The morning flight from Tel Aviv landed at Heathrow at 10:30. Afarin collected her hand baggage from the overhead locker and made her way to the exit. As soon as she stepped off the aircraft onto the passenger tube to arrivals, she could tell the air smelled so differently to the scent of pines in Israel. It was the oily smell of an overcrowded city. She waited for her bergen to appear on the baggage carousel and then moved into arrivals and passport control. Once again, she despaired of the unsmiling drones on the passport desks, doubting that any of them had been born in this country.
In the arrivals hall she waited to see if anyone was there to pick her up and noticed a man in a creased black suit holding a card that said: Ms Afarin Khan. She went over to him.
“I’m Afarin Khan,” she said.
He took the bergen off her and asked her to wait outside while he collected a car from the short stay car park. She leaned against the wall and smoked a cigarette until the car arrived and she dumped her daysack on the back seat. She got in next to the driver.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Hotel near Maidenhead. Nice place but out of my budget.”
It was pleasant to hear a cockney accent after so long, “Just about all of the properties round here are far too expensive.” he told her.
“So where do you live?” Afarin asked.
“Brentwood. Far enough out of London to avoid the dindoos, Oh I’m terribly sorry, Miss.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Where have you been? Anywhere nice.”
“Israel, pretty much all over,” she told him.
“Not a holiday then.”
“No, most definitely not for pleasure.”
“I couldn’t help noticing your bergen. You’re military, aren’t you?”
“I am.” By now they were on the M4, heading west.
He glanced at her and laughed, “And I’m in the General Staff. You’re a sneaky beaky, aren’t you?”
“Oh God, you’ve rumbled me. I’m undercover in the Womens’ Auxiliary Balloon Corps.”
He chortled, “I do pick-ups and drop offs for Vauxhall Cross. Well, whatever you’ve been up to, you look bloody fit, Ma’am.”
She looked at him and smiled, “Thank you. It’s nice to lose a bit of weight from my arse.”
They passed the time with light-hearted chat and then they got off the M4 and stayed on the A404 before turning off again. They saw the sign for hotel and spa and pulled into the car park.
“This is it according to my instructions. I’ll wait until I’m sure you’re booked in. Goodbye, Ma’am. All the best to you.”
“Thanks for the lift,” she picked up her bergen and daysack, went inside the hotel and waited until someone came to the reception desk.
“Afarin Khan. I believe that somebody made a reservation in my name.”
“Yes Ms Khan. You are in room fourteen. Please assemble in the small conference room at 14:00. Lunch is 12:00 until 14:00. Here is your key and the internet password. Enjoy your stay.”
She popped back outside and gave the driver a thumbs-up. He waved and drove out of the car park. In her room, Afarin had a bath, a luxury after six months of showers and attended to her Sunan al-Fitra. She watched Sky Lies 24 until lunchtime and went downstairs.
Most of the guests were part of a larger corporate event and she people watched until her simple cheese and tomato omelette came. As she ate it slowly, she wondered if Jean-Claude would be part of the de-briefing team. She curled her toes in expectation.
The other guests were from a financial institution in London and there was assorted willy-waving, flirting and general obsequiousness to those senior. They were making early inroads into the wine and all of them wore a uniform of sorts. Black suits for the men and skirts and jackets for the ladies. A few of them looked at Afarin in her trousers, blouse and lose hijab, dining alone. A group were openly talking about her.
Please don’t hit on me.
After her lunch, Afarin went into a quiet room and read a paper. She walked hunched, as though trying to avoid drawing attention to her breasts. She concluded that apart from the celebrity tittle-tattle, or government fluffing, there was little actual news. The banking delegates made their way to a larger conference room, and it was suddenly quiet. She waited until 13:55 and went through to the small conference room, basically a large table with chairs either side. She sat down and waited. As she stared out of the window, a waitress brought in a coffee and tea urns, smiled, and left. It was raining outside, the trees changing colour; she had missed the English summer.
And she waited, getting worried in case she had gone to the wrong room. By 14:04 she was in a state of agitation, but finally they came. Alan Bartlett was with two others, a man and a woman and she didn’t recognise the woman, although she was sure the man had been at her debriefing at Oxford. Bartlett gave her a hug and was surprised by her reticence to hug him back. He introduced the other two.
“This is Julian and Annette. Jean-Claude is just finishing off a little job and he’ll be back tomorrow. Right, let’s have some coffee first. The traffic coming out of London was awful today.”
Afarin didn’t want anything because she’d just had her lunch. They sat round the table, Bartlett at the head with Julian and Annette on one side, her on the other. Annette would take notes while Bartlett and Julian asked the questions.
“First of all, welcome back. It feels as though it’s been a long time. Right, firstly the admin points. Was the flight uneventful, was the hire car waiting and available and the driving, OK?”
She nodded, “Yes, no problems. It took twenty-five minutes to drive to Camp Mitkan Adam and it was easy to find. They were expecting me at the guard house and I was shown my accommodation by Staff Sergeant Hoffman, the course NCO.”
“The training consisted of 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 must 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 me.
“Two months Mista’arvim course, which covered everything from learning Arab traditions, language, and way of thought to civilian camouflage (hair dyeing, contact lenses, clothing).
“Then one-month courses – sniper, driving and different instructors’ courses, if necessary. They paid particular attention to small arms skills and every morning we fired hundreds of rounds, Glock and Tavor Assault Rifle.”
“How did rate the Tavor rifle?” asked Julian.
“Very similar to our L85, same rate of fire and calibre of ammunition, a Bullpup design. But ergonomically much better as it can be fired right and left-handed. Optical sights were robust and gave a good sight picture, plus they could be used at night.”
“What about the rest of the equipment?”
She looked at him, “Do you mean ancillary equipment?”
“The Ephod Combat Vest is a well-balanced equipment carrier as well as being body armour with the inclusion of ceramic plates. Sometimes, if a lot of movement or running had to be done, the ceramic plates were removed. Then a combat helmet comes with a Mitznefet helmet cover, the large, baggy piece of material that breaks up a soldier’s profile and kept him or her shaded from the sun. It is an excellent piece of kit in the Middle Eastern sun.”
“How would you rate the average Israeli soldier?” Bartlett asked.
“They are extremely casual and show open affection to soldiers of the other sex. Their discipline can fail, for example the one who tried to clout me with the butt of his weapon in a training exercise. Some take drugs. However, they are single-minded in their job, which is to protect Israel and its population. There is no prejudice, Israeli Jews fight alongside Arabs. It is my opinion they are the best soldiers in the world.
“Their training is first rate and they have built a city in the Negev Desert, specifically to train their forces in urban fighting. It is vast, about sixteen square miles and it has trees, gardens, market stalls, everything an Arab city would have. Their training is with live ammunition, and they have a low-velocity, non-lethal round for close in fighting. If you get hit by one, they hurt a great deal. Their aircraft drop live bombs with the minimum separation to troops on the ground. And they have learned the lessons of the Yom Kippur war, concerning how to operate air power in a non-permissible environment. It is the close operation of ground with air assets that makes them so good.
“During the Resistance phase of SERE training, they use real pain. You think you are captured by the Palestinians, but they are Israeli instructors dressed like the Palestinian police. I was subjected to prolonged waterboarding twice, real drowning and they exposed me to the delights of electric shocks to my genitals.”
She looked at Bartlett in a contemptuous manner as she described her ill-treatment. He looked away as though embarrassed.
“And then, like the seventh cavalry, their Special Forces come and rescue us. The worst thing is the way they play with your mind. Some members of my course remain unaware that it was Jews who were torturing them. I found out because my interrogator smoked strong cigarettes and I followed the smoke. I tried to kill him before they dragged me off him, but he’ll have a broken nose to remember me by.”
“Ok, that’s very useful stuff,” Julian said to her, “Now I want to talk about your role in the operation. I must stress that your inclusion was sanctioned by Director Special Forces and the Chief of the Defence Staff. The Israelis rated you very highly by the way. Can you give us some background to the operation?”
She stood up to get a cup of tea, “I’ll get it,” “Bartlett told her. “Just tea?”
“A little sugar as well, please,” she sat back down and thought through the background, “There was an increase in the rocket attacks, fired from Gaza into Israel. Israeli Intelligence learned that there was going to be a meeting in a hotel in Egypt between Hezbollah and Hamas in order to receive another consignment of rockets. My team of four was dropped off by submarine to designate a missile strike.”
“Tell us about the submarine,” Julian said while Sharon scribbled notes quickly.
“It was a Dolphin II Class with Air-Independent Propulsion. We didn’t surface from the time we left Haifa until they surfaced to drop us off.”
Julian went into a recognition manual and found the Dolphin class of submarine, “Was the submarine carrying nuclear missiles?”
“It could have been carrying nuclear cruise missiles. We weren’t allowed in the forward torpedo room. One thing it did carry was a pressurised container on the rear deck, behind the sail for the equipment of commando divers. It was where they stashed our Zodiac.”
“What happened after you were dropped on the shore, El Alamein wasn’t it?”
“It’s a city now, full of hotels and apartments with a golf course,” she told them, “I was the sea lookout in a hide. Two went to stay in the hotel, waiting for the Hezbollah delegation to pitch up. They realised that the target had his family with him as human shields.”
“Why did they not abort? Asked Bartlett.
“Because we don’t understand the Jewish psyche. They are utterly ruthless. Personally, I would have aborted, but I wasn’t leading the operation.”
“What was the role of the two in the hotel?” Julian asked.
“Reconnaissance and to guide the missile onto the target at the nominated time, with a laser designator. The target was in a penthouse suite and the Hezbollah delegation arrived. I heard it coming in and there was a bloody great explosion from the hotel. The top floor had gone, with extensive damage to the rooms on the next floor. It caught fire, probably because of the unburned propellent and it was utter carnage.”
“What type of missile would you say?”
“Something quite large, an anti-shipping missile perhaps, air or sea launched. I think they launched from an aircraft. I have no idea why. They made sure he was dead. The Israelis don’t do proportionality. I think they were after the Hezbollah representative and the Hamas guy, and his family were collateral.”
“And then it started to go wrong?”
“An Egyptian corvette came into the bay, where we were supposed to be picked up by the submarine. It may have detected the missile on its radar, and it anchored in the bay. We weren’t going to get out by sub any time soon. We decided to steal a car and head east to Alexandria, hoping we could go to earth in a city. We signed into the hotel as two couples and decided what the hell we were going to do.
“The first thought was going into Libya, but that was too dangerous. It was suggested that we go south into the Sudan, but it was a long journey. In the end, I phoned Hoffman and told him in code the mess we were in. He came back with a plan after speaking to the SF guys, which involved heading South to a disused airstrip about ten miles from the Sudan. It was a long trip, we needed spare fuel cans and I stole a second car.
“We knew it was going to be a long drive and we had to get there before a certain time. It all went well until we were in the south of the Western Desert. The other car was following some miles behind us. We came across an Army patrol of four soldiers in a Nimr and they stopped us at their roadblock. We couldn’t blag our way out of it, so we had to kill them and hide the Nimr out in the desert, off the road.”
“Can you show us on this map where the roadblock was and the airstrip?” Julian said, pushing a map across the table.
Afarin indicated the positions with the point of a pencil, “I feel terrible about it. They were just soldiers doing their job, with families and perhaps children.”
She wiped away the beginning of tears and they all pretended not to notice it.
“That’s a hell of a long way south,” Julian observed, looking at the map’s scale, “Over one thousand kilometres.”
“We refuelled at Mut, about halfway.”
“All right, so you got to the airstrip. What next?”
“We stashed the cars behind some blast pens, so they couldn’t be seen from the road and waited. The whole extraction was about three minutes. An SF C130 came in, no lights, Landed and we legged it on board, covered by a CSAR team. And then we were off. No messing, heading into Sudan at ultra-low level and at the Red Sea, we climbed for the flight back to Israel.”
“It didn’t feel like it at the time. I was in a state of controlled panic from the moment we realised the sub wasn’t going to pick us up. It’s an experience I never want to go through again.”
“How would you describe the Israeli reaction to your predicament?”
“Swift. No prevarication, stalling in various departments. Once they had decided on a course of action, they carried it through. As for our being in Egypt, I dislike extra-judicial killing.”
“Are there any questions you want to ask us?”
“I would like to ask Mr Bartlett a question, in private please.”
Julian and Sharon went out, leaving Bartlett and Afarin in the conference room. She watched them leave.
“Stay here the night and Jean-Claude will collect you and take you to your new house. Congratulations by the way. I hope you will be…”
“How could you do that to me? How could you be so cruel?”
“Afarin, I want…”
“Do you know what a waterboarding is like? Your throat and nasal passages burn. The water is in your lungs, burning and you are desperate for breath. You are drowning and are convinced you’re going to die. And they allow you a breath of air and the whole process starts again.
“But that’s not the worst thing, Mr Bartlett. Do you have any idea what it feels like to be electrocuted? Wires on my intimate places and they can turn the voltage up if it pleases them. It feels like you are being ripped apart, the very part of you that defines you as a woman in terrible agony. You piss yourself. You can’t help it. And it’s so funny to see this woman shrieking, twisting, and writhing, screaming for mercy, so they have a good laugh. All the time I was thought about somewhere else, a nice office in London, overlooking the river. And you Alan Bartlett sanctioned that. Why?”
Bartlett stared out of the windows at the rain pattering on the glass. Finally, he spoke in a soft voice, “Afarin, it was a difficult decision. We… I wanted to give you the best chance if you were ever captured by our many enemies. The Israelis assured me there would be no permanent marks on your body and that stage was vital to complete Mista’arvim training.”
“What about my mind, Alan? I was nearly driven mad with the pain and in the end he drew his pistol and I thought he was going to shoot me in the head. Well, it has had the reverse effect of what you were trying to achieve. If it looks like I’m going to be captured, I’ll put the Glock in my mouth and blow my fucking brains out.”
There was a long and heavy silence in the room, until Afarin spoke again, “When we first met, I asked you if you were one of the good guys. You assured me that you were, but now, I’m not so sure.”
Bartlett stood up, “I’m sorry you feel like that, Afarin. I’ve arranged six weeks of leave for you with Hereford. Jean-Claude will pick you up tomorrow, late morning. If you feel as though you want to resign, could you give your letter to Jean-Claude. Goodbye, Afrin.”
She said nothing and stared at her coffee cup, the contents long cooled. After he left, she put her head in her hands and felt a lonely betrayal.
Over a year later, she received an e-mail on her Hotmail account. It was from Zelig.
Eyn lach muság káma sheh aní mitga’a gé’a elaich.
“We have now settled into our relevant teams, and they split us up, pretty much as expected. Efrayim has resigned because he couldn’t commit with a wife and small child to look after. It was a boy and quite a difficult birth, he told us. Dan and Batya are very much an item, and she is pestering him to get married. He will weaken and agree to it, but he has to make a fight of it first.
“Aisha and I are also an item now. I divorced my wife, and we are planning to get married. She may not be able to have children, but we don’t care, I love her dearly and our time together is precious. I’m hoping we can adopt one of the many refugee children.
“Some news on Gad and Heyfa. After the course, Gad turned into a sex fiend, leaving no furrow unploughed. He was an unlikely hit with the ladies, until Heyfa got him to calm down. The two of them were married and we were all invited along to the wedding which was held in St. Louis the King Cathedral, Haifa. Much to my honour, he invited me to be best man. They were married in a Christian ceremony, according to Heyfa’s wishes and I’ve enclosed some photos of the happy event. It was a lovely day and Heyfa looked absolutely beautiful, as you can see on the enclosed photographs.
“They had the zaffeh, a celebratory event with music, dance, and public participation. The wedding starts with two groups, one in the groom’s home and one in the bride’s home and ends at the location where the bride and groom walk behind the zaffeh for the first time in front of everyone as husband and wife.
“We hope they will be happy in the tumultuous years ahead and God bless them both.”
Afarin clicked on them and smiled. Heyfa wore an ivory dress and veil, with flowers in her hair. Gad’s hair was cut short, and he cut a real dash in his Intelligence Corps master Sergeant’s uniform. Zelig was right. Heyfa looked radiant and so happy and the one with the best man, Aisha ignored the camera and couldn’t take her eyes off Zelig. It was a wonderful event, and it was her, Afarin who had made it possible.
“I will be starting a multi-engine conversion course fairly soon. You can only take so much of being terrified to within a centimetre in your life. I will be learning to fly the C130 and hopefully have a job lined up with Israir airlines if I’m successful. Aisha will also resign and apply for cabin crew.
“How are things with you? We miss you and all of us send our love. Stay safe my beautiful Persian girl and we all love and miss you.”
Shmor al atzmeha.
Heyfa never did meet that Lebanese boy and grow oranges, but she got a real man who would look after her. Afarin felt a tinge of sad envy. She re-read the message several times and started to type.
Eyn lach muság káma sheh aní mitga’a gé’a elaich. – You have no idea how much we miss you.
© Blown Periphery 2022