A Spy in Exile: Chapter 44



Belgium and England are separated by a gray and icy sea. And in keeping with the dampness and drizzle of Brussels, the weather in London, too, was wet and bleak and cold. For the past few hours, just as over the previous two days, they had been walking in pairs through the streets of East London’s Bethnal Green, until recently a low-income district that had spent the last few years trying to powder its drab cheeks. The harsh neighborhood, home to a large Bangladeshi Muslim population, did have a certain charm, the cadets admitted. It’s hard to believe that in the eighteenth century it was still a village of sorts that earned its livelihood from agriculture; and in the nineteenth century, the district saw the rise of a silk and textiles industry. Many of the area’s Victorian homes were destroyed by the German bombing in World War II. And after the war, hastily built low-rise buildings, as part of immense and awful housing estates, were erected on the ruins. Over the past few years, the neighborhood had begun a very gradual and cautious process of renewal, in small and hesitant steps. Refurbished old houses now appeared here and there. A handful of art galleries had opened. Cafés and small restaurants were beginning to adorn the streets. Not just fish and chips shops and oil-splattered kebab stalls. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

Preacher Anjam Badawi’s mosque wasn’t far from Jesus Green. A coming together of Muhammad and Jesus on the street corner, Sayid thought ironically, and now the Jews are joining the party. Aslan and Ann, Helena and Sayid. Aslan wanted them to get to know the neighborhood, to let it get under their skin. This was their third day of wandering its streets, studying its traffic patterns, the parks, the cafés and restaurants, the public transport systems. Making a mental note of the churches, mosques, police stations, Underground stations. Badawi’s image graced posters on the street inviting the faithful to a prayer session and sermon at his mosque. He was right there, so nearby. After reading his appalling vitriol on the internet, they could now feel his hatred creeping down their backs.

They met up at one of the pubs on the outskirts of the neighborhood, where they conversed in English. Speaking Hebrew, as it was plain to see, would not have been warmly received at that location.

“It’s a combination of Dhaka and Charles Dickens,” Helena said as she removed her coat and warmed her hands.

“You mix your metaphors in the most scandalous fashion,” Ann remarked.

“I actually understood exactly what she was saying,” Sayid said, coming to Helena’s aid. He failed to notice the brief look of affection the two women exchanged.

Aslan returned to the table carrying four glasses of beer.

“Any thoughts?” he asked.

“It’s better to be in a warm pub than out on the frozen streets,” Helena responded, a mustache of beer foam adorning her upper lip. Ann looked at her and smiled.

“Something wrong?” Helena asked.

Sayid ran his finger discreetly across his lips, and Helena thanked him silently and licked off the beer mustache with the tip of her tongue.

“I think,” Ann said, “that we should stop wandering these streets aimlessly. I think Sayid should attend the prayer session. That would be the simplest and most direct way to get close to Badawi, to see how this prayer and sermon business is run, if he has bodyguards, how he gets to the mosque, how he leaves.”

“Can you do it?” Aslan asked, directing his question at Sayid.

“I’m familiar with the Quran and the prayers,” Sayid responded. “Growing up in Algeria I was required to study the Quran. I’m not a religious Muslim, of course, and can’t pretend to be one, but I could certainly play the part of a refugee who’s looking to find warmth and meaning and something familiar at the mosque.”

“Are you sure?” Aslan asked. “It’s a risky play.”

“Not for me,” Sayid said. “I’m a genuine Algerian, I know Algiers and Constantine like the back of my hand, and miss it. I have no trouble talking of extremism and atrocities. I’ve read enough reports and blogs and I’ve seen a fair number of pictures. The world is focused these days on Syria, but the jihadists are active in North Africa, too. A large number of refugees come from North African countries. I just need a little time to prepare a precise and detailed cover story. With its focus, in fact, on my time here in London. Where I’m living, what brings me to Bethnal Green, whether I work, doing what, how I got to England, things like that.”

“We’ll help you,” Aslan said, nodding his head to confirm it was the right move. “In any case, the story is mainly for your benefit. To bolster your self-confidence. After all, you don’t have to answer to anyone. You only need to be ready.”

I’m ready, Sayid thought, suddenly realizing for just how long he had been waiting for this moment.


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