits. They seemed so young and bunged up with a life force and she couldn’t help wondering how many Muslims they would kill or Arab homes they would demolish with their bulldozers. But they had a right to exist as did their country. Afarin was torn. Part of her admired them and part of her hated them. Hers was as ever, a complex life.
Back in the apartment she prepared her kit and put black carabiners on the Ephod Combat Vest to hang her helmet from when it wasn’t being worn and the bergen, then fitted the Mitznefet helmet cover. She decided to ditch the Israeli issue boots because it would kill her breaking them in. She would use her favourite Under Armour Women’s Stellar Military and Tactical Boots in black. She played with the Tavor Assault rifle with an empty magazine and found its workings were similar to the British L85. The only difference that she could see was the Tavor had four settings on the safety catch: safe, rounds, short bursts and fully automatic. It had a Meprolight digital sights with a red dot, a type she had never used before. She added her combat gloves to the ensemble, as the Israeli kit didn’t have any.
After a shower, she sat at the table and read a booklet on the Mista’arvim. The name was derived from the Arabic “Musta’arabi”, meaning “those who live among the Arabs”, which refers to the Musta’arabi Jews, Arabic-speaking Jews who lived in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab rule in the 7th century, prior to the arrival of Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The unit evolved from Unit 101, the Israeli birth of the Special Forces.
Then she looked at the programme of the training
Two-and-a half-months advanced infantry training at the Mitkan Adam army base – the IDF Special Training Centre. Training that teaches tactics, manoeuvre, team attack and defence, leading the section and all the other things an NCO combat soldier has to know to survive and be effective.
One month of the unit’s advanced training, which focuses on advanced urban navigation and the beginning of counter-terrorism training. This would be old hat to Afarin.
Two months Mista’arvim course, which covers everything from learning Arab traditions, language, and way of thought, to civilian camouflage (hair dyeing, contact lenses, clothing).
One-month courses – sniper, driving and different instructors’ courses, if necessary.
She stood up and got ready for bed. As she slipped under the duvet, she wondered just what the hell she was letting herself in for. Nearly seven months of full-on training, with a group of people she probably wouldn’t like. But she was no quitter. She lay awake thinking and felt something she had never felt before: home sickness. And she thought about Jean-Claude. She didn’t love him, but she knew that one day she would. With that thought, she turned over and went to sleep.
Staff Sergeant Hoffman came exactly on time and she was ready, “Right, outside and stand in the light. I want to see what I have been assured is Britain’s finest, with your war face on.”
She stood outside at attention, automatic in a thigh holster and the Tavor assault rifle at the high port, as she would have carried an L85. He inspected her minutely.
“Jump up and down, Ms Khan.”
“Is this some kind of foreplay, Staff Sergeant Hoffman?”
“No! It’s to see if your equipment jingles, not to see if you jiggle. Do not be impertinent.”
She did so without a sound, “Those boots are not the ones you were issued with, yesterday afternoon.”
“These are my boots. There are many like them, but these ones are mine. They are black, the same colour as those I was issued with. They are comfortable and like old friends. I can run in them, fight in them and keep them clean and well-polished with Parade Gloss by Kiwi. There are however, other brands of shoe care available.”
“I like the way you hang your helmet from a carabiner, an excellent idea. But what the hell have you got on your hands?”
“They are Kevlar reinforced combat gloves. They were given to me by a Blade in Afghanistan. I was very fond of him.”
“What on earth is a Blade?” Hoffman asked as they walked towards the training buildings.
“A trooper in the SAS. He was the patrol leader. Are you always so gentle and understanding with the recruits, or is it just Moslems?”
He stopped and grabbed her body armour angrily, “Ms Khan, my job is to look after a very varied group as you will see. I do not have favourites and I am not anti-Arab, unless they are trying to blow citizens of Israel into pieces. My wife is Druze and she comes from the Lebanon. She has chosen to retain Lebanese citizenship and identity and is treated as a permanent resident of Israel. My son has taken Israeli citizenship but my daughter has elected not to. My son is a lawyer, my daughter serves in the Israeli Intelligence Corps as a junior officer. She outranks me. So don’t you dare accuse me of being a religious bigot!”
He pushed her away with annoyance.
“Staff Sergeant Hoffman,” she said in a small voice, “I apologise for pissing you off. It’s part of my inferiority complex that I sometimes wind-up people in positions of authority.”
He looked at her long and hard and then smiled, “I know you might think that you’ve done this before and I know that you have, but you will learn many things and so possibly will we. Take it as it comes and despite what you might think, my job is to look after all of you. I am not a “touchy-feely, come in and sit on the bean bag kind of person.” I am a combat NCO and I am tough, but not as tough as I suspect you are. Come on, Tipsha, let’s go and meet your team. The training officer will probably want to interview you in the next week.”
“Is a tipsha a term of endearment?”
“No. It means stupid girl,” he told her.
They went inside the building, past training rooms with pictorial representations of typical battle fields, and others not so typical. He opened the door of a classroom and inside, four men and four women were sitting around on chairs and the desks.
“Good morning, everyone. I am pleased to announce that the Fellowship of the Ring is complete. This is Afarin Khan and she is already a steely-eyed killer, the scourge of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Now what I want you all to do is give a brief introduction, who you are, where you’re from and how you have served this country in the past. You can start, Dan, because I know you love talking about yourself.
“We will have no ranks from now on, forenames only. You will be a family, a well-oiled machine and you will look after each other. Understood? OK Dan, off you go.”
Afarin listened to them but would learn much more later. There was Efrayim of the Golani Brigade, handsome but slightly aloof. He had signed on for regular service after a period in the reserves. Batya was a medic in an armoured recce company. She had a mop of curly hair and seemed smitten with Dan. Afarin suspected they were an item. Freida was a tank commander from an all-female crew. She was quiet and thoughtful, difficult to scrutinise and Afarin thought something was troubling her. Gad was from the Intelligence Corps. He seemed very shy and quietly spoken. He seemed almost reluctant to talk in company. Zelig was a pilot who has been taken off flying because of two ejections that had compressed his vertebrae. He was calm, friendly and very much the group’s father figure. Heyfa was a female Lebanese Maronite from the border guards. She had a beautiful face and piercing eyes that seemed to miss nothing. While the other spoke, she looked at Afarin with a neutral expression, as though sizing her up. Aisha was the oldest of the group, a Loadmaster on C130s, who had volunteered and been accepted. And there was Dan a paratrooper, blonde, good looking and he knew it. While the others spoke, he watched Afarin with an air of contempt. He was very happy to talk about his unit’s offensive in Gaza, in fact he seemed happy talking about himself generally. He had no interest in Afarin’s background and looked out of the window with a bored detachment. It was a case of instant, mutual dislike.
Staff Sergeant Hoffman introduced himself last.
“I am your section leader. You will address me by my rank. I realise that you are a disparate group that have been thrown together from different backgrounds. I am a grown up and no prude. You will be together for six months, unless you fail to make the grade. Some of you will almost inevitably form relationships and you are grown up. I don’t care as long as it does not affect your training and you are discrete. If anybody from another unit asks who you are and what you are doing, tell them to mind their own business. Any questions?”
Heads were shaken.
“Good. Outside now for a nice, easy three kilometre run and then we’ll go down to the ranges.”
As they filed out, Dan was just behind Afarin and tripped her with a heel tap, “Who knows Ms Persia, perhaps even you could get laid.”
“Fine, as long as it’s not with you.”
© Blown Periphery 2022