The Poet Game

A Novel

Salar Abdoh

Picador

THE POET GAME (Chapter 1)

The Libyans who surrounded him were humorless fellows. It was nothing to get restless about, Libyans were notorious for this. In early 1992, when the Office had penetrated the inappropriately named “Lightning Battalion” in a northern Tehran suburb, he’d come in contact with a lot of these so-called Exchange Students from various Arab countries. The Lebanese were hotheads, the Syrians were cautious, old-hand PLO guys were capable of degenerating in a flash, the Egyptians could be serious and smart, yet also egotistical and clownish. But the Lemons, as the Libyans were called, were a breed apart. No talk, little action. And definitely not the kind of freedom fighter you’d want to cover your back in times of trouble.

One of the Libyans said something in Arabic and nodded in the direction of the cemetery they were passing. Sami had seen it from high up when the plane had been circling over Kennedy Airport. From this vantage point the sprawling graveyard had a certain authority to it, but from the plane it had appeared as something indecent and incomplete. He thought, How is one supposed to explain this idea to a Libyan brother? Then he wondered if he shouldn’t say something for the sake of politeness. Neither of the men in the back responded, however, to his comment about being hungry. Finally the one in the passenger seat, a fleshy character who seemed to be the boss, turned to face Sami.

“It’s Ramadan. You don’t eat.”

The finality of the statement should have piqued him, but he didn’t feel up to it. You usually had two sorts of Arab operatives to deal with: one set acted as if having an agent from Iran was like having the Prophet’s own right-hand man at the helm, while the other lot were pugnacious and sneering, treating the Persians as if the ancient battle of Qadissiyah between the two races had never ended.

For the time being Sami was content to exert little effort. A more energetic emissary might already have been collecting brownie points trying to please these boys. He tapped the fat Arab who had addressed him.

“What?”

“You speak my language?”

“What, Persian? That’s not funny.”

“Then I’ll say it in English: fuck you; I’m going to eat anyway.”

The fat man gave a shrug and the ones in the back shifted uncomfortably. The car sped along a wide street. Sami read “Jamaica Avenue” on a street sign. For no reason that he could think of, seeing this sign made him think of Winston Churchill. There had been a street in Tehran called Churchill, the name of which they’d changed after the revolution. He wondered why somebody would want to call a street in Brooklyn, Jamaica. He could ask the stone-faced Lemons—Limu in Persian—but he doubted if it would initiate conversation. He settled back into the seat, wondering if somebody was going to offer him a cigarette so he could refuse—but no, it was Ramadan, month of fasting, and they probably expected him to pray alongside them. This wasn’t a comforting thought.

They passed a traffic light as a Hasidic man was getting into his car. This caused stirrings of tension in the car, like the push of a wrong button. The driver, a dark-skinned young fellow with Berber features, muttered something under his breath.

“I always knew I should have learned Arabic when I had the chance,” Sami said.

Without turning around, the fat fellow up front repeated the tail end of Sami’s sentence, “When you had the chance.”

“Yeah, in Lebanon. ’Ninety to ’92. I’ve paid my dues, helped the brothers.”

There was more silence while they turned into a side street. Then the big fellow started to ask him about dues. “What is ‘dues’? You speak well English? How come?” But he didn’t stop for an answer. The four of them slid out of the car at the same time. Sami followed.

It was a three-story redbrick building with a black iron gate that opened to the side of the first floor. The street was nicely tree-lined, and brown-skinned kids played in it. For a second he was scandalized at the apparent amateurism of these people; was this an Arab neighborhood? But then he heard the staccato exchange of Spanish. And soon he was even more relieved as a Chinese woman went pushing a stroller on the other side of the street. This made him recall how little he really knew. Until last week he’d been back to working on one of the Colonel’s pet projects in Tehran, mostly translating reveal-all memoirs by former agents of this and that Western intelligence service. For internal consumption of the Office, of course. As if any agency worth a dime would let its real secrets be given away that easily. Nevertheless, it was a job and it beat chasing Interior Ministry guys all over the city.

A big-breasted, light-skinned man with a goatee and a Bokhara cap opened the door, looking rather too self-consciously pious. An American, Sami guessed, searching for Islam’s regimented enlightenment.

He found himself in a small room with a barred window boarded up from the outside. A floor mat and an old yellow blanket had been thrown in a corner for him to sleep on. A Koran lay atop a short stool. A closet with no door stood empty save for a few plastic clothes hangers bunched to the side. This was evidently intermission time. How long it lasted was up to the Libyans. He was a houseguest without a key, being welcomed to Brooklyn, New York.

He’d been incarcerated before, but only during routine Office exercises. What was not so easy to figure was whether this, too, was an exercise or not. So on the second day, out of sheer boredom, he began to delve into the Koran they’d provided him with, readying himself for the long haul. They probably had him under some sort of observation, though he couldn’t tell how. He gave a name to the man who had received him inside the house—Hazrat, or Prophet—just to fix his face in his own mind. Hazrat set out a food tray for him without saying a word—at an hour which Sami guessed to be dusk—two days in a row. On the third day Sami tried to break the ice.

“Your hospitality is beginning to weigh on me, brother,” he whispered in a sarcastic voice.

The hesitation took the form of Hazrat’s setting the tray by the door, and then arranging and rearranging its position as if it were less food than an offering. Sami reached for a piece of sweet date—they were splurging.

“Are you scandalized at me, brother?” he asked as the other was leaving the room.

They didn’t give him much of a chance after that. When the door burst open it dawned on him that old Hazrat had forgotten to lock it. Not that he would have tried to get out. Stretching over on the mat, he said in Persian, “Fellows, if you treat your friends like this, I’d hate to visit you at home in Tripoli.”

A runt of a Libyan with bushy eyebrows began to yell in Arabic and frisk through his clothes. Two other men stood around, pretending to debate something among themselves. This was the shake-up that Sami had been expecting for some time. He let himself be manhandled until a carefully shaven man wearing a pale blue suit appeared outside of the door.

“Tell the fuck to either shoot me or give me a cigarette,” Sami said, again in Persian.

The man in the doorway stepped closer and answered, also in Persian, “But, Mr. Amir, you don’t smoke cigarettes.”

Sami muttered something to the effect that now they were getting somewhere. The runt shook him again and the man who had answered him in Persian said, “He says you’ve come here to spy.”

“Well, we all have to get to America somehow.”

“Just live through it. These Libyans don’t trust their own mothers, you know.”

The interrogation lasted an hour, during which time the other Iranian supplied Sami Amir with cigarettes which he lit up but didn’t smoke. The fat Libyan who had sat in the front seat of the car came in shortly and put the questions to him in English. A second Libyan made as if he was taking notes.

“Your rank?”

“None. Sami Amir, Section Nineteen of Intelligence and Security. Travel orders, none. By the way, I’m hungry.” Here was one instance of a cigarette offer. Why was it smokers always assumed anyone could smoke his way out of hunger? “Our aim is zero besides financial backing for fellow Moslem brothers here in the United States. You can ask and I’ll communicate it with Tehran. When and if the time comes for anything, Section Nineteen wishes to remain ignorant of the specifics.”

“How did you come into the system?”

Sami looked across at the Iranian, who was watching him closely.

“It’s all right,” the fat man said, looking past Sami at the boarded window. “Colleagues should trust each other at times like these.”

“That’s a negative. My window, so to speak, at Nineteen remains anonymous. If you’re not already aware of that, then you are either terribly naïve or you’re a fraud. Either way means I’m done on American soil.”

The fat man laughed. “What are these heavy words, Mr. Amir: ‘terribly naïve’—you speak English like a Yankee. And you look like one. How come?”

This was a signal that they were now into the “serious” phase of their vetting and Sami had to give them the rundown of what they already had on him and keep to himself what they didn’t. “First off, gentlemen, my mother was an American, although I never met her.” Sensing no blatant aversion to this, Sami continued. A few times the fat man stopped to ask questions about things they had already gone over, especially about where he’d picked up his English. So Sami told him about the small Christian missionary-run boarding school in northern Tehran that the father he hardly ever knew had paid for over the years. He leaned into this part of his story, knowing the Arab penchant for collecting heartbreak. He talked of how after the annual stipend at the missionary school had stopped coming, the blind Irish Father O’Malley had decided to keep him on anyway, because…well, there was no because; sometimes people just did good deeds because they felt it was the right thing to do.

“Why did you mention Lebanon in the car? You were never in Lebanon from ’90 to ’92.”

“I was testing the extent of your knowledge.” Sami paused. He didn’t want it to come out as a small victory on his part, but he said it anyway: “And you can’t say I haven’t succeeded.” He offered an inappropriate smile.

The fat man pressed for the sake of argument, “Is it necessary for you to test anything?”

“You’re damn right it is.” He had meant to work himself into some sort of righteous anger, but now he felt it rising up for real. “Section Nineteen sent me here, not my grandmother. Things are hard enough, and I had to get here on a bona fide visa. My own picture, my own name, passport, the whole works. They said I’d get my instructions across the water. So far all I’ve got is a slap in the face, hunger, and a gang of suspicious Libyans who seem to prefer to see me vanish. You tell me why?”

The quick outburst made them retreat from his room with a little more grace than they had entered with. The door stayed unlocked. After an hour’s worth of soul searching he finally decided to venture out of his hole. The fat man and the Persian weren’t there. But three other Libyans were busy practicing karate in the middle of the carpeted living room floor. One by one they stopped what they were doing to stare at Sami. The barrier of language divided these men of apparent common cause, Sami on one side and the Libyans on the other. He noticed the light-skinned Hazrat sitting cross-legged in the corner of the room, reading the Koran loudly to himself with exaggerated intonations. He read too flawlessly to be an American. Maybe he was a Syrian after all, maybe neither.

Sami called out to no one in particular, “I’m going out for a walk; if I don’t come back, it’s not your fault,” imitating the last words of a high-ranking KGB defector to the Americans before the man had redefected to his own people. Sami had had to translate the public version of that story for the Office so the brass could read about it and gloat over hard-to-comprehend CIA bungling. Yet he doubted whether any of the men in this room could quite appreciate the joke even if their English was up to par. So he headed outside and was relieved to find that the night sky here looked no different than it did in most other places he’d visited before.

Hardly a block down the street he came upon a Chinese fast-food joint that cooked halal meat. This provoked a double take—a Chinese restaurant that served kosher food for Moslems! Less than a second later a Caribbean whore said something to him in Spanish. He didn’t know what she said and couldn’t even be certain if she was a whore. Ambiguity everywhere. How did those Libyans handle such everyday encounters in America?

He ended up eating at an Oriental joint down the street. He ordered a dish called “Hot Tofu Over Rice.” He left the tofu but ate the rice, though reluctantly. It wasn’t very good rice. Not by a long shot.

THE POET GAME Copyright © 2000 by Salar Abdoh.