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It’s easy to forget, now that so many facts have been laid bare, but we once lived in a state of holy ignorance. We didn’t believe this to be the case. No, we studied the world and examined facts and argued over their interpretation. We took newspapers with a grain of salt, because to depend on strangers for knowledge was foolishness. Verification was our go-to word. We even debated whether or not the facts themselves could be trusted, and this sort of meta-analysis made us feel like we were truly critical, that we were looking at the world unencumbered by Pollyanna notions. We were wrong. Sometime over the past fifty years the center of the world had moved, and we hadn’t noticed.
You would imagine that I’m talking about regular people, citizens going about their days focused on bread and love and children. I could be, but for fourteen years I had worked as an analyst for America’s premier foreign intelligence agency, and even in the halls of Langley, armed to the teeth with secret information and specialized enlightenment, we wallowed in the same kind of ignorance. We made policy recommendations and sent employees out into the world, sometimes to die, based on a basic misunderstanding of how the world functioned.
For half a century, we were distracted. We let the wrong people grow stronger, so that by the time we were able to look directly at them and see them for what they were, it was too late to draw up search warrants and set court dates and frog-march them in orange vests to Leavenworth. That would have been a better, cleaner solution.
I joined CIA from graduate school in 2005, seduced by a pale poli-sci professor who had spent a mysterious part of his youth in Prague. Though my stated interest, when asked, was international relations, that was only an excuse to get at the thing that truly excited my younger self: secret knowledge. Fieldwork was naturally attractive, but I’d quickly discounted myself. My social skills have always been lackluster, my physical courage less a known fact than a hypothetical, and confrontations have never gone well for me. In short, I was temperamentally unfit to be a spy, but I knew how to strategize, and I knew how to analyze. Despite my inability to charm them, I understood people because I had always observed them from the outside, as if through a microscope.
It helped that I looked different. In Boston, among the pink-cheeked children of America’s aristocracy, or the striving descendants of the African labor that had built the country, I was never quite one with any of them. My skin set me apart from the former, my lack of enslaved pedigree from the latter. When I told them my people were Sahrawi, they blinked ignorantly, and I knew I could fill that void with whatever I liked. That we were Saharan royalty, that we ran caravans loaded with gold, that we kept our own slaves. I didn’t, but I easily could have. And when my older brother later died in the African hinterlands, I could have made that part of my mythology, too, but I didn’t have it in me to do that.
What my professor understood, which I hadn’t, was that this outsider status was precisely what would endear me to the Agency. He said, “You were born here, but your parents weren’t. How does that feel, Abdul?”
I told him that it made me feel mildly schizophrenic. My soul was in this country, while my heart was tied to a place I didn’t know.
“And you speak Arabic.”
“Hassaniya Arabic, yes, and I’ve studied modern standard.”
“Do you dream it?”
I smiled, shrugged, nodded.
“Photographic memory, I’m told.”
“No. Just a good one. Like, I don’t have to take notes at your lectures.”
“I’ve noticed,” he said. Then: “Sunni, yes?”
Four years earlier rogue members of the Sunni faith had declared war on America in an explosive fashion, so it was inevitable that I hesitated. “I was raised that way,” I told him.
“How does that make you feel?” he asked pointedly.
I was unsure what he was getting at. “It makes me feel that the world is more complicated than people believe.”
He might have pressed further but chose not to. Instead, he moved to the core of his pitch: “And you want to understand how the world really works.”
He rocked his head, chewing the inside of his lip. “No, Abdul. Not everyone. Most people don’t. But I can connect you with people who do understand.”
Which is to say that he fooled me, just as he was fooling himself, because fourteen years later neither of us knew how the world really worked. We only looked at it through a more sophisticated lens and believed that our lens was the highest resolution that could be achieved short of divinity. Belief usually isn’t enough.
In the outside world, what some would call the real world, I’d fallen in love with another first-generationer, Laura Pozzolli, a beautiful linguist with a biting wit and an instinctive sense for right and wrong that I could never match. By January 2019, we had been married seven years. Our son, Rashid, was six.
There is nothing like a family to help you discover the limits of your abilities. At the office I swam like a shark from one project to the next, my analytical skills put eagerly to the test against country after country, yet at home I was a turtle, graceful in one moment, struggling on muddy banks the next. The tension between home and work did not get better with time, and when the phone periodically rang in the middle of dinner and I had to drive off to examine time-sensitive cables or captured documents from terrorist safe houses, the look on Laura’s face told me more than her occasional outbursts ever would: This was not what she’d signed up for. She’d been raised by a Communist father who had always endeavored to take on half of the child-rearing himself, and when her parents met me they warned her that, no matter how good my intentions, I would inevitably fall back on the ways of my culture, leaving her with the babies and housekeeping. We’d laughed about that, though I never told Laura that after meeting her my mother criticized the girth of her hips, then pointedly asked in Hassaniya how many grandchildren she could expect.
I’d like to say that I worked overtime to alleviate my in-laws’ worries, but when I look back there’s little sign I really tried. When Paul, my section chief, called, I never said no, and when Laura pointed this out I asked her who she thought was going to pay the mortgage. Quite rightly, she accused me of becoming my father.
It was on such a night that the phone rang, and Laura glared at me from across the table as I answered it. Rashid was twirling spaghetti on his fork, unaware of the tension. By the time I hung up, Laura was covering my plate with plastic wrap on the counter. I told her I didn’t know what time I’d get back, but that wasn’t news. Security prevented me learning anything until I’d arrived at headquarters.
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