The glare of the noon sun chased away shadows and smothered the desert in a blanket of oppressive heat. Arid winds suppressed any hint of moisture carried over from the Red Sea. Even the trees and grasses were wise enough not to take up residence. Rock outcroppings loomed beyond the skyline. Their striped layers of sediment gave the impression that the earth had been carved away to create room for the city of Sa’Dah.
Nested in the northwest region of Yemen, near the Saudi Arabian border, the ancient city had been ravaged by decades of conflict. Hollowed ruins and heaps of rubble were now fixtures in several regions. A patchwork of monochrome beige structures steadily crumbled, as if to be reclaimed by the desert dunes which they had been molded from.
In one of the remaining residential districts that showed signs of life, the backs of four large apartment buildings formed a courtyard, flanked along one side by a row of benches. On one of those benches, Rasheed anxiously ran a hand through his tangled mash of curly hair. A lone bead of sweat trickled down his forehead and settled in the bristle of his eyebrow. His faded T-shirt and jeans were caked in a layer of dust and grime collected from all corners of the city. The closest he had come to a shower in days was a gas station bathroom sink, some powdered soap and a handful of brown paper towels. His slender frame, diminutive stature, and lack of facial hair concealed several of his eighteen years of age. But the dark circles beneath his lusterless brown eyes revealed a different story.
Trying his best to ignore the churning knots in his stomach, Rasheed scanned the courtyard for the stranger who had requested this meeting. A small amount of traffic had resumed along the nearby streets since the noon call to prayer. An elderly woman exited one of the apartments and wandered away. A mother sat on the adjacent bench, reading a paperback in one hand while the other hand pushed and pulled a stroller in a gentle rocking motion.
A group of children chased and kicked a football, their laughter echoed off the courtyard walls. Above them, a two story mural of Abu Salaam Anwari cast its fiery gaze and pointed an assault rifle to the sky. The words “Martyr for Allah” were written in vibrant Arabic graffiti below. The lower levels of the other buildings were covered in a montage of fading and overlapping graffiti, but this lone portrait remained unobstructed in reverence.
Rasheed remembered playing football in this same courtyard as a child with his older brother Taariq and several other neighborhood boys who had either died or moved away by now. At the time, the wall had depicted the firebrand cleric Muhyi al din Masood with the same downward gaze.
Rasheed checked the time on his plastic watch, trying to avert his eyes from the cigarette burn marks on his forearm. By 12:45, he determined the contact wasn’t showing. Frustrated, he stood from the bench and turned to leave.
“Expecting someone?” The woman on the bench inquired softly without looking up from her novel. Rasheed didn’t even acknowledge her. He just pretended not to hear and began to walk away. He was only a few paces toward the street when she spoke again. “Please sit, Rasheed.”
Startled, Rasheed turned and examined the woman who spoke his name. Large, dark sunglasses obscured much of her face but she appeared to be in her mid-thirties, with olive skin. A few locks of raven black hair peaked out beneath her deep maroon hijab. She wore a long beige tunic and black pants. Standing behind the bench, Rasheed caught a glimpse beneath the sun visor of the shadowed form within the pram. It lay motionless and silent beneath a blanket, and he realized it had not uttered a sound or shown any signs of life since he had arrived. He now doubted there was even a real baby inside.
Rasheed returned to his seat at the bench. They were close enough to talk without anyone overhearing, but far enough to not appear together. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“You may call me Talia. I’m here to help,” the woman replied in an accent he couldn’t quite place.
Rasheed was confounded. “Forty-five minutes I’ve been waiting and you were sitting right next to me the whole time?”
“I apologize for the inconvenience but I needed to be sure we were alone. You wouldn’t want your friends to see you conspiring with a stranger now would you?”
His gaze shifted to the ground. “I don’t have any friends.”
“Well, now you have me,” Talia offered with a smile.
“Is that what you are, my friend?” Rasheed sneered.
“I can be the best friend you ever had. I can help get you and your family out of here. You know they’re not safe here anymore.”
“No one is safe here.”
“This city has seen better days,” Talia affirmed as she observed the eroding skyline. “But I think you understand the gravity of your situation. You went to visit Taariq at the Houthi safe house just a few days after being released from custody. Less than six hours after you left, it was leveled by a drone strike, killing three soldiers and destroying a weapons cache. You think they’ll consider that a coincidence?”
“They weren’t soldiers. That was my brother and his roommates. Taariq was not a rebel. The Saudis were misinformed.”
“Your brother always protected you. You were the sensitive one, the intellectual. You have a future. He never wanted any of this for you so he insulated you. But don’t pretend to be naïve, Rasheed. You knew who he was. You knew what he was involved with.”
“It doesn’t matter now. He was my brother and I loved him. I would never give him up.”
“You were detained and tortured for eleven days. Hardened soldiers don’t last that long without talking, much less an eighteen year old boy.”
Rasheed felt his pulse quicken, and a lump in his throat began to swell. He took a breath and relaxed his tightened fists. “I told them nothing. I had nothing to tell.”
“I believe you, I just wonder if the Houthi will take the chance. This is not the same grassroots rebellion of ten years ago. The group has been infiltrated and overrun with extremists. They kill their own members over much less. And since you know you haven’t been working with the Saudis, how do you think they will react once they discover you’re still alive? You’re caught in the middle of a civil war, and both sides think you’re the enemy.”
“I didn’t ask for your help. I just want information. You said you knew who gave up my brother, who had him killed.”
“Four people have visited that safe house. The other three are dead. That leaves you.”
Rasheed’s frustration intensified. “You have my whole life in a file. You know everything about me, Talia, so you know I would never give up my own brother. Why are you wasting my time? You said you knew who told them.”
“It was you, Rasheed.”
Rasheed stood, “I’m leaving. Don’t contact me again.”
“You gave Taariq’s location, you just didn’t know it. None of the others had left or made contact with the outside since the checkpoint incident.”
“I don’t know anything about a checkpoint incident.”
“I don’t suppose you would. About three weeks ago, a few days before you were apprehended, Taariq and two others were driving north toward the border. Intelligence sources believed they were attempting to smuggle weapons. They were stopped at a checkpoint by a Saudi patrolman. They shot and killed the officer as he approached the vehicle, then they fled the scene and returned to Sa’Dah. They had been in hiding and presumably had not left the safe house since then. None of them revealed their location.”
“Are you saying I was being followed? I know this city inside out. The path I took to reach Taariq would have been impossible to follow.”
“You weren’t followed. You were tracked.”
“How? I didn’t have a cell phone. I made sure to change my clothes. I don’t keep anything else on me. I just bought this cheap watch off a kid yesterday.”
For the first time during their conversation, Talia turned and faced Rasheed. Her deep brown eyes flashed a hint of sympathy. “Rasheed, the tracking device is not on you. It is you. It was implanted inside you while you were detained.”
In an instant, the oxygen rushed from Rasheed’s lungs. His periphery darkened and his head felt dizzy. The walls of the courtyard seemed to close in as the eyes of the mural bored through him. Tides of stomach acids churned and frothed. He took several deep breaths to suppress the urge to vomit. Visions of his captivity began to surface. Lying restrained on a table. Waking up on a cold floor in a haze. A bare lightbulb on the ceiling. It was after that night that the interrogations stopped and he was mainly left alone until his release. Now he understood.
“Who the hell are you? Who do you work for?” Rasheed demanded.
“Unfortunately, I can’t divulge many employment details. My clients wish to remain anonymous. But I can tell you they are a wealthy group of concerned citizens. They are powerful, they are determined, and they are unrestricted in the way that governments and militaries are. The men who kidnapped you are not part of any intelligence organization, they are just mercenaries. They sell assets and intelligence to anyone who wants them: Saudis, Israelis, Americans, it doesn’t matter. I am a broker, a liaison between interested parties. You were a desirable asset because of your family connections. We know you’re not involved in the insurgency. The Houthi are ruthless, but they are also pragmatic. They would accept you in if you could convince them you weren’t one of us. You just have to regain their trust.”
“My trust? You had me tortured, implanted a…a…a tracking device inside me, murdered my brother, now you’re threatening my family and you want to talk about my trust?”
“Rasheed, please lower your voice. You’ve been through a lot and your anger is understandable. But I need you to stop lambasting me with accusations and listen to what I’m offering.”
Rasheed paced back a few steps, and then reluctantly returned to his bench. “If what you say is true, why are you even telling me? Why not just keep tracking me?”
“I am telling you because, while the Houthi might accept you, they are much more likely to just kill you. You know this. That’s why you’ve been sleeping in abandoned buildings for the past week, why you haven’t returned home. And that only makes you look more suspicious in their eyes. You need a plausible alibi. You need money and protection. You can’t disappear on your own, or there will be retaliation against your family. They should not have to pay for your brother’s associations and neither should you.”
“And what if I decline your offer?”
Talia responded, “Then I can’t protect you or your family. You might be able to stay hidden for a while or even escape. But they would go after your parents, then your older sister and her husband. They may be killed quickly or they might be tortured until they could prove themselves to be useless in finding you. Your little sister Liyana would likely be sold off. She just turned six, right? She’s a beautiful girl.”
“You don’t ever speak my sister’s name,” Rasheed hissed.
“This is what they do. Lovely bunch your brother supported.” Talia made no effort to disguise her contempt.
“And you think you’re creating a better world? A world where we get dragged from our homes at night tortured and tagged like cows while you watch us and drop bombs from the sky?”
“You wish to discuss the ethics of my profession? Every war accepts a certain level of collateral damage, but when facing an enemy that beheads doctors and kidnaps children as sex slaves, the civilized world is compelled to use all tools at our disposal. This is just the beginning Rasheed. There are dozens of others. Why else would Americans agree to exchange five prisoners for a single hostage? Our days of playing fair are over,” Talia retorted sharply. There was a prolonged pause as her words hung in the air.
She continued, in a more softened tone. “I am just the messenger, Rasheed. I don’t make policy, I don’t select assets, and I don’t carry out executions. The fact that we are meeting today means you have an opportunity that is rarely afforded. My clients, collectively, have the authority to grant asylum for your family to a country of your choosing. They can help you establish a real life with a future.”
“Yemen is my home. My family has lived here in Sa’Dah for generations. I don’t want to abandon everything I know and love. I want to help rebuild.”
“And you can do that,” Talia reassured. “You’ll have a much better chance if you work with us. You want to become a doctor, correct? We can help with that. Any college you want to get into, we can streamline your admission. You’re an honor’s student with high marks and desirable extracurriculars: chess club regional finalist, an award for a robotics project, a member of the debate team. You’ve accomplished so much in such a hostile environment. Imagine what you could achieve if you didn’t have to spend so much energy just trying to survive.”
“And my dog collar?”
“It will be removed once your mission is complete. For your own safety, we need to know where you are. But this is a limited operation, not a life sentence. We just need assistance locating a few high profile targets.”
“You make threats and promises in the same breath.” As Rasheed spoke, he traced the burns on his forearm. “You have so much to offer, but what value is my life to you? Would you not just kill me once your clients are finished with me? Why spend the money to relocate my family, provide all this opportunity, instead of just dragging me off at night and dropping me in the sea?” Disdain leaked through Rasheed’s voice.
“I realize our relationship is very one-sided. I have all the information and all the negotiating power and you have no assurance on my ability or intention to keep the promises of my offer. Let me explain how it will work. First off, we will move your family out of harm’s way immediately. Before I ask you to do anything, your family will be safe. Second, while I can’t guarantee your safety as long as you’re here, I will provide you with a substantial insurance policy. Should you be injured, you will be well compensated. If you are killed, your family will be compensated. We’ll set it up through a local company and you can have a lawyer review the policy. Third, you will have security detail nearby at all times.”
Rasheed sat in silent contemplation. The sheer absurdity of her proposal was beyond belief but at the same time seemed like his only option.
“I know it’s a lot to consider, so I’ll give you time to think it over.” She dropped a few bills on the ground. “In the meantime, here’s some cash. Get yourself a room, a change of clothes and something to eat. I’ll contact you in a few days for your answer.” With that, Talia stood, adjusted her sunglasses back over her eyes, and walked away pushing her prop stroller toward the street. Rasheed breathed a sigh of relief as she disappeared around the corner.
A weathered football sat idle in the center of the now vacant courtyard. Rasheed could still vividly picture Taariq dribbling circles around the other kids. Taariq had always been extremely athletic and fiercely competitive. He had always been stronger and faster than Rasheed. But Rasheed excelled in contests of logic and strategy. It was Taariq who had first taught Rasheed to play chess when he was only four. By the time Rasheed was six and Taariq was ten, Rasheed gradually began winning more frequently until Taariq no longer offered a challenge. Rasheed consumed the board, rapidly executing dozens of scenarios until the right move was clear. His brother often told him he had been blessed with the gift of basira, divine foresight.
Rasheed thought back to his last fateful visit with Taariq. He recalled one of the last things Taariq had said, “I did not choose the path of Jihad; the path chose me. It is not for me to convince you to follow me. If it is God’s will, the path will be made clear for you. The Devil will be revealed to you in the form of flesh, and God will provide you with the tools to cut its heart out.” Now Taariq was dead, killed by the same Devil that now made false promises of salvation.
Rasheed turned to the sky. He had always hated clear skies, because clear skies are when the drones watch from above. Today was different though. He closed his eyes, faced the sun. He felt surrounded by the warmth of God’s love. The snake woman Talia and her legion of infidels could see him at all times, but they could not see into his mind, and they could not see into the future. They had money and power, but Rasheed had basira. He would accept Talia’s offer, work for her and gain her favor. In time she would let her guard down. And when that time came, he would be ready.
“You were right Taariq,” Rasheed mused. “I did not choose the path, the path chose me.”