Theater of deception
Confessions of an Iranian spy novelist
By Salar Abdoh
February 5, 2001
I was hated not because my skin was particularly any darker than the
British boys I went to boarding school with. If anything, in the years
since, I've come to think maybe they hated me for the opposite reason,
for the jarring proximity of my color to their own pale skins. There was
an element of the subversion of the natural order of things in my not being
anything other than white.
We were Wogs, after all. Golliwogs, Woggies, Paks, Pakis; you name the
name and we had it. One name that has stuck in memory was this: Excuse
for a Camel's Ass. Camel, I could of course understand because of my Middle
Eastern origin. But "excuse"? It seemed as if the person who
had come up with this rather overlong slur was intimating that I wasn't
even fit to be a camel's rear end, that I was lower than that: a mere excuse
of the quadruped's arse.
It was Phil Barton who had called me that name first. It happened in
second-form when I first entered Wellington boarding school. Barton was
a thickly built English boy who liked to rough everybody up and wasn't
liked very much. Needless to say, I had to have a fight with him. Not over
the slur necessarily, but because I was new and foreign and had to stake
my own territory. I fought a lot of pale skinned English boys those first
weeks at Wellington. But soon I ran out of steam. Soon I came to realize
that name calling was a way of life in the British public schools - at
least in Wellington this was the case.
Being a wog just complicated things more than usual. You could be too
short or too tall, too fat or too thin, you could have big ears - like
me - or a slightly crooked nose, you could wear glasses, walk funny, speak
with a stutter, have too much hair or not enough, your arms might be too
long, your hands too bony, diseases of the skin, imaginary diseases, imaginary
everything . . . it was all there, grist for the mill, grist for the relentless
onslaught of those you shared breakfast, lunch, and dinner with day in
and day out - meals begun with the inevitable "For what I'm about
to receive may the Lord make me truly thankful."
We hated ourselves. There was something wrong with all of us. Few were
perfect, few could pass through the eye of the needle and into the kingdom
of the truly flawless. We were sure of that. We all, or mostly, were lacking,
and the authorities certainly treated us thus. The British boys mainly
came from the middle and upper middle classes of English society. The wogs,
on the other hand - we were the children of the Middle Eastern noveau riche.
Oil money. Oil money was pouring fast into the Middle East in the late
seventies and our fathers balanced their less savory habits by sending
us, their offspring, to British boarding schools to learn . . . what? Civility?
There was resentment, of course, on the part of the pale skins towards
us and our newfound wealth. How could you blame them? The average English
boy was taught to scrounge and be thrifty, so much so that sometimes I
wondered if the idea of keeping us perpetually hungry was not a part of
the boarding school program. We were always hungry. Always means always.
The English public school has been knocked around in many a film and
essay and story. My intention is not to beat a dead horse till it apologizes
for having kicked me. No. In retrospect, I could even say that I came away
from Wellington with attachments that I have seldom found since. Twenty
years later, their names, like the bully Phil Barton's designation for
me, still stick in memory: Peter Laverack, Paul Standewick, Paul Heaton,
Stanley Marriot, Kim Somaroo, Dave Brown, Robert Simpson . . . most, if
not all, of them English boys whom I grew to care for precisely because
we all suffered under the impartial blows of the same tyranny. Well, perhaps
not quite impartial. For if being a good golliwog assured one a modicum
of tranquillity, being a wild golliwog meant punishments ad absurdum, to
a point that you actually came to suspect that the world, or at least Wellington,
could not possibly function without you, just you, being continuously punished.
brother was a good wog. He was better than good, in fact; he was an
extraordinary wog. His skin color was far darker than mine. He was in the
sixth-form when I was only in the third. The sixth-formers, as anyone who
has gone through the British system knows, were the unequivocal elite,
especially those in the upper sixth. They had the authority to punish the
lower forms, and they usually did.
But my brother was extraordinary for other reasons. He could quote Shakespeare
better than most of his teachers and he had already had a book of poems
published. The English respected that; they respected it so much in fact
that they gave him the top literary prize for the school at the end of
his last year there - an unheard of thing for a wog to win this. But that
was how the British were. Even then, as a fourteen-year-old wild wog, I
was beginning to suspect that perhaps there was something unique about
the English: they respected quality. It may be grudging respect, but it
was there nevertheless, a carryover from their tradition of gentlemanly
sense of fair play, I suppose.
But back then I had no notions of the so-called British sense of fair
play. All I knew was that I was constantly being picked as the battered
model for what others should not be. The punishments could sometimes get
imaginative, especially if they came from sixth-formers rather than the
teachers. Those I didn't mind. I didn't mind running in the dead of winter
to the bathrooms by the cricket field to pull my pants down and sit on
the toilet until a ring of red formed under my skin. I didn't mind standing
on my head to do pushups until the lights started to fade from my eyes.
I didn't even mind the occasional - in my case often - heckling by the
sixth-formers who hated me for all the things I was and they had not been,
and vice versa.
Yet I was forever being told that I should consider myself lucky, that
in the old days, meaning when they, the sixth-formers, were mere third-formers
like me, the punishments were far more extravagant. I didn't know what
that meant. All I knew was that after a while I had developed this dread
of being punished, and yet the punishments came with ever more frequency.
Mostly they took the form of having to write what they called "sides".
If as a punishment you were given three sides to write, it meant that you
had to hunker down and copy through three pages of the dictionary, word
for word, parentheses by parentheses, comma by comma, and show it to the
upperclassman or teacher who had meted out the punishment to you.
Ask a child to pick his own punishment: a jog to the cricket fields
for you-know-what or three sides of the dictionary. There's no contest
there at all. I dreaded that dictionary, though in time I came to be quite
proficient at copying it, to a point that soon I was able to breeze through
at least the first half page of the letter A with only a cursory glance
at the dictionary. The disciplinarians caught on then and started getting
more specific: three sides starting from the letter Z, five sides from
H, eleven sides starting from the tenth page of G. And so on.
It wasn't a system of checks and balances, it was the fabrication of
fear into architecture; it wasn't evil, just petty. The downright arbitrariness
of tyranny inside the strait-jacket of its own making - as with the day
I lightly tapped the gym teacher in the middle of the lunch room to get
his attention about something, and saw him turn red and yell and scream
and dehumanize me in front of a several hundred student body for having
had the temerity to simply touch him.
As with the day I was dog sick with the flu and had to visit the nurse
during the day of the doctor's visit: asked if my chest hurt as well, I
had to think about it and answer yes, even though I was not quite sure,
but only because the question had been posed in the form of a lead in order
to trap me. The doctor then looked at me with a look of utter loathing
and promptly dismissed me without administering any medicine at all. His
words: my condition did not warrant chest pain, so obviously I was either
not sick or was plain lying.
It was a severe and sweeping hatred of all against all, I think. A kind
of revulsion and antipathy that wormed its way into the simplest of human
contacts. So, looking at it from one perspective, I am forced to admit
that perhaps I was not alone in my misery. And the most concrete proof
of this lies in one word: bread. Waxy, white, toilet paper quality bread
that they fed us in abundance. It was the only thing they would feed us
in abundance, for it came cheap and it served to quench our enduring hunger
to some degree. It was against the rules, but we all would steal the index
card-like bread in heaps in order to have toast to munch on after dinnertime.
Toast was the great equalizer at Wellington. It was the one trespass the
sixth-formers would not punish you for. Hunger did not make a distinction
between the upper forms and the lower, between wogs and non-wogs, between
me and the bully Phil Barton. Hunger was democratic, but Wellington was
The school was situated in some remote corner of Somerset in the southeastern
part of England. Cider country. The nearest "big" town was Taunton,
several miles away. The town of Wellington itself was, to me, like a lost
desert island in the middle of the sea. There was a supermarket there,
a small children's sports center, dozens of narrow lanes surrounded by
green where we all would go to smoke cigarettes . . . It was a sleepy little
hollow I couldn't care less for. I couldn't care whether or not the town
and the school had been built and named after the Duke of Wellington. Nor
did I ever find out. Wellington wasn't my game, period.
From the first day when I quickly gave up trying to decipher the lip-synching
mumblings of the very English geography teacher, to the slightly less incomprehensible
Latin classes, and the rugby and the cricket and the cross country runs
and the ever present pork and beans meals and the continuous writing-from-the-dictionary
punishments I had to hand off, I knew this wasn't my place at all. I did
not like marmalade and I was exasperated by the absence of rice. The rigidity
of the rules and the system of punishments had already begun to scandalize
my barely thirteen-year-old mind.
The only thing I had in my arsenal for combat was to hit rock bottom,
to be the wildest wog there ever was. It was a battle of wills between
me and the collective mindset of the school. I did not do it consciously.
I was not a hero. It was a lonely battle, and from the other side it might
have given the authorities satisfying pause, for if it was me who was the
true representative of my race, then my older brother who could quote Shakespeare
better than they had to be an anomaly; and they, the Wellingtonians, could
rest easy now: the school's top literary prize would undoubtedly revert
back to a good old pale skin after my brother was graduated from there.
So the battle began, and continued for those two years I was at Wellington.
And through that two-year engagement there was one name that stood out
above all in my psyche, Salt - Mr. Salt, a nemesis, if there ever was one.
He was not at all that big, but he cast a large shadow around the school.
You could see that even the upper sixth-formers were afraid of him. Salt
had refined the punishment system into an art form. It was his Colt revolver,
his side issue, the weapon he would draw with effortless regularity to
steal a whole afternoon of your time writing punishments for him.
But it wasn't just the punishments that gave Salt his reputation for
being strict. It was his approach, the way he seemed to appear out of nowhere,
his round white face slightly tinged with red when he was angry, his cold
unblinking blue eyes boring into your heart as you quickly came to accept
your station as sacrificial offering, and the way he stretched the moment
so that deadly silence reigned for a good half minute before he called
you into his office.
We'd all seen plenty of World War II films by then. Mr. Salt, to us,
was the age-old SS Colonel who would march with dooming self-assurance
through the halls and come to a halt at the threshold of the prisoners'
dormitory to select fresh victims. This image was confirmed, also, by the
fact that of the two subjects Salt taught, one happened to be German. He
taught it efficiently and brutally; to this date I can still remember my
"Willie geht nach Deutchland," "Willie is going to Germany"
with alarming clarity - the first and only line of German I recall from
those years, thanks to Mr. Salt's drilling.
He may have even encouraged the Gestapo comparison, I think. It's hard
to believe he was not aware of it. Even during the second-form year --
when we were still junior members of the school and hadn't really had any
occasion to come into contact with him -- our fear of the man was complete.
My own first encounter with Salt occurred in second-form. It happened so:
an unnaturally bright winter day for England. It may be the second or third
school hour. I have my friend's notebook in my hand as we are crossing
the street. I decide to throw him the notebook, instead of walking over
to hand it to him. It is a simple childish gesture. Call it having fun,
or a bit of simple horseplay. Call it boys being boys. Call it throwing
a notebook to a friend who is standing eight feet away from you on the
sidewalk. Soon as the notebook left my hand to reach David's, I felt a
sharp pull on my left ear and within seconds I was being dragged back to
the opposite side of that street.
I turned to look who was doing this to me. Salt. He had come from nowhere
and swooped down upon me for throwing the notebook. I could see the unholy
contours of hard punishment coming. And it came. I don't know how many
sides of the dictionary I had to copy that day. The assignment lasted for
the better part of an entire day and my hands were numbed by the time I
came back to our dorm to go to sleep. When my dorm mates asked what had
happened I wouldn't talk about it. It wasn't the punishment that galled
me, but the sheer injustice of it.
That day in second-form set the pattern of my relationship with Mr.
Salt for the next year and a half to come. As third-formers we were due
the following year to change dorms and enter one of the senior houses.
I was destined for the "Darks" house because my brother was already
there. But there was another being residing at Darks whom I was not at
all anxious to run into on a daily basis. Salt.
Salt was the assistant housemaster at Darks. Not only did he live there,
but his quarters happened to be situated directly behind the third-formers'
dormitory on the second floor. This meant trouble, big trouble, and we
all knew it. Especially for me. From the first night in that early Autumn
of 1978 at Darks it became a sort of running joke among my dorm mates about
when and how Salt, Mr. Salt, would pounce on me. Everybody knew they had
to watch their back, but it was a given that I, the troublemaking wog,
had to watch my back doubly.
I did watch my back. For a while anyway. The first thing Salt did was
to send a spy to get a bearing on me. His spy was a softish upper sixth-former
whom I'm inclined to think was named Collins. Collins caught up with me
one night and with a plaster smile on his face asked what I thought of
Mr. Salt. I thought it odd that Collins should be asking my opinion about
Salt. By then, the first or second week of the new school year, I had already
had a couple of nerve-wracking brushes with Salt. It should have been crystal-clear
to anyone what I thought of him. But more strange to me was the fact that
Collins, an upper sixth-former, should be remotely interested in my opinion
Quick thinking was called for here. I knew I could not lie outright
and say something like what a great man I thought Salt really was. That
would not do. Nor could I express my inner feelings. I took the philosophic
approach. I smiled back at Collins and said something to the effect that
I knew Mr. Salt was going to punish me again and again throughout my time
here; it was his job to do that, but, in fact, I rather liked the man.
Collins may not have been a very good spy, but he did do his duty. He must
have carried the news back to Salt verbatim, because the following days
I noticed a marked change in Salt's attitude towards me. He even smiled
a couple of times in my direction, and right away I attributed this change
squarely to the power of my inchoate counter-espionage tactics.
The new order did not last very long, though. And I had not expected
it to. Wellington was a well of conformity. It had been so for a hundred
years, and there was no reason for it to yield an inch. The yielding had
to come from my end and I couldn't, wouldn't, do it. So the punishments
came and came again; they multiplied, they took strange shapes and sizes
and after a while they turned me into their guinea pig. A wild wog out
of control. A lab rat on the lose that had to be crushed before it spread
disease. I don't know why they didn't save themselves the headache and
just get rid of me. Maybe they thought if they put up with me long enough,
my father would write the school a check for a million pounds as a sign
of his gratitude and that would be that. Little did they know that less
than a year later there would be a revolution in my woggy, oil-spewing
country and my dad would barely be able to afford the price of a ticket
to get himself out of there.
As the punishments increased so did my inclination to put Wellington
out of my mind altogether. The solution hit me one winter day and I could
not understand why I hadn't thought of it earlier: I could simply disappear
whenever I felt the need. I could catch the trains to London, mess around
a bit, and then come back to school when I pleased. I could do this on
a weekend or, better yet, I could do it in the middle of the school week.
It wasn't as easy a proposition as I had imagined at first, and in the
beginning I faltered a bit. Escape needed planning. That was the most important
thing I discovered on my first attempt when I was picked up by the Taunton
police. They found me cowering in the bathroom of a bus depot where a habitué
had just tried to feel my legs from the adjoining cubicle.
But the old credo says: if you don't succeed the first time, try and
try again. I worked out the train schedules. The times when I would be
missed the least. The varieties of ways I could get from Wellington to
Taunton where I could catch the westbound trains. How to catch the trains
unseen. And if I was seen, how to catch a train going in another direction
and then change again at Bristol or Liverpool or Exeter or wherever the
day took me.
Mr. Salt was not pleased. No one was pleased. But the first time around
they were even slightly kind when the police returned me to the boarding
school. The second time they were incensed. After that it just became a
match of how much I could push and what records I could break in the punishment
game. I was mutilating myself against the high barbed wire fence of the
ghetto without realizing that was what I was doing. England was a foreign
place to me. Or was it just Wellington, with it's crushing codes of conduct
and its pulverizing of all traces of a young person's dignity? I hated
Mr. Salt and he hated me. No more spies were sent to get a read on me.
It truly was a test of wills and in certain quarters I was actually winning.
The idea, for instance, that one could simply take off and disappear
was a whole new thing to the school body. It hadn't been thought of before.
No student had done it, not in recent times, anyway. Conformity was spoken
for completely. The rules precluded the idea of escape from the students'
consciousness, just as they precluded the thought that one could take one's
clothes off and run around the school Chapel shouting "God save the
But not anymore. After my second escape from Wellington, others started
following suit. Kids were escaping singly and in pairs, and one time even,
I believe, a whole dormitory of fourth-formers took off and returned triumphantly.
This fashion, too, would pass. The constant factor was the punishments,
though. My punishments. Mr. Salt, perhaps sensing that I was toying with
the very principles that the school was founded on, came down on me harder
than ever. By now we were like a couple of animals thrown into a ring,
except if he was an elephant I was a mere shrimp. In another three or so
years who knows what I might have done to him. But back then it was all
I could do to preserve myself - that and the expectation in myself to cut
wind in the face of discipline.
One winter night Mr. Salt called in the third-form dorm into his office.
It was the one night out of the year where he would be nice to us wretched
beings. The program went thus: he would hear our gripes about whatever
was on our minds and he would either justify the school's position on the
issue or try to do something about it. In the meantime, a frozen pizza,
compliments of Mr. Salt himself, would be heated up and we would all share,
if only for one brief moment, in the sham of having our voices heard by
Knowing that it was a sham before I even set foot in that office, with
the smell of the pizza already wafting through the air making all our hungry
bellies start to growl, I also knew that the one way I could voice my rebellion
here was to say absolutely nothing. For in reality we were not there to
voice anything; we were there to eat a slice of thin pizza each and trust
in the lie that the exchange of reason would make us less contemptible
beings. The onus was on me to say my piece. It was expected of me. This
was supposed to be my moment. But I said nothing.
I sat in a corner with a ironic smile on my face watching my dormitory
mates eat pizza and chatter a bit with the dreaded Salt himself. But soon
the growl in my belly became a veritable symphony. I could still smell
that pizza -- a luxury for us at that age in that part of England -- and
I could see the slices fast dwindling. I broke down. I broke down and I
attacked that last slice and ate it, and as I was doing so I knew that
I had shown weakness, that I had broken ranks with myself and I deserved
everything I had coming to me. Now I was forced to enter the conversation
along with the others. I had to say something. Voice a complaint. Whatever.
I hated myself. I hated my levity. I had tried to make a stand and I had
failed. No one else had failed in that room but me, for no one else had
had any other intentions than to eat and feel included in the grand scheme
of Wellington's doings.
Not only did I hate myself at that moment, but I'm sure that Mr. Salt
hated me then more than ever. He was a man who could smell weakness like
an animal on the hunt, a bird of prey. Had I stood my ground and said nothing
and eaten nothing, he might have had a bit of that same grudging respect
for me that the British had for my brother. But it was too late for that.
My embarrassment with myself manifested itself in the form of stupidity.
When asked if I had anything to contribute to the conversation, all I could
do was to grin idiotically and ask Mr. Salt if he thought our matron, the
lady who was in charge of all our clothing at the Dark's House, wasn't
a little moronic. The silence that ensued my question forced me to hold
onto that stupid grin like a buoy. I had drifted into troubled waters once
more; I had not made a "reasonable" complaint but made fun of
authority. Plus, I had shown weakness by eating Mr. Salt's pizza. The man's
revulsion towards me was complete. And little could I blame him.
The next weekend the third-formers at Darks were rounded up to be taken
to town to see the movie Grease starring a very young John Travolta.
I had already seen the film during one of my periodic escapes to London
and did not care to see it again. Besides me, the only other kid who did
not go with the group was another Iranian by the name of Ali. Ali, who
was something of a friend, did not go because he was a thief. He was a
model student, as respected as a wog in third-form could ever be, and he
was seldom punished. You could say that Ali and I inhabited the opposite
poles of the world of wog-dom at Wellington.
Being a thief, Ali thought the occasion ripe to go through the other
kids' belongings while they were away watching Grease. His objects
of desire were usually fountain pens. At some point I had lost count of
the number of fountain pens he had stolen from both the boarding students
and the day students who would leave their bags outside of the cafeteria
everyday before lunch time. Ali had tried to include me in his scheme,
but I wanted no part of it.
It was a quiet night, then. Cold. Very cold. Snow had frozen on the
fields outside. As harsh a winter night in Somerset as I remember. I had
nothing much to do. No punishments to complete. No dictionary pages to
copy. At some point during the early evening I ran into our house matron,
the same woman I had accused of being a little senile the previous week,
and we had a squabble about something. To this day I have no idea where
these matrons came from. They were nearly always older ladies who had never
been married and who always managed to look malnourished even if they were
fat and happy.
This particular matron had an added habit: she talked to herself. She
talked to herself incessantly, a mile a minute, like the whir and whiz
of a bee that has forgotten how to sting but would rather keep trying for
the sake of continuity. I actually liked this woman. She was the one matron
I had met who was so far out of the loop of things that you could not possibly,
by any stretch of the imagination, think she had a conscious notion to
do you irreparable harm. I cannot recall, then, what our dispute was all
about. Basically, I could not pick a fight with Mr. Salt, so I had to pick
it with this poor creature who talked to herself and who easily beat out
all other matron in the malnourished-look department.
At that point I decided to make another round of the nearly emptied
house. Then as I was passing the door of the matron's workroom one more
time I saw she had left her set of keys on the outside lock while she herself
was inside. The temptation was too great, especially since I was already
a little ticked off at her. I grasped the set of keys in my hands, my palms
sweating and my heart pounding; I turned the lock, imprisoning the befuddled
old matron lady in her workroom while I took the keys out and walked away
from the scene of my late mischief.
The first and only person I related the episode to was of course Ali.
There was no one else there to tell it to at the time. I was completely
exhilarated. I imagined the poor woman playing with the door handle, pushing
and pulling, cursing under her breath, not knowing what had happened to
cause that door to lock. I was too excited to sit still, so I took off
in the direction of the fields to have a cigarette and ditch the set of
keys. The temperature was below freezing. I recall not lasting out there
very long. I smoked my cigarette and immediately came back to wash my mouth
out and have a hot cup of tea.
Mr. Salt was waiting for me. As soon as I saw him standing there at
the edge of the TV room where I would have to pass in order to get to our
floor I knew something was not right. My first fear was that he would be
able to sniff the recently smoked cigarette and force me to empty my pockets
right there and then in front of him. But no, there were other things in
the wind. Without saying a word, Salt motioned me to follow him. I was
stunned with fear, for Salt appeared even more murderous than usual with
that icy silence. Then when I saw Ali standing at attention outside of
Salt's office, I knew that I'd really been done in this time. There was
no maneuvering room. I could not communicate to Ali to shutup, since Salt
was right there. One word out of me, even in our own language, would have
given Salt green light to string me up.
Ali was left standing outside while Salt called me into his room. The
subject was obvious: the keys. What had happened to the matron's keys and
who had locked her in? I protested innocence, but Salt would have none
of it. I was the one and only obvious culprit. I had already insinuated
the previous week that I thought the matron was a bit daft. I had had a
row with her only earlier tonight, which Salt already knew about. There
were very few students in the house when the offense had been committed.
And even if there had been, I was still the likeliest candidate to do something
as foolish as locking the matron in and taking her keys.
Salt sat upright in his study chair eyeing me. There was no emotion
in his face that I could see. That face said a lot to me, however. I was
familiar with its ways. There was no pizza tonight. Only Salt and I and
the guilt on my end waiting to be reeled in. Salt's room felt excessively
hot. Having just come from the outside where my fingers had been freezing,
I now sensed a rush of blood into my fingertips and felt them start to
throb horribly. At some point I lost the thread of what Salt was asking
or saying to me. I was staring right at the man but all my thoughts were
with those fingertips, causing me to squirm inside without being able to
Then once more I was remembering the keys which I had ditched somewhere
in the bushes. So did Salt. Where were the keys? What had I been doing
at such and such an hour at such and such a place? Why hadn't I gone to
see the film with everybody else? What was I doing outside at the time
when Salt had been waiting for me? I answered. I danced. I circled. He
jabbed and I ducked. He cornered me and I wriggled from underneath. It
was a tango we were both familiar with, except the stakes were higher than
usual tonight. For I had done something unspeakable. I had actually crossed
that line which protected the adults from us inferior beings and thrown
a proverbial egg at their windowsills. I had to be punished. But first
my guilt had to be proved, indisputably. Salt knew he had to get a confession
out of me. But I wasn't about to give him that satisfaction. A confession
would be a death sentence for me. I would keep dancing.
After a minute Salt gave me an impatient look and told me to go stand
outside and call Ali in. It was my chance now to relay a word to Ali. But
then I saw Salt following right behind me as I opened that door. Ali was
in front of me and Salt behind. No chance but to hope Ali would play it
My dread while I waited prevented me from trying to think up a course
of action. There was nothing to do but wait and see what the interrogation
would bring. It took less than three minutes. When Salt opened the door
to his office again I saw that Ali was not there. He had been let out through
the rear door to go back to the dormitory. Salt sat back down and immediately
played his card: "Ali Malek just confessed everything. Now I want
to hear it from your own mouth. Where are the keys?"
To sum all the things that went through my mind just then would be to
suggest I took a long time answering. But my answer actually came on the
double. I was thinking: 1- Salt was bluffing, and Ali hadn't confessed
at all. 2- Ali had confessed to gain brownie points from the Saltman. 3-
The Saltman had played the same trick on Ali that he was now playing on
me and Ali had been stupid enough to fall for it (Later I found out this
was in fact what had happened. Salt had told Ali I had already confessed
and he only needed a confirmation of it from him).
There were other things on my mind also: crime and punishment, for one
thing. I was thinking of the days and weeks I would have to spend being
punished if I gave so much as an inch. Besides, if Ali had already been
duped, why did Salt need me to incriminate myself? The answer to that was
simple: it wasn't just a question of catching me; it was a question of
winning. It was the game Salt wanted to win. He wanted to beat me with
his bluff and see me cringe. He wanted to put it over on me. He wanted
me reduced to the worm that he already thought of me.
"Sir," I said, "if Ali says I took the keys then he's
An out and out denial. I hadn't skipped a beat. I'd known what would
happen if I did: Salt would have consumed me for my weakness, for the inferiority
of a mind that had fallen for the oldest trick in the art of interrogation.
To my surprise Salt now began to smile. He didn't actually smile, but
a sort of softness came over his hard face. He was eyeing me through a
lens I had never before seen on him. That softness seemed to be saying,
"Abdoh, you are the devil itself. But now I have a level of esteem
for you. That other fool fell for my bluff, but you didn't. And if I really
wanted to I could bring Malek in here and pit the two of you against each
other and continue the questioning until I wore you down. But I'm not going
to do that. I'm not going to do it because now you have my grudging respect.
You may be a wog, but you are a wog with a brain, and I, being an Englishman,
have to give credit where it's due, at least."
I thought my ears were hearing things wrong. Now Salt was telling me
he would have no further questions on the subject if by some miracle the
sets of keys happened to find themselves back inside the matron's door
lock. Was this the same Salt talking that I had known for the past two
years? It was. He knew that I knew that he knew that I had taken the keys.
I knew that he knew. And so on. The spy game had danced its dance in that
little room on that winter night of 1978-79 in a corner of rural England.
Salt and I were adversaries; we would continue to be adversaries. Yet in
some strange fashion we had also become brothers in that most disorienting
of arts, the art of concealment. We had dived far below the surface, where
most Wellingtonians had no idea existed or dared not tread, and swam right
smack into each other in the underwater hall of mirror of an imagined Atlantis.
A short silence now followed between us. And those few moments in Salt's
room were moments of pure crystal clarity for me: I had touched base with
the world beneath the world and become cognizant of its existence. Now
I knew this world might even serve to help me get by in that other world,
the world of Wellington and thousands of Wellingtons like it - and this
might not necessarily be a good thing. But there it was, and in the meantime
my estimation of Salt, too, had grown immeasurably. Because deep down I
understood that Salt and I were really members of the same tribe, a tribe
the existence of which I had not even known until that very moment. And
it hardly mattered if we happened to be adversaries. I recalled the words
I had said to Collins, Salt's agent, all those months ago at the beginning
of the school year, and only now understood the accuracy of my own dissembling:
Salt has his job to do and I have mine. What was my job? To watch for Salt's
punishments as signposts of lurking ambush in this theater of rebellion
I had invented for myself.
Salt was not just my enemy, he was my mentor in this rebellion. The
next day the matron's keys miraculously reappeared in their original spot.
No more questions were asked about this. And no one else interrogated me.
I didn't have to return those keys. At least not in such an obvious fashion,
placing them right back into the lock so that it would be evident someone
had taken those keys in the first place. But I wanted to do it. That was
my wink and a nod to Salt to show I understood his understanding. That
was my way of saying to him, "I know where we've been, you and me,
through which door the two of us have passed, and this set of keys is simply
a peephole into that other place, that other universe."
Salar Abdoh is the author of The
Poet Game (2000, Picador), a spy novel involving terrorists. He
teaches English at the City University of New York.