They piled their weapons, Ephod combat vest, helmet and were sent on a three-kilometre run. It was pleasant running through the woods and Afarin soon passed the other women and Zelig the pilot. She ran with Gad for about a kilometre and then he began to fall back. Up ahead she could see Dan and Efrayim with the PTI, so she dug in and upped her pace. She had almost caught them, when Dan turned round and saw her.
They had around two hundred metres to the finish and Dan dug in as well. She overtook Efrayim and the PTI was running at Dan’s shoulder.
“Come on! You want to be beaten by a girl?”
They were sprinting with the finish line in sight.
“You will not beat me, Khan!”
She almost did, but he crossed the finish line three metres in front of her and they both stood, gasping for air.
“Next… Time… Dan. I will… Take you… Next time.”
The PTI came up to them, “Good run, Afarin.”
“It’s only because she thought there was a rug sale and wanted to grab some bargains.”
“Twat,” she said to herself, but loud enough for him to hear.
“Kelat olam,” (fool of the world), he replied.
They picked up their weapons and kit and moved through the woods in an almost military fashion. On the range, they fired the Tavor assault rifles at 200 and 300 metres. Afarin asked the range officer how to turn on the weapon sight and Dan chortled.
Her groupings were impressively tight, if slightly high and to the right. The range officer showed her how to adjust the sights. Then they went on to short bursts and Afarin elected to use the automatic fire with short bursts, rather than the short burst lever. This wasn’t lost on the range officer.
“Why are you not using the burst selector?” he asked her.
“Because I can go onto sustained fire without reaching down for the change lever. It gives you the edge in a firefight.”
Dan was in the lane next to her, “And how many firefights have you been in, Ars?”
She recognised the derogatory Hebrew term for an Arab, “Several in Afghanistan and one in Basra. And another thing, Staff. Do you have any 5.56 tracer rounds?”
“I’ll show you.”
He returned from the explosive store with a box of tracer rounds and a metal container full of ball ammunition. She picked up two empty magazine and loaded them with a tracer round first, three ball rounds, a second tracer round and twenty-five ball.
“Can I carry on?”
“Yes, in your own time.”
The others in the group stood up to watch her as she fired short bursts, and then sustained, suppressive fire. The first tracer round went down range and she fired the last burst while opening an ammunition pouch. The final tracer went down, but she had already dropped the magazine and loaded with the second, the working parts forward and locked.
“So now I can carry on and win the firefight.”
“Why not just count your rounds?”
“Because I tend to forget how many rounds I’ve fired in the noise and confusion.”
“OK it’s good, I like it. Where did you learn that trick?”
“When I worked with the SAS in Afghanistan.”
Dan scoffed and she looked at him, “Unlike you, they are proper soldiers.”
“Give it a rest, Dan,” Zelig said to him, “I am a pilot and I need all the tricks in the trade. I will start to do it with my magazines.”
Heads were nodded all around apart from Dan who stared moodily down the range.
They moved to a 50-metre range to fire the Jericho 941 automatic and it was quite a different story for Afarin. Her shooting with the Jericho was poor and the groupings were very loose. The weight and balance of the weapon felt wrong and the range officer looked over her shoulder as she fired.
“Hmmm. Well, you’re doing nothing wrong that I can see. Replace it with a Glock 19 after lessons this afternoon and we’ll see how you do with that tomorrow.
“Perhaps you need a couple of tracer rounds,” Dan said sarcastically.
She turned her back on him and trudged back for lunch. In the mess hall, she chose to eat alone and was lost in her thoughts, angry and feeling like the outsider. She ate slowly, barely tasting the halal food, and suddenly became aware of three female Arab recruits, one of which was wearing a hijab, obviously the others had decided that one of them, the bravest, should speak to her.
“Hello, miss. Could we please join you?”
Afarin shrugged, “Feel free, ‘akhawati alsaghirat.” (Little sisters) she said in Arabic.
They seemed excited as they sat down with their meals and stared curiously at her. Afarin began to feel uncomfortable.
“Are you one of the Mista’arvim, Miss?”
Afarin nearly choked, “No, I’m here on an advanced infantry training course for NCOs.”
“Oh,” she sounded disappointed, “You speak Arabic in a strange way. You aren’t from Israel and your not from Palestine?”
“No, I’m British, English to be precise, and my language is Pashtun.”
“Do you like our country?” her interrogator asked.
“To be honest, I’ve only been here for two days. Do you like being in the army?”
The girls giggled, “It’s good fun and we meet all these people.”
Good fun? Fun was Haram in Islam. What about the Islamic teaching that a woman is cannot have any sexual relation with another woman? But they are man-made laws and religion was just superstitious nonsense designed by men to keep women as chattel. Sisters, fill your boots, because life is violent, bloody and short.
Afarin looked at them and smiled, “I’m glad you like the Army.”
“How long have you been in the army, miss?”
“Six years and it’s all I know.”
“Do you not have a husband.”
This line of questioning was getting near the knuckle, “No, not yet.”
Afarin finished her coffee and stood up, “Please excuse me. I have to go back to work.”
As she left, she heard the sisters talking in animated tones, “Why didn’t you ask her what her name is?”
“Why isn’t she married?”
“She was nice for an English girl,” and Afarin suddenly realised what Dan’s problem was. He was an Anglophobe. Alan Bartlett had warned her that the Israelis were suspicious of the British, both historically and currently. The saw Britain as a safe haven for Islamic terrorists and anti anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli media. It wasn’t the case in the main, but many Israelis believed it
She went to a shelter at the side of the mess and had a cigarette. Her head was down when she heard a woman’s voice behind her. It was Freida.
“Why didn’t you sit with us in the mess, Afarin?”
“It’s Dan, isn’t it?”
“Dan has a massive ego, and then you race him and nearly beat him. He didn’t like that. You are at a disadvantage because you have joined us after basic training, which we all did together. Even Dan had to do it, although he spent four months moaning. I think Staff Sergeant Hoffman wanted you to join us from the start, but he said you were still in Iraq.”
“I was and I was in no fit state to start recruit training.”
“What was it like?” Freida asked.
“It was OK at first, but then the Revolutionary Guard started operating in Southern Iraq. The team I was with was compromised and they came for us one night. It was me that they wanted.”
“Think about it. They capture a female undercover operative. Iran is notorious for the way it treats its captives, beatings, floggings, electric shocks, stress positions, mock executions, waterboarding, sexual violence, forced administration of chemical substances, and deprivation of medical care.”
“You must hate them. Hezbollah are funded from Iran. We hate them.”
“We were lucky to get out. We had to fight and I killed several of them. So, you can see why Dan is an irrelevance to me.” Afarin said quietly.
“He isn’t a bad person,”” Freida said.
“I’m sure his Mummy loves him,” Afarin said sarcastically.
“Really?” Afarin said, suddenly interested.
“Yes. They’re always at it, even during basic training.”
Afarin laughed, “So she intubates him with her tongue, does she?”
Freida laughed as well, “I think he’s the one giving her an injection. Can I walk to the classroom with you?”
“I’ve got to go to the stores first to change my sidearm. I can’t get on with the Jericho, so I’m changing it for a Glock.”
When the got to the teaching wing, all of the others apart from Dan and Batya were drinking coffee. Zelig admonished her for not sitting with them.
“Why didn’t you come to lunch with us? We are supposed to be a team.”
“Sorry. I will in future.”
They asked her questions about Britain and her unit. Afarin did her best to answer them and noticed that Gad and Hayfa were staring at her as she spoke. Gad was clearly painfully shy around women but Hayfa scrutinised her with an expressionless face. Her dark eyes were fixed on her and Afarin felt slightly uncomfortable. Was it dislike? It was certainly more than idle curiosity. Aisha was intrigued to hear about Afarin’s Air Force career, but she had spent so little time in RAF uniform, there wasn’t much to tell.
“And you been in the Special Reconnaissance Regiment for how long?”
“Just over two years,” Afarin told them.
“You should be teaching us,” Zelig remarked.
“Yeah, Dan would love that,” Aisha said with a chortle.
And then Dan and Batya came into the rest room. Afarin could have sworn that Batya had a slightly flushed face. The last to get back from lunch was Efrayim and he smiled at Afarin. It was the first time he had acknowledged her presence.
“You are a really good runner by the way,” he told her then addressed the rest of the group, “Just phoning my wife at home. Baby’s due in a couple of weeks.”
The instructor came for them at 13:30. Afarin didn’t know whether the long lunches were a blessing or too long. Life certainly seemed more relaxed that when she had gone through SRR training, never a moment to yourself, being woken at all hours of the night, just to deprive you of sleep.
That afternoon they covered the basics of target identification and fire orders. They used a large painting on the wall that depicted an area of scrub, a small village and a wooded grove. They would take it in turns to direct the fire group, range, where the target was located and the response in terms of type of fire. Dan and Efrayim were good at this because as infanteers, this was their area of expertise. Afarin had done it before, as part of her ground defence training as a recruit, but it was a long time ago.
Then they traipsed out to the training area and did a walk through, indicating targets in slow time. Afarin enjoyed the fresh air and moving as part of a section.
“Tomorrow, we’ll do it for real,” the infantry training officer told them and they headed back to the gym for a game of four-a-side football. As she got undressed, Afarin noticed that Heyfa was watching her with her dark eyes and she smiled shyly. Heyfa didn’t speak or change her expression and Afarin mentally sighed. Another one who doesn’t like me. I am making so many friends out here.
In the gym, they laid down two benches, one at each end to mark the goals. The side was lined with wheeled boards and Dan came in playing keepie-up with the football.
“Right, we now have nine. I’ll have Batya, Heyfa and Freida. You can have the rest Efrayim, the Althady as well.”
Afarin recognised the derogatory term for an Arab woman, literally meaning “tits.”
“That’s enough of that, Dan!” Zelig admonished him.
They kicked off and it was hard work, four of them covering the pitch. The nearest to the action would run back to cover the goal, so they were working hard. Afarin had never been a good footballer, but she could cover the ground fast. They lost track of time and it was four all. Efrayim had taken the ball off Batya near their goal and he punted it up to Afarin who was on the right wing with an open goal. She kicked on ready to pass to Zelig. When Dan moved in fast on her left side. With all of his weight he smashed into Afarin and she was thrown into the wooden screens, then fell to the ground. The game stopped and they all stared at Dan.
“You’re a fucking moron,” Batya yelled at him and went to see if Afarin was all right.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Dan?” Efrayim shouted at him.
“What? It was a fair tackle.”
“Prick!” he said and knelt next to Afarin, are you all right, chavera sheli?” It was the Hebrew for little friend and Afarin felt a sudden warmth to him.
“Yes, just winded.”
Batya helped Afarin to her feet and supported her to the changing rooms. They left the pitch and Dan angrily kicked the ball against the far wall. The game of football was effectively over.
Afarin had a long, rather sore shower and went to lie on the bed. She checked her phone and there was an SMS message from Jean-Claude:
I will have to go and sign some paperwork on Thursday. I’m waiting to hear back from the surveyor and I’ll let you know if he finds anything. Missing you – JC. Xx.
She sent back:
I’m OK. Strange place. Some of them have taken a dislike to me, but fuck ‘em. I’ll give you a ring on the Sabbath our day off. Miss you and your bed, A. Xx
At 18:00 somebody knocked the door of her apartment. She wrapped the towel round herself and went to answer it. It was Freida.
“Afarin, you will break bread with us this evening. No excuses. I will wait until you are ready.”
“Come in, wait in here.”
Freida sat at the table, “Please don’t take any notice of Dan. He has a problem with Arab girls.
“I am not an Arab, Freida. What is his problem?” Afarin asked as she pulled up her trousers.
“He had a very intense relationship with an Arab girl, when he lived in Karmiel. She was a student and then she disappeared. Her parents thought she had joined Fata and is now living in the West Bank.”
“While I feel a degree of sympathy for him,” Afarin said as she tied her boots, “It’s not my bloody fault his little bit of Palestinian fluff has become all political. Besides, he has Batya, and she is very pretty.”
“You’ve noticed that after a day here and me telling you?”
“Of course. I am a watcher. Samyaza, the fallen angel of apocryphal Abrahamic traditions and who ranked in the heavenly hierarchy as the leader of the Watchers. It’s my job to observe these things. It’s what I do.”
“And what have you noticed about me, Afarin?”
She put on her body armour and checked the magazines were in the pouches, “I’m not sure, but I get the feeling you miss your tank crew.”
Freida looked out of the window, through the blinds, “I do, that’s true. I wonder sometimes if I’ve made a mistake.”
“You will get through this, Freida. Let’s get something to eat.”
As they walked towards the mess Afarin was limping slightly.
“Are you all right? I’ll ask Batya to have a look at you after dinner.”
“I’m OK, really. Besides, Batya will be looking after Dan and his fragile ego.”
They chuckled as they walked across the parade square.
“Batya is a really good medic. She was part of an infantry reconnaissance company and I actually like both her and Dan, when he isn’t being a אידיוט מזוין (fucking arsehole). He’s a good soldier and has fought in Gaza and the Lebanon.
In the mess hall, Afarin was relieved that her young admirers weren’t around.
Zelig stood up politely, “Welcome, Afarin. Efrayim is phoning his wife again. He does worry about her.”
Nobody mentioned Dan, who wasn’t there. It was no great loss as far as Afarin was concerned. As a group they went for food, Afarin taking the halal option and back at the table, Zelig said grace for them. He broke bread and passed the plate to Afarin.
She took the bread, “In the name of Allah and with the blessings of Allah,” She intoned quietly.
They spent the meal with relaxed chat, asking Afarin questions about the SRR. She showed them the beret with the Greek helmet and the sword.
“The helmet symbolises protection, the sword is Excalibur, given to King Arthur by the lady of the Lake after he drew the sword from the stone. Excalibur is associated with the Arthurian legend very early on. Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone are the proof of Arthur’s lineage.”
“Was there a King Arthur?” Aisha asked.
“Probably not. It is a legend, but one that is engrained in British psyche. Some believe that if Britain is in danger of falling, he will return. He seems to be taking his bloody time.”
“Where do you come from, Afarin?” asked Gad. He seemed to have plucked up enough courage to ask her a direct question.
“I live in Hereford when I’m not on operations, but I’m buying a house at the moment.”
“What, in Hereford?”
She shook her head and took a mouthful of chicken served with a platter-style with rice, “This is very nice, no I’m buying a house in Wiltshire, not far from Bristol. Do you know England, Gad?”
“Just London, I’m afraid. My father was based in the embassy in Kensington and I practically lived in the museums.”
“What about you, Afarin?” Zelig asked, “Have you been to Israel before?”
“No. It’s my first time, so be gentle with me.” Afarin noticed that Gad looked away in embarrassment and was immediately sorry that he seemed mortified. She couldn’t exactly apologise, because that would draw attention to him. Instead, she smiled at Gad as a form of apology, although she didn’t know what she was apologising for.
As the meal went on, she noticed Heyfa, the Christian Lebanese woman was staring intently at her, not in a hostile way but it was disconcerting. She wondered why she seemed so interested in Afarin, yet reluctant to talk to her.
They were a disparate group of people, united by the single reason to serve their country. But what did that make Afarin? Why was she prepared to put herself in harm’s way, for the population of a country who disliked her background and ethnicity? Why was she prepared to do something that the people who wrapped themselves in the Union Flag were not prepared to do? Sometimes she even contemplated joining ISIS, but the Levant was no more her country that Israel.
She continued to eat slowly and in due course, the others in her team went about their evening business, after excusing themselves. Afarin drank her coffee and stared round her at all these soldiers in one of the largest military bases in Israel. Suddenly out of the corner of her eye, she caught a girl waving at her. She felt her heart sink, but it would have been rude to leave.
The three female Arab recruits from the previous evening sat down at her table, “Hello, Miss.”
Afarin decided to speak to them in Arabic, “Hello ‘akhawati alsaghirat. How was your day?
The girls all started speaking at once and Afarin held up her hand, “One at a time please, girls.”
“We had drill, all morning and ranks in the afternoon. There are so many to remember, officers and NCOs”
“And we got our guns,” She showed Afarin her M16 that seemed as big as she was, “But not like yours, your…?”
“Then we have to clean up our rooms tonight and they will inspect them tomorrow morning.”
“At 07:00, worst luck.”
And Afarin got lost in the joys and worries of the young recruits and it put her world into perspective. She enjoyed them for what they were, simple, young and full of life. Please don’t ever make them fight. Let them find love, marry and have children. Not die in some bunker on the Golan Heights.
That evening they seemed in a rush, “Sorry, Miss, but we have to clean our room.”
“Everything and the toilets and showers.”
She watched them scamper off and called out to them: “’Akhawati alsaghirat, one of you has left their rifle under the table.”
The girl whose rifle it was, was horror struck, “Oh thank you, Miss. Please don’t tell anyone.”
Afarin smiled, “I won’t, but you’ll never do that again, will you?”
She watched them leave and suddenly felt old beyond her years. Perhaps six or seven years older than them, yet hard and cynical. She felt an unexpected, overwhelming sadness and wished she could sleep with Jean-Claude tonight.
© Blown Periphery 2022