Part 15: Impressions

Chapter 1

December 1988

“Make it fly!”

Raslan took the toy plane from Mehdi and made it swoop and zoom in the air, smiling at the boy, making him laugh. Mehdi sent another plane into battle against Raslan’s and the toys fought a tiny dogfight.

“Mehdi, stop bothering Captain Raslan,” Faraj scolded him.

“It’s fine,” Raslan said. He made his plane ‘crash’ onto the cushioned bench where he sat with Faraj, in a shaded corner of the courtyard. Mehdi took both planes and ran back to the rug spread on the ground, in the sun. It was scattered with toy vehicles of various kinds, from tanks to motorbikes.

A wooden crib sat beside the bench, Faraj’s second son sleeping in it, only a foot away from him. A servant hovered nearby in case the baby got fussy, but so far the week-old boy slept peacefully.

“Thank you for coming over early, and keeping me company, Sayeed,” Faraj said. He wanted to keep well away from the party preparations. Janan was in charge of that. So he was in charge of watching over Mehdi and the baby until then.

“I’m happy to. Is it going to be a large party?”

“Quite large. My wife insists.”

So did he, if he were honest. Naming his second son, welcoming him to the world, showing him off, Faraj wanted very much to do those things. It would be a bigger party than the ‘Aqeeqah for Mehdi, the first born, which might seem the wrong way around. And perhaps some guilt drove him to make this such an ostentatious party. Or he had a point to prove, to Janan, to the world. That he was a good father.

Janan appeared then, even as he thought of her. She looked tired and he wished she would take some more rest and let the servants finish the preparations. She bowed her head to Raslan and he bowed back, rising from his seat as Faraj did.


“Captain.” She turned to Faraj, “I have the final seating arrangement. You said you wanted to see it.”

Raslan walked over to kneel on the rug beside Mehdi and play with him, while husband and wife spoke. Faraj approved of such well mannered, discreet behaviour. He took the list from her and read it over.

“You’ve moved the American.”

“I’ve put him beside your friend from the British Embassy. At least they’ll be able to speak English together.”

“He is Major Madari’s house guest, and the Major speaks excellent English.”

He saw her grimace at the mention of Madari.

“Why must that man come at all?”

He frowned at her to keep her voice down. “He is my commanding officer.”

“Not for much longer.”

“No. But for now. Put Colonel Smith back beside the Major, please.”

“As you wish,” she said, stiffly, took the list back and left.

Faraj sighed and sat on the bench again. “I thought parties were supposed to be fun.”

“Yes, Idris. Then you got married.” Raslan came back from the rug and sat beside him.

Faraj laughed. “Yes, quite.” A sound made him glance down at the baby to see he had started to stir. He bent over and rocked the cradle, hoping to settle him again.

Raslan sat in silence, but Faraj knew he was curious about what he must have overheard. Again, too well mannered to ask. But Faraj felt like talking.

“Janan blames Major Madari for my imprisonment.”

“Ah. Well she must have missed you of course, for what was it, two years?”

“About that.” Two years. Too long. Too long to be away from her and Mehdi, and no way to ever get that time back. Sometimes he looked through the photograph albums she gave him, of her and their son, during that time. His boy, in expensive French clothes, playing in Parisian parks and in their handsome West Bank apartment. Yet it made him feel as choked as another man might to hear of his child living in a hovel, wearing rags. Sometimes he still had to remind the boy to speak in Arabic, not French.

“It’s not really fair of her to blame him,” Faraj said. “I made my own choices.”And he gave them my name. The whisper, in Janan’s voice came over and over in his ear now.

Raslan spoke again, after a moment. “Is that why you’ve chosen not to be part of the Major’s new Special Forces unit?”

“I’ve chosen to pursue other career options. Colonel Rahama has offered me a staff position. I think that’s the best move for me at this time.” He’d said almost exactly the same rehearsed words to everyone who asked him. He’d said them to Madari and saw the look in his eyes, a look Faraj could only call relief. Relief that Faraj had cleared the way for Kahil to be his second. A bitter thought.

“Everyone is talking about this unit,” Raslan said, “Apparently the king himself his taking quite an interest. And this American who’s been brought over as a consultant is making quite a stir. You’ve met him, haven’t you? What’s he like?”

“A typical American,” Faraj said.

The baby wasn’t letting himself be lulled back to sleep by the rocking and he opened his eyes now and made some soft cries. Faraj crouched down to pick him up, and cradled the child in his arms instead. The servant approached.

“Do you want me to take him, sir?”

“No, thank you, he’s fine.” Leaving Raslan playing with Mehdi again, Faraj strolled out from under the awning shading their bench. A soft breeze blew, the air cooling as the sun began to set. The sound of the fountain in the centre of the courtyard soothed Faraj at night. Perhaps it would soothe his new son too. Perhaps he’d learn to associate this sound with home, security, love.

Sitting on the stone edge of the fountain, misty drops of water landing on his arm, he bent his head and spoke to the baby.

“I am your father, little one. And I will always be here for you.”

Never again would he lose the time he’d lost with Mehdi. For several hours, four nights ago, he’d stood watching the baby sleep. And he’d had mad notions of resigning his commission and spending all his time with his sons. The dawn had brought a cooler head and made him remember his duty. But it remained as a sweet fantasy he could always return to. He spoke again, looking into the eyes of his son.

“Tonight we will show you to the world, and we will name you. You’ll carry the name of the finest man I’ve ever known.”


“Is this the first ‘Aqeeqah you’ve ever attended?” Madari asked Hannibal Smith, as they stood in a group with Jahni and Colonel Rahama, drinking coffee.

“Definitely.” Hannibal nodded. “So why do they shave the babies head?”

“It’s supposed to guarantee abundant hair growth throughout life,” Rahama said. He ran a hand through his thinning white hair and smiled. “Lately I have started to wonder if my parents forgot that part for me.”

“Also, the parents weigh the hair and give that amount in gold to the poor,” Madari said.

“Right. You have a lot of religious obligations for making charitable donations.”

“Yes.” Madari appreciated the interest Hannibal took. Inviting him here had made Madari nervous initially. Not a rude man as such, but one more blunt and to the point than was the way in this part of the world. A man whose personality filled a room could appear boorish in polite circles like this one.

But he must have studied correct behaviour, and if in doubt, he asked Madari. Just making an effort to be correct made people more forgiving than they were of those who showed no thought for others. Hannibal had even started to learn Arabic and took the opportunity to practice it when he could. An admirable attitude.

“Little Javid gone to bed now?” Hannibal said and Madari looked up to see their host approaching.

“Yes, my wife has put the baby to bed, he’s tired now,” Faraj said. “I hope you are not finding the party dull, Colonel. Since there are few people here you can talk to.”

Hannibal shrugged. “Spoken to quite a few, plenty of them speak English. Some of them speak it better than me.”

He could mean Faraj himself. Faraj’s English was better than most of the English Madari heard people speaking when he lived in London. He and Jahni and Faraj been speaking English around the office a lot lately, to brush up, as Madari and Jahni would soon need that skill again. That couple of weeks they’d spent in America over the summer had helped of course. Jahni had picked up all kinds of strange expressions.

“I was surprised you aren’t coming into the unit,” Hannibal said to Faraj. “Thought you’d follow the Major anywhere.”

“You’re thinking of Kahil,” Faraj said.

It might have been a joke, but Madari saw Jahni’s eyes narrow. He’d been quiet all night, staying close, but talking little. Madari wondered if that had anything to do with Raslan being in the room. Both of them watched him, perhaps for different reasons.

“I’ve chosen to pursue other career options. I’ll be taking up a position on Colonel Rahama’s staff,” he bowed his head to the colonel, and went on. “Though, to be truthful I don’t feel that style of combat would suit me. It even seems… dishonourable.”

Madari glared at him now. That was not polite and he was surprised at Faraj. Madari knew already that Faraj felt this way, and that this was why he hadn’t come into the unit. But it shocked him to hear Faraj telling Hannibal that the way he’d fought, the way he’d served his country was ‘dishonourable’. And he’d feared Hannibal being inadvertently impolite!

“Dishonourable?” Hannibal didn’t rise at once to the insult. He sipped his coffee, then spoke again, still in a mild tone. “And being a guerrilla is different in what way?”

“I didn’t have a choice then,” Faraj said.

“Really? I thought you could have left the country then, come across the border with us?”

“I… I had a duty to the king.”

Madari spoke quickly, before anyone else could, feared this becoming personal.

“I don’t think we have a choice either, if we want a modern army. Small, highly adaptable Special Forces units are becoming increasingly important in modern warfare.” He saw both Hannibal and Jahni nodding as he spoke. “We face growing terrorist threats in this country and the region. The Islamist groups are becoming more radical.”

“Strange that strict devotion to Islam should be considered so threatening,” Faraj said. “Why should fellow Muslims fear these people?”

“Because they are fanatics,” Jahni said. “Not just strict. They’d take us from the twentieth century back to the tenth.”

“It sounds as if you’re very much looking forward to fighting them,” Faraj said.

“Yes,” Jahni said, his voice hard. “I think I am.”

“Ah, well, Mr Jahni always enjoys a challenge,” Rahama said, “one of our finest young officers, Colonel Smith.”

“I’ve seen him in action.”

“Then you know what an asset he is to me, and to the Major.”

Madari smiled at that. It didn’t even begin to cover it. But he wasn’t in the mood to laugh. Faraj had angered him. Madari felt certain Faraj had no sympathy for terrorists, he just seemed to want to pick a fight with Jahni. It worried him too, his mind going back to Faraj’s little “test” about making the Pilgrimage. What did he suspect about Jahni’s religious doubts?

“So, you are going home in a few days, Colonel Smith?” Rahama asked, taking up the burden of the conversation, since Faraj and Jahni were still giving each other the evil eye as they sipped their coffee and making no effort to talk.

Hannibal nodded. “Yeah. Home in time for Christmas.”


“Have a good Christmas, Hannibal.” Madari embraced him, then stood aside as Jahni did the same.

“Thanks. You guys will have to come over for Christmas sometime, just to see the whole thing. Or Thanksgiving I know you don’t celebrate those, but…”

“Kahil will celebrate anything that includes a large meal as part of the festivities.”

Jahni grinned. “That’s true.”

“I’ll order two turkeys that year.” Hannibal glanced at the clock over the check-in desks. He had a few minutes yet.

Madari looked around too. It always felt strange to come to Az-Ma’ir airport. Hard to forget the men he had lost here, hard to forget those check-in desks had once been riddled with bullets. But because of that day’s work, because of the men who fought and died there, now he could come here to travel, to greet and see off friends. Airports could be places of boredom and frustration, but he would always have a special fondness for this one.

“You two have a good time in England,” Hannibal said. “Those SAS guys, they’ll teach you a lot.” He grinned. “Then of course, I’ll be back later and teach you the really advanced stuff.”

“Oh, let’s not start that argument now, you’ll miss the plane.”

A few moments more of chatting and then the time really was slipping by and Hannibal had to go. He left them with another grin and a casual salute and marched up to a check-in desk. They waited while he checked in his bags then waved as he headed for the security checkpoint and departures.

“Shall we stop in for a coffee?” Madari said, as they turned to leave, after Hannibal was out of sight. He nodded at the small coffee house. Rather bland and international, the coffee it served wasn’t as strong as he liked. But it was the coffee house in his airport. He wondered if the staff there ever found spent bullets still embedded in the walls. Bullets that had been fired at him. And at Jahni, who smiled at the offer.

“Coffee and cake.”


“Will you listen to a friendly warning, Major?”

Madari looked up startled from washing his hands in the airport bathrooms. He stared at the man standing beside him, who had spoken softly.


What was he doing here? Was military intelligence spying on Madari? Or on Colonel Smith? Perhaps they just watched the airport as a matter of routine? Raslan washed his hands too, glanced at Madari.

“There is gossip. About you and him. You know what I’m referring to.”

Madari’s heart sank. He did know. He’d feared it.

“Lies of course,” Raslan said, turning off the tap and taking a paper towel from the dispenser between the sinks. “Spread by fools, who don’t understand the bonds men forge under fire.”

“What are you doing here, Raslan?”

Raslan didn’t answer at once, took a comb from a pocket and combed his hair that, like Jahni’s, tested the limits of regulations.

“Offering advice. You should be careful. Your name won’t always protect you. And fame is fleeting.” At last he turned to Madari and smiled. When he spoke again his voice was louder and brighter. “What a nice party that was for little Javid, wasn’t it? I hope Colonel Smith enjoyed it.”

“Yes, he…” Wrong footed by the change in both subject and tone Madari floundered for what to say next. The sound of a toilet flush and a cubicle door opening behind him startled him into glancing around. An old man left the cubicle and walked to the wash basins. “Raslan, what are you…” He began, as he turned back. But Raslan was gone. The exit door swung closed.

As Madari dried his hands with a paper towel he had to wonder if he’d dreamt this encounter. When he went back out to rejoin Jahni in the coffee shop he didn’t mention Raslan. Whatever mind games Raslan was playing, whatever spirit his “warning” and “advice” was given in, Madari wanted to decide for himself.

Chapter 2

January 1989

“You know England well,” Jahni said, glancing out of the plane window, seeing only clouds, then back at Madari. “Is there anything I should know? About how to behave?”

Madari frowned. “Well, much of it is the same as in America, so you’ve had some practice. Avoid touching people too much, short handshakes are enough. And mostly exchanged only for introductions. Be careful not to stand too close to someone; they like more space than we are used to. Arms length is a good guide. And don’t stare at the women.”

“Me? Stare?”

Madari tried not to smile at the tone of protest in Jahni’s voice. Of course they were trained from birth not to stare at women, but that was in their own country, where the women were more covered up.

“You were staring in Los Angeles.”

“I was not!” Jahni grimaced and went on. “Okay, I was. But they walk around half naked!”

Madari laughed and shook his head. “Not much chance of that at least, not in London in January.”

“Okay, anything else?”

“Well, it’s normal to see men and women holding hands in the street, even kissing. But men would never hold hands or link arms.”

He heard Jahni sigh at that and wanted to do the same. He would miss the feel of Jahni’s hand in his.

“Social life revolves around bars, which they call ‘pubs’. Beer is very important to them.” He gave Jahni a severe look. “Of course we won’t have much time for socialising.”

“Of course.”

“Speaking of things to drink, the coffee is appalling. The tea is tolerable once you get used to how strong they like it. Just don’t let them put any milk in it.”

“Milk!” Jahni twisted his face in disgust. “What are they, barbarians?”

“Oh, not at all. Most of them are very polite. They apologise often, they queue for things without protest. Don’t push your way to the front of a queue. Then they might become… impolite.”

Jahni had a serious look on his face now, taking all of this in. Good. He wanted to behave well, make a good impression. As he had said goodbye, Rahama had reminded them they represented the regiment and the country, they must remember that.

“You already know that they have a Queen. Do you know though that the Prime Minister, who runs the country, is also a woman?”

“Oh, now you’re just making things up.”


The first thing they had to do when they arrived in London, just after lunchtime, was go shopping. A newspaper was the first item, to convince Jahni that “Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher” was not a joke Madari was trying to play on him.

They dropped their luggage at their hotel and headed to Oxford Street. A department store seemed safest, and they found the men’s clothing section. While both had western style clothes there were still things they needed, to see them through several weeks in the British winter.

They had warm coats already, but the “accessories” could be difficult to buy at home. One could buy many different types of gloves in Qumar. Leather ones for riding or driving, protective ones for various jobs, or sports. Formal ones worn with dress uniforms. But gloves simply to keep the hands warm were much harder to get hold of. The same thing applied with scarves and hats and even thick warm socks.

“Do you like these ones?” Jahni held up his hands, clad in woollen gloves.

“Ah, they’re rather colourful.” Was there any colour not on them? Madari wondered.

“That’s why I like them.”

Madari smiled, shook his head. “Put them in,” he nodded at the wire basket they were filling with various small sartorial items. “But get some that are a little more sober too.” For himself he’d picked out plain black and brown ones. “Some warm pyjamas now. And I think we should get some thermal underwear.”

“It’s that cold?” Jahni frowned. “Didn’t seem to be outside. More damp.”

“It can get very cold. It’s changeable. And I checked the weather forecast, snow is expected in the next few days.”

“Snow?” Jahni looked at him, intrigued, turning away from his reflection in the mirror as he tried out a blue and green scarf.

“You’ve never seen snow?”

“In the distance,” Jahni put the scarf into the basket. “On mountaintops. I’ve never seen it falling.”

They tracked down the thermal underwear and then had quite a conference about sizes, since all the labelling was different than they were used to. The hats and gloves and scarves had been much easier.

“Can I help you, sirs?”

Madari stared, shocked, at the woman in her crisp blouse and skirt. She wore a professional smile. Waiting to be helpful. Jahni started to laugh at the look on Madari’s face and he pulled himself together.

“I… no, thank you, we can manage.” He bowed his head to her and felt relieved when she nodded.

“Feel free to ask for any assistance, you need.” She moved away, still smiling.

“You should have asked her,” Jahni said, mischief in his eyes.

Perhaps he should have, but should and could were two different things. If he couldn’t spot a male shop worker he’d make his best guess on the sizes and hope for the best.


They had plans for the evening, had been invited to their embassy for dinner. And Rahama made it clear the invitation was compulsory. The Qumari ambassador to the court of St James was a good friend of the king.

It wasn’t a big party, just the ambassador and some of his senior staff. Mostly they pressed Madari and Jahni for news from home, though the military attaché was more interested in the new unit and cornered Madari before dinner, for what felt more like an interrogation.

Jahni, talking to the Ambassador himself couldn’t get away to “rescue” him and Madari resigned himself to talking about work, with a glance now and again at Jahni, looking handsome in his dress uniform, laying on the charm. He’d learnt a lot in his months in the Royal Guard, including about networking. Or “sucking up” he called it himself, to anyone who might be a useful ally. You never knew when such a person might be in a position to help your career.

“Major?” The military attaché frowned at him, glancing around too. Madari quickly brought his attention back to the man, before he could see what Madari had been looking at. Raslan’s strange warning came back to him. Heed that warning. Whatever Raslan’s game is, he seems to know what he’s talking about.

They ate dinner late and the party quickly broke up after that. As they stepped outside, putting on their coats, Jahni exclaimed with delight.

“Oh! This is snow, isn’t it?”

Madari smiled, nodded at the big flakes drifting down. Dark when he looked up, under the heavy grey clouds, then golden in the orange glow of the street lamps.

“Yes. This is snow.” They walked to the end of the quiet street, turned on to a busier one and Madari moved to hail a taxi, but Jahni took his arm.

“Can we walk? It isn’t far.”

It was quite late, but still, Madari didn’t want to deny him.

“Of course.” He looked around, orienting himself. “This way.”

They strolled through the streets, still busy even at this late hour here in the centre of London. The route came back to Madari’s mind after so many years away. As a student he’d visited the embassy a few times, sorting out visa problems and so on. He remembered his way from there to the street where their hotel stood.

He had to resist the temptation to hold hands as they walked, as they’d often do at home. It wouldn’t go over at all well here. Not the custom at all.

“It’s really beautiful,” Jahni said, watching the snow. It didn’t lie on the pavement or roads, but it dusted any patches of greenery they passed, like sugar on a cake. “Oh, look at how it piles up on the branches of that tree. And those railings.” He stopped and scooped some that was piling into a thin wall on the top of a line of iron railings. After a moment it melted and he shook the water from his hand, then thrust his hands in his pockets. “But you’re right about the cold. I should have brought my gloves.”

“Those brightly coloured ones?”

“What, you don’t think they’d have gone well with my uniform?” He smiled, and shrugged his shoulders inside his coat, snuggling deeper into the warmth. “So, we have most of tomorrow free, what are we going to do?”

“They have open topped bus tours around the city. Would you like to do one of those?”

“Open topped bus? We’ll definitely need the thermal underwear then. Yes, let’s do that. Then could we go to where you lived when you were a student here?”

Madari looked surprised. He’d talked about those days of course, but couldn’t imagine Jahni would be so intrigued as to want to go to see a boarding house in Kentish Town, when he could be touring the famous sights of London. But why not? It would be nice to see the place again.

“If you want to, of course.”

“Can we go on the Tube?”

Madari laughed now, at the tone, like a child asking for a great treat. The London Underground had quickly lost its novelty for him, once he used it every day. But Jahni asked to go on it as though it was a fairground ride.

“Of course. After all, Colonel Rahama will get very upset if we present him with an excessive number of taxi bills when we submit our expenses.”


Thinking of their expenses, and not wanting to be extravagant with money that wasn’t his, Madari had booked only one room at the hotel, with a pair of twin beds. He’d worried about it for a while, but he chose to trust himself. He chose to trust Jahni. They’d had any number of chances to give in to temptation now and hadn’t.

So he came out of the bathroom, wearing his new warm pyjamas, which made him feel as if he was going to bed wearing a suit. Jahni was in bed already, sitting up drinking tea. He held a book.

“I found this Bible in the drawer. There was one in the hotel in Los Angeles too. Is there some kind of law in Christian countries that hotels have to provide Bibles?”

“No, they’re put there by evangelicals, called the Gideon society.”


“To spread the word of God.”

Jahni rolled his eyes. “Well, yes, obviously.” He scowled. “Christians can’t leave people alone either.” He muttered that, darkly. Nevertheless, he closed the Bible carefully and put it away. The newspaper they’d bought earlier lay on his bed and he read that, the sports pages at the back, and ate a couple of biscuits that came in a small packet provided by the hotel.

“I’d love to go to a football match over here.”

“Go to sleep now, Kahil, it’s late.” Madari got into his own bed, put his watch down on the night stand and set the small travel alarm clock to wake them at seven thirty. A time that seemed like a shocking luxury, for men used to rising at the crack of dawn. Jahni settled down, brushing crumbs from his sheets and placing the paper into the open shelf of the night stand.

In a moment they were in darkness and said goodnight. Madari listened to Jahni’s breathing slow, his movements stop, while he himself lay awake. Only feet away, the sleeping man who he’d once slept beside in his own bed. For one night, a night that frightened him to recall now. The four feet of carpet that lay between them here might as well be a mine field.

He’d listened like this in Los Angeles too, in another shared hotel room. They’d never get any closer to sharing a bedroom than this, he accepted that. He had to enjoy the small pleasures this gave him, however meagre they felt.


The morning bus tour left them feeling frozen solid, but Jahni was suitably impressed by the sights, hanging over the rail as they passed Downing Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of this Mrs Thatcher he still seemed to think Madari must be lying about and had somehow produced a fake newspaper to back up his joke.

“I told you not to stare at the women,” Madari said, hauling him back to sit down.

But a hearty lunch warmed them up. Jahni, wanting to experience British food, insisting on steak and kidney pie. He followed the lead of other diners and finishing off the gravy from the empty plate with some bread. The British bread tasted like air with a crust to them, used to more dense breads. Madari, enjoying himself now, ordered treacle pudding for dessert, with custard.


“Crème Anglais,” Madari said, though Jahni still shook his head, baffled. “Well, you’ll like it.”

The suet based dessert tested even Jahni’s stamina as a trencherman and after he finished, he sat back with a groan.

“Well, this food at least fills you up.” The complaint he had about the French restaurants he’d been to in the past, was that the food tasted fine, he just wanted twice as much.

“It’s perfect for the winter.” Madari signalled the waitress and they finished with a pot of tea, leaving the milk jug untouched.

When they recovered enough to move, they headed out to the nearest Underground station, negotiated the ticket machine with the unfamiliar coins and boarded the Underground train.

Jahni still looked impressed by it, studying the map of all the stations looking amazed. Familiarity breeds contempt, Madari supposed, recalling the amount of time he’d spent complaining back then about the “bloody Tube.”

But it delivered them uneventfully to their station and Madari didn’t even have to look for the exit signs to lead the way out of the station. Imprinted on his brain till he died, he supposed, habit wearing deep paths in his memory.

The boarding house lay a short walk away from the station. They shivered in the chilly wind, the snow of last night gone now, giving way to iron grey sky that promised freezing rain. Then they were there, standing in front of the tall terraced house, that again Madari knew he would remember until the day he died. After taking it in for a moment, he pointed at a window on the second floor.

“That was my room.”

“Is it still a boarding house?”

It was hard to say. Mrs McLeish had never hung a sign outside advertising rooms to let. She usually only took the “young gentlemen” as she called them, on personal recommendation.

But even if it was still a rooming house, surely Mrs McLeish couldn’t still be there, could she? She must have retired.

“If you’re looking for rooms, I’ve nothing available at the moment.”

Madari turned startled at the woman’s voice behind him, the slightly harsh Scottish accent. It was her. Hair as iron grey as the sky now, and face a mass of fine lines. But her back was still as straight, straighter, than half the men in the regiment. She carried a canvas shopping bag, bulging with vegetables.

“Mrs McLeish.” He remembered himself, and offered his hand. “I used to room here, from ’68 to ’71. Faris Madari.”

“Faris…” She shook his hand in return and Jahni’s when he offered it, introducing himself, bowing his head. “Faris Madari. Oh!” Her face lit with recognition. “Ahmed’s lad!”

“You remember my grandfather?”

“Aye, well, he was a man who liked to be remembered I think.”

Madari smiled at that. He was. He’d only visited a couple of times, but clearly he’d left an impression.

“Well now, don’t stand out here in the cold, yer young friend looks half frozen.”

“More than half,” Jahni said. “May I take the bag, ma’am?” He relieved her of the shopping bag, and they followed her inside, and on into the kitchen.

I could have been here, yesterday, Madari thought, gazing around the old fashioned kitchen, which looked exactly as he remembered it. Some of the huge pans on the stove could be the same ones she’d used to cook for when he was here. Glancing up to the top of a Welsh dresser, loaded with plates and cups, he was startled to see a cat, a grey tabby, sitting up there. Now that couldn’t be the same cat. Unless it was stuffed. An ear twitch made him dismiss the gruesome thought. No, a few generations down the line. A new cat fitting in to the old spot.

“I heard when Ahmed passed away,” Mrs McLeish said, as she bustled around, making tea. “Another lad from your country told me. And you went into the army of course…”

They talked of old times and brought each other up to date on news. She seemed less formidable now than she had then. Perhaps age had mellowed her, or she was only strict with the young lodgers, seeing it as her job to keep them in line. She’d done that well. She’d have made a fine drill sergeant, Madari had sometimes thought.

He missed some things out of his own news, though he saw her react to the sight of his fingernails when he took a teacup from her. For a moment she was flustered, and turned away to cut them a piece of cake.

Unlike everywhere else since they landed, Mrs McLeish didn’t offer them milk for their tea. After a moment, she came back with pieces of a dense rich fruit cake. Madari heisted a moment, not sure he had room for it, after that lunch.

“There’s no brandy in it,” she reassured him, misinterpreting his hesitation. Jahni had no qualms either way and his piece quickly vanished, prompting her to offer him another.

“It’s the cold,” he claimed, when Madari looked at him. “It makes me hungry.”

It was still as cold, when they came back out, after over an hour and several more cups of tea, and, for Jahni, more pieces of cake.

“It’s a good thing this is our last day in London, or you’d end up the size of a house,” Madari chided.

“I like the food,” Jahni said. “It may be bland, but it’s solid.” He wrapped his scarf around his neck once more, against the freezing wind, and then stared at the sky. Something very unpleasant was happening. Madari had grown used to it, but Jahni faced it for the first time.

“What the hell is this?” He held out and hand and watched the small hailstones bounce on his palm. “This is ice! Ice is falling out of the sky!”

Madari grinned at his total outrage.

“It’s called hail. Consider it snow’s evil brother.” He started walking back towards the station, turning up the collar of his coat.

“You mean… this is normal?” Jahni said, hurrying to catch up. “It’s not one of those freak occurrences, like rains of frogs or blood?”

“You’ll get used to it.”


After dinner at a nearby restaurant, they went back to their hotel and prepared to depart early the next day, packed all but what they needed to get dressed in the morning. They’d have little time to themselves over the next month, Madari knew, little time to spend together. For now he was happy to just relax in the hotel room, talking of their mission, enjoying each other’s company.

Again he listened to Jahni go to sleep when they went to bed, but lay awake for some time himself. He had started to wonder what Ahmed would think of the new Special Forces unit. Madari wanted to believe he would approve, but was that wishful thinking? Was it actually a dishonourable way to fight, as Faraj said?

But Hannibal Smith and his team, they were honourable men. And the men Madari’s unit would specialise in fighting – terrorists – they certainly weren’t. Bombers, hostage takers, hijackers. Murderers, who would kill innocents in the name of religion, would kill women and children. Was it right to fight dishonourable men in a dishonourable way?

Sometimes necessity trumps honour. Madari knew that to his cost. He winced in the dark, hearing again the echoes of the soldier screaming. Tortured under his orders. His honour was already tarnished. Could he afford to lose more of it and still call himself a good man? A mostly good man.

Perhaps his old fashioned sense of honour made him the right man to head the unit. He could keep them from slipping, into expedient but wrong practices. Of course, they would often have to be ruthless. But there was be a line, between ruthless and vicious. A leader had to rein his men in from crossing that line. Men needed no training to be cruel, it came naturally. They needed training in restraint.

His mind went to Smith again, a leader who’d maintained the honour of his team. Madari believed, from reading Amy Allen’s book about the team, that they had indeed robbed the bank under orders. Even so, it counted as a war crime. Yet that was the only war crime Smith’s team were involved in. Madari had read of atrocities committed by Americans in Vietnam, but had never come across any tales of the A-Team being involved in the most heinous of such crimes, massacres of civilians, destruction of villages. Perhaps their honour was tarnished, like Madari’s, but not destroyed. And they’d been the victims of war crimes themselves, in the POW camps.

He used to believe honour was absolute. You had your honour, or you didn’t. But perhaps that was naïve. Perhaps his time as a guerrilla had taught him it could have degrees. And perhaps he wanted to believe that, so he didn’t have to face his own dishonour.

A sound came out of the dark. Jahni, turning over and muttering something? My name? Madari thought he heard it. But again wondered at his own power to delude himself. Sleep, he ordered himself. Early start and long day tomorrow. To meet men who likely had little regard for the finer points of honour. Any self deluding notions he had would be torn down by them.

Reality didn’t come more real than an SAS trooper.


Madari hadn’t driven in England for a long time, and Jahni not at all, and anyway, the idea of having Jahni drive him through London’s insane traffic scared Madari half to death. So they took a train to Hereford, first class, thanks to their expenses. They wore civilian clothes, not looking for attention from the other passengers. Madari even insisted on speaking in English. Practice, he said to Jahni.

As they neared Hereford, he took the opportunity for some last minute advice and reminders.

“Kahil.” Jahni turned away from the window to look at him across the table. Papers lay scattered on the table, plans for the work ahead. “Kahil, I know I probably don’t need to, but let me remind you anyway, about what Colonel Rahama said. We represent our regiment, and our country while we’re here. We must be the best ambassadors we can.”

“I understand.”

“Be careful not to take offence at misunderstandings, culture clashes. And remember what I taught you about criticism.”

Jahni nodded.

“I’ll try.”

We Arabs aren’t good at taking criticism, Madari knew. We take it personally, we take it as an insult, even when it is meant to help us improve. Jahni had a short temper and would be around men who were blunt in their criticism, Madari hoped he could restrain that temper.

“We’re here to learn. Don’t resist learning because you find it hard to be told where you can improve.” He hesitated a moment, went on. “It’s possible you’ll have to deal with prejudice, even racial slurs. Remember that, while some of that might be down to ignorance, some of it may be deliberate, to assess our reactions. They are going to learn from us too, our strengths, our weaknesses. They will push us, they will test us.”

Jahni nodded, face serious. While Madari would spend most of his time with senior officers, learning about higher level strategic and operational matters, Jahni would be the one doing the most “hands on” work. His mission here was learning about training and techniques, learning tactics for on the ground operations. And the men teaching him that would be much less polite than those Madari would deal with. If Jahni really was a sergeant at heart, now would be the time to let that come out. The thought made him smile.

“Are you looking forward to it?” Madari asked and the serious look vanished from Jahni’s face, to be replaced by a grin.

“You know me. I love training.”

The train’s PA burst into life then, announcing they were approaching Hereford. Madari and Jahni stood up and collected their luggage. Moments later they were off the train and striding along the platform to the exit barrier. They looked around for the driver they’d been promised would collect them.

After a moment, Jahni said, “There.” A man in British Army uniform stood just outside the exit barrier, holding a piece of white card, on which was written ‘Madira’. Jahni grinned. “Come on then, Major Madira, our lift is here. Madira, isn’t that a place?”

Madari rolled his eyes and followed Jahni to their driver.

Here we go.

Chapter 3

Two weeks later, Madari had almost stopped missing his Arab coffee. Almost. On the other hand, he feared he was becoming addicted to the strong, black tea the English liked. He took it very sweet.

He stood now with a mug, looking out of the window into the grey February day, during the tea break from the morning’s briefing session. Although he feared appearing unsociable, while the other men in the room chatted over their tea, he needed a moment away for some quiet contemplation.

So much to take in. So much knowledge and so much of it new, that’s what amazed him. All his experience in the Army, then as an irregular, and yet he felt as if a whole new world was opening to him here. A higher level of soldiering. And he enjoyed it. The new ideas, the modern methods made him feel old-fashioned, backwards in comparison. Jahni felt the same, he knew. Perhaps even more so, less tied to tradition that Madari.

The reports they both wrote every night, in their “digs” as they’d both learnt to call their accommodation, would be enough to fill a book, Madari thought. Would be a book, eventually. Their operations manual. Of course there was much more to learn yet. Madari determined his new unit would not simply slap on a label boasting it was formed in consultation with the SAS and – he smiled, thinking of Hannibal – an especially unconventional Green Beret colonel. No, they would apply the methods thoroughly. Adapt them as they had to, to their own situation, but not boast about them and then forget them.

An officer, Lieutenant Colonel Grant, stepped up to the window beside him.

“Missing the sunshine, Major?”

Madari smiled. Oh indeed. Too many days of grey sky here.

“Yes, Colonel. It’s some years since I – ah – enjoyed the British winter.” Grant offered him a chocolate digestive biscuit from a plate and he took one with a nod of thanks. The biscuits definitely went with the tea addiction.

“Moving on to deep strike tactics this afternoon. Had some experience there haven’t you?”

The ‘haven’t you?’ was a courtesy. Madari knew they knew all about his history in the military and as a guerrilla.

“Yes. For ambush and sabotage especially.”

“Looking forward to hearing about it.” Grant gazed out of the window too. It had started to rain. “I hear good reports about your lieutenant. Lads say he’s got what it takes.”

Madari smiled. He did. In fact this whole thing, it’s for him. It’s to make him a star. The best soldier in the army. Madari himself would have been happy to serve out his time in the Royal Guard, perhaps one day his ambition to command the regiment would have come back, and he’d have taken that place. But he had higher ambitions than that for Jahni. Jahni had the potential to lead the regiment, even the whole Army into the 21st century, if given the chance to shine.

He wondered what Jahni was doing right at that moment.


Right at that moment, Jahni was losing a fight.

This was an unprecedented situation. He hadn’t lost a fair fight in as long as he could remember. But now, sparring with Trooper Cornell, Corny to his mates, he was losing. Corny wasn’t any bigger or stronger than Jahni, and he was at least a decade older. When they’d started the sparring match in the gym, Jahni had even thought he’d have to be careful not to beat the man too easily. That had lasted all of five seconds.

This man had speed and moves that Jahni simply couldn’t match or counter. Every bit of Jahni’s training, every dirty fighting trick he’d picked up, wouldn’t avail him.

Corny finally got him into a submission hold, making Jahni slap the mat and yell out that he was done. Free now, Jahni rolled over, the adrenaline fed anger draining, the red mist and sweat cleared from his eyes. Corny jumped to his feet, offered his hand to pull Jahni up. They were alone in the gym, which pleased Jahni, not wanting others to see him beaten. Corny was smiling, but not in triumph. Simply enjoying himself.

“Not bad, lad.” He had what Jahni had learnt was a northern English accent. “Come and get some water.”

They walked off the mats, to a bench and sat. Now his anger at being beaten had faded, Jahni wanted very much to learn all he could from this man. He looked at the pale skinned trooper, still rather fascinated by the man’s bright red hair.

Trooper. What might his ‘shadow’ rank be, Jahni wondered, the one he’d carried before coming in to the SAS, where every man became a trooper again? Strange to give up rank, to have to put in that work again to rise. Why do that? For the glory of being in this famous force. For the challenge? To know you were the best?

“Some of your moves,” Jahni said, as they finished drinking their bottles of water. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”

“That’s why you’re here, soon teach them to you.” He grinned, wide enough to show a gap of a couple of missing teeth on the right side of his mouth. “For an officer, you’re a right dirty scrapper. Bet you’d savage me proper in a real fight. If I didn’t put you down first of course.” He grinned again. “Which I would.”

“You would.” Jahni winced. Sparring with an SAS man had left him feeling more battered than some of the actual fights he’d been in.

“But, I’m not kidding, lad, you’re good. With the right training you could kick it up to the next level.”

“The right training? You mean, SAS training?” He pronounced it “sass” as he’d heard other men here say it.

“Reckon you could do it. Reckon you could get through Selection, go on and complete the training. You’re fit enough. But you’ve got something else.” He tapped his forehead. “Got to have it there too, mental fitness. Determination. And I reckon you’ve got that.”

Jahni felt pride rise, puffing out his chest.

“See, too many lads now, even in the Army, they’ve had it cushy all their lives. Soft. Can only stand hardship for a couple of days, then they chuck it in. The ones that get through Selection, the ones that make it all the way through training are the ones who can live for months knowing they’re not going home to a soft bed after they complete the mission. I dunno, but I get from you, that you’ve got some experience there.”

Prison. Guerrilla warfare. Does that count? He’d slept on a cot for so long that his comfortable bed in his flat had felt strange and alien at first. He’d learnt not to complain about the hardships of that year and a half, because complaining was a waste of time. You just had to get on and do it.

“Not saying it’d be a cakewalk, of course.” Corny gave a wolfish smile. “You’ve probably heard what the lads say about Selection.”

“I’ve heard them say ‘they’re not trying to fail you, they’re trying to kill you.'”

Corny roared with laughter, making Jahni laugh too.

“And what does Kahil Jahni say to that?” Corny asked after a moment.

“Kahil Jahni says it sounds like a challenge.” He grinned.

Corny slapped him on the back. “That’s what I like to hear. Now come on, you camel-bothering bastard, let’s get back to work.”

Jahni followed him, still grinning, and wondering when he’d learnt to take the words ‘camel-bothering bastard’ as a term of affection.


The last three weeks of their time at Hereford passed quickly, and it seemed no time at all before they were packing their gear. In the small sitting room they shared, they packaged up their reports carefully.

He’d missed Jahni, Madari thought, they’d spent so little time together here. Only in the evenings, and even then, they spent most of the time in the mess, still learning what they could. But he had noticed that the last few days Jahni had been quieter than usual. Not depressed, it seemed, just distracted.

At last, on that final night, as they completed packing, Jahni told Madari what was on his mind.

“Faris.” His serious tone made Madari look up from putting the metal case of reports on the floor beside their suitcases. “There’s something I’ve been thinking about.”

“What is it?”

“I want to do Selection. And if I get through that, the rest of the training. If I can make it all the way through.”

Madari stared at him. Jahni stood with his hands behind his back, still deadly serious. He went on.

“If we’re going to be a good Special Forces unit we need to really understand what Special Forces training is all about. If I’m going to be responsible for that training, then I need to understand it. The only way to be sure I understand it, is to do it.”

“Kahil, you know you don’t have to prove anything to me. I know how good a soldier you are.”

“I think I need to prove it to myself.”

Madari looked down for a moment. It did make sense, he couldn’t deny that. But it takes six months, six months away, six months without him… Secure that nonsense, he ordered himself. Missing him is not a valid argument against this.

“I know it’s a long time away…” Jahni said. “From the unit, but…”

“Oh, that’s not a problem,” Madari said quickly. “A lot of the next few months is going to be set-up, buying equipment. Reviewing applicants.” He smiled. “Paperwork.”

A small smile came in return. “Well, you know me, I hate paperwork.”

“Doing SAS Selection is quite an extreme way to get out of doing paperwork.”

“I really hate paperwork.”

Madari laughed for a moment, but went serious again. “You know it can be quite dangerous. Men have suffered career-ending injuries.”

“I know. Believe me, I have thought about this very seriously.”

Then Madari owed it to him to take the request seriously. A man didn’t decide on such a course lightly.

“Then when we get home, I’ll talk to Colonel Rahama, and we’ll see if it can be arranged.”

Jahni broke into real smile now.

“Thank you.” He offered his hand, surprising Madari for a moment. It felt somewhat formal, for them to shake hands on the matter. Still he shook the hand. Jahni broke the handshake quite quickly, used to the shorter Western style handshakes now. Madari felt suddenly homesick, longing for his own country, his own culture. Much as he liked Britain, and the British, he loved his home more.

Time to get back there. Reconnect. To home. To Kahil.


A Trooper that Jahni called “Corny” drove them not just to the railway station this time, but all the way to Heathrow.

“Better than bloody working,” he’d said as they set out.

“Too bloody right,” Jahni responded, causing Madari to roll his eyes. If he did spend six months here, Jahni would end up more like an Englishman than Faraj.

“So, you gonna be back?” Corny asked Jahni, who sat in the front seat.

“I hope so,” Jahni said, “See if I can make it through Selection.”

“What do you mean if?” Madari asked, from the back seat, putting as much severity into his voice as he could manage. “You’re Royal Guard. You’d better make it.”

He saw Jahni go wide-eyed for a moment, but Corny must have heard the undertone of teasing and chuckled.

“Better listen to your guv’ner, lad.”

“I’m always telling him to,” Madari said, smiling at Jahni, who was looking at him now. And he did listen, of course. Nobody had ever listened the way Jahni did. How would Madari manage without that for six months?


Almost twelve hours later they arrived at “their” airport. Just off the plane, they walked towards baggage reclaim, in a crowd mostly of their countrymen and women, scattered with a few foreigners.

Madari felt relaxed for the first time in weeks. He’d been on his guard, on his ‘best behaviour’ for so long, but at last he was home, where he didn’t have to think twice about every social interaction, every conversation.

Reconnecting. That’s what he would be doing the next few days. Eating familiar food, wearing the Arab clothes he preferred – how did Western men wear such tight clothing all the time? They must be in agony – and… he glanced down and smiled. He wasn’t the only one reconnecting.

Jahni slipped his hand into Madari’s and smiled when their eyes met. So many layers to that touch, Madari thought. But for now, simple friendship, just like that of other men they saw doing the same thing. Unless some of them had secrets too.

No, forget the secrets. Forget everything else and just enjoy the too long absent touch.

Welcome home.