I was being followed. I just didn’t know it. You couldn’t blame me, really. I was only sixteen at the time. For the past year, my parents had rarely been in the same place at the same time, for more than a month. So, when they whisked me off to Dubai for a family holiday, I was so excited that I forgot the basic counter-surveillance measures drilled into me by said parents. Like I said, I was only sixteen.
Yet, I was being followed, and I hadn’t realised it yet. Though I did realise that I needed to pee. I came out of the stall, washed my hands, and decided to fix my unruly hair. As I was pulling all of it up into a high ponytail, a woman came and stood next to me.
“I have something important to tell your parents.”
At first, I thought she was talking on the phone because she was speaking in Arabic, so, I didn’t respond.
“Samira Joshi, I have to talk to your parents, now.”
I turned to the woman, shocked.
“How do you know my name?” I mindlessly responded in Arabic.
“Shh! Keep your voice down, and turn back to the mirror.”
“Who are you and how do you know my name?” I asked softly, facing the mirror.
“That’s not the point. Will you do as I asked?”
“I won’t do a thing until you tell me your name!” I said, belligerently.
“My name doesn’t mean anything to you. Just do as I ask,” she insisted.
“Take off your veil, then. I want to see your face.”
The woman was heavily veiled, in a niqab that concealed her face.
“No! Just tell your parents that I want to speak to them,” snapped the woman.
“Why should I do that? My parents are not fools, to meet a total stranger. You could be leading them into some sort of trap,” I argued.
The woman leaned towards me, and hissed, “You will do as I say, otherwise your country will be reduced to a pile of rubble! Is that what you want?”
I slowly backed away from her and rushed out of the loo. As I walked to the cafe where I was supposed to meet my parents, I kept looking back, half expecting that woman to follow. I spotted them waiting at a table. Ma was reading a book or pretending to. You could never tell with her.
Baba was people-watching, his watchful eyes taking everything in, down to the last detail. This was his favourite hobby. When I was a kid, dining out was just another lesson in spycraft. I had to observe and memorise everything about the room, from the number of waitstaff to the exits and cameras, as well as the details of all the other diners — how many people at each table, what they were wearing, and their expressions. When I got older, Baba would pick a table and I had to place a listening device at that table without being caught. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. You’d be surprised at what all you can do with a timely twist of the ankle.
I knew that the moment I opened my mouth, that blank, expectant expression would turn into disapproval and disappointment, and my holiday would be ruined. I was not wrong.
That’s all I needed to say. Ma’s eyes narrowed.
“Samira, you’re breathing hard and your pupils are dilated,” she announced, leaning forward to peer into my eyes, in full spy radar mode.
“What have you been up to?”
There it was, the implication that I was responsible for whatever had happened, like they were used to me messing up all the time. Normally, this was where I would get defensive and I’d lose the argument even before I spoke. Not this time. I took a deep breath and spoke as dispassionately as I could.