I was hearing voices and not for the first time. There was an epauletted man in ironed khaki across the desk from me. His lips were moving earnestly in French. There was a tea leaf on one of his teeth, a single leaf that distracted me. I knew that this man was not to be crossed. The black fleck on surprisingly perfect dentition got me thinking. I might be better off looking for the future in tea leaves rather than hearing how cooperative this man’s army would be.
A man by my side was simultaneously translating to me in English accented by his Italian and Spanish heritage. The translating man was also on my side, a former French Foreign legionnaire, a mercenary soldier acting as a security advisor. I liked him and I knew he was exceptionally good at his job. Which was a useful thing to recognise because my life was in his hands. That day, his contract was with my company, so to speak. You’d never know what the future brings.
The two burly but lower ranked officers were supporting the seated Major General by whispering. They had to stand since it had been arranged to have only three chairs in the office for this meeting. On signal by a raised hand, they spoke discreetly to their boss in Arabic or Berber. No matter the languages, both sides were lying across his desk.
It was surreal. I couldn’t tell what was true. I did know that the voice in front of me was utterly mendacious. That confident, lying voice was the power in the room. This was a world where Power and Truth were maintained in an asymmetric relationship that worked because Power determined Truth.
Power pretended not to understand English but he had trained and worked manoeuvres with US forces. The American military don’t do foreign languages and we surmised before the meeting that he’d have to speak their language. How else could his like be the solid and reliable partner NATO boasted? I understood most everything he said and could tell if my advisor withheld anything. He didn’t. But we both knew the Major General wasn’t telling us everything we needed to know.
My security advisor was fluent in Arabic and told me later that the advisors copped this and switched to Berber. My advisor was competent in Berber too. Indeed, my mercenary was a native Spanish and Italian speaker. He’d been in some undisclosed role in Francophone Africa that needed fluency in French and Arabic to survive. He told me that he learned English from satellite TV during that ‘special’ mission. And falling for a Turkish woman brought the need for a seventh language.
My mercenary was good with people. I watched him talk with goatherds, military governors, hotel managers and doctors with equal deference and focus. He had the enquiring skills of a good journalist, an interrogator whose grilling was almost undetectable. People wanted to tell him what he wanted to hear. He was an unusual soldier.
Our coffee cups were empty, the biscuits eaten, the tea leaf washed away. Power stood, his teeth radiant within a meaningless smile. The meeting was at an end. We stood and we became amicable for the moment of the handshake. We were escorted out of the office and it was over.
We were ‘given’ 140 soldiers to clear landmines. ‘Plastic mines? It was almost as if it was an insult to suggest that plastic landmines could ever have been used. No, never. Of course not.’
‘And what happened on day one? The blade of a dozer dug up a plastic landline.’
The soldier’s mental reservation was classified.
I wrote up a memoir-style post here last year. I categorise and tag such things as ‘fake memoir’ because the details are the devil.