The Jihadis - A Close Encounter with the Terrorists

‘The Jihadis’ is not their real name. I also censored the name of the country this all happened in. You never know…

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, our office in [a country in the Middle East, not so very popular in the West] was solely run by female staff. They were a dynamic bunch, and each time I went on mission there, we had loads of fun. You would not think much of them when you saw these ladies on the street, all scarf-ed up, or even veiled up, with dark dull-coloured overcoats. But boy, once indoors, the veils, scarves and all depressive moods stayed at the front door, and they were the most amusing and dynamic bunch.

Once while I was on mission to [that country], the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited the key people in our office for a formal evening dinner, and our staff asked me to come along.. You need to know I always dress very casual, and of course, I had no suit nor even decent shoes with me. ‘No problem’, said the lady who invited me, we will find you something. So in the evening I attended the dinner with a borrowed outfit: shoes from a colleague, shirt, tie and jacket from someone’s husband and a pair of trousers from I-don’t-know-where. I looked formal. Like a formal vagabond.

The dinner was held at the palace from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was an astonishing building, almost straight out of the movies. Beautiful carpets, lavish furniture, and luxuriously decorated walls in the huge banquet halls. While chatting over our after-dinner tea, out of the blue, the people from the Ministry asked if I could give them a presentation on emergency and disaster preparedness systems we use in our organisation.

A few weeks later...

I am both nervous and excited. It is the first time, the government reached out to us, asking for assistance. They even arranged the needed paperwork for me to bring the ‘sensitive equipment’ needed for the demonstration, into the country: Radios and modems, and all kinds of stuff that would normally get confiscated the moment you step off the plane.
I am used to get slightly harassed going through their customs check, even with UN papers, but this time, I give them a set of papers the government sent us. I can not read what was on it, but they all go a bit pale while looking at it, and for once, I get the red carpet treatment...

The day of the presentation itself, our staff set up a nice conference/meeting room in a fancy old-style hotel. Our meeting room is at the end of a long corridor. On the left side of the corridor, large windows overlook the hotel gardens. On the right, there is a line-up of doors all leading into meeting rooms similar to ours. All meeting rooms are separated with curtains, so if there is a bigger meeting to be held, they draw the curtains open to create a bigger space.

We have mobilized all our local staff for this important happening. The ladies prepared a long table with refreshments (all non-alcoholic of course), and kosher food (eh.. well not really kosher, I guess, but you know what I mean: ‘politically correct and culturally sensitive’ food)… The interpreter and all the electronics for the real time translation of my speech are tested and ready for our esteemed guests... Who are of course fashionable late. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, half an hour.. I start to wonder if all preparation efforts are going to be in vain, and no-one is going to show up. I walk to the entrance of the long corridor and see some pretty official looking guys stepping towards the meeting rooms. They all look very serious. They have some heavy looking dudes with bulky stuff under their jackets, behind them. “These must be our guests”, I think to myself, and walk towards them, holding out my hand, to greet them. I hear one of our local staff rushing in behind me, whisper-shouting “Peter!?”. At that moment, one of the bulky-jacket dudes leaps forward, pulls me by the hand I held out, and pushes me firmly onto the side of the corridor. I just stand there, perplex, while the whole official delegation rushes past me. The one huge dude keeps standing in front of me, drilling his dark reflective Ray Ban sunglasses deep into my eyes. Nobody else thinks I am worthy of a look.

All fifteen or twenty of them walk straight into our meeting room, and take a seat. I still think I should go in and greet them, even though I don’t not understand what just happened with the ‘huge dude’. Our local staff, rush in behind me and pull me back. ‘Peter, Peter, don’t!’, she says. ‘Why not?”, I reply, “I should go and say hello, no?”. She lowers her voice even more, and whispers in my ear: ‘No, you can not’. She adds only one word which explains it all: “[Jihadis]’. Eh? Of course I know of [the Jihadis], what they are and what they stand for. They are always all over the news when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East. All Western governments label them as a terrorist organisation. “Euh.. and what are [the Jihadis] doing in our meeting?”, I ask?. “I don’t know”, she replies. She is as confused as I am.

It only takes two minutes before the delegation stands up, walks out of our meeting room and rushes into the meeting room next to ours.. None of them blink an eye, except one of the ‘huge dudes with a bulky thing under his jacket’, who says a few snappy words in the local language to one of our staff, as he passes her. “The guy said they were in the wrong meeting room.”, she smiles.
Soon enough our government delegation (the real one!) arrives, and we start. It was a bit difficult though as the curtains separating our meeting room from the one next door are not insulating the noise very well, to say the least. It is almost like I am standing in the midst of the heated discussion they have in the next room. I wonder what they are talking about… My audience understands exactly what was happening amongst our neighbours, but all through my presentation they never blink an eye.. Neither do I. But I keep on thinking how many of the people in the room next door would be on the ‘Top 10 Most Wanted’ list of any Western government.. I wonder if they would have liked my presentation?

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Anonymous,  19 October, 2008 19:21  

Sorry since I am catching up on all the posts - discovered the site only from your ref from FT :-), I believe that I know this country through a third party. Sis had to go there a couple of yrs ago on a laissez-passer from an IFI and had a nasty experience when flying out . Poor girl didn't know that there was a checking line for unaccompanied female travellers and since she didn't understand what the religious guard was saying, it took her a while to grasp why she was being admonished ( figuratively speaking)

Peter 19 October, 2008 19:25  

@The Beaver:
I think you might have guess right!

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