Bahir in the Promised Land

Bahir drives a car with extreme caution. As someone who has survived the mean streets of Baghdad, he figures he’s experienced just about every form of careless driving that is imaginable, so driving in his adopted hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico – or any place else in the U.S. – isn’t quite as challenging as Baghdad. As a young man, he often calmed his nerves while driving by listening to the music of his teacher, Munir Bashir on wavering cassette tapes. Bashir was a prominent composer-performer and teacher of the oud, acknowledged throughout the world for his brilliant performances and scholarly research into the ancient music of Iraq. Always, Bahir found solace in his mentor’s music, especially when he was driving. As a teenager growing up in Baghdad he sometimes borrowed the family’s car to run errands, but like most teenagers in Iraq he relied on busses to travel from his home in the El Alarfi neighborhood to school and university. Now that he lives – and drives – in Albuquerque, Bahir feels more comfortable behind the wheel. On this day Bahir is driving a neon green Toyota Camry, a rental car that he picked up at BWI Airport. In the passenger’s seat is Farid Attieh, a Lebanese-born Syrian-trained percussionist who is in-demand as an accompanist to traditional Arabic musicians worldwide. Both are citizens of the United States. Both spend much of their time on the road. Each is a respected soloist and composer of contemporary Arabic music and brilliant interpreters of the ages old Maqams, the structural building blocks of Arabic music. They arrived at BWI within an hour of one another to begin a journey that will take them to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Studio in suburban Maryland. Bahir and Farid have played together often and recorded one CD together. With new material itching to be recorded they were primed for the upcoming session at Smithsonian Folkways.

Neither has ever been to Washington before so they’re looking forward to the visit. From his command position behind the wheel Bahir feels confident. Farid too feels confident as navigator, a confidence derived from his role as the anchor to any ensemble or soloist he accompanies; his sure sleek hands temper the many instruments he plays whether it’s the Doumbek or the Riqq (known in Western cultures as the Egyptian Tablah and Tambourine, respectively), his fingers move in complex rhythmic counterpoint across the stretched tan skins of the instruments. He could, if needed, take command of the car as befits a man from Damascus, where he learned to drive. On those wicked streets in that ancient city he mastered the art of aggressive driving so useful on the intertwining freeways of Los Angeles, his American home. Farid, with a map and directions to the recording studio in his lap and Bahir gripping the steering wheel ready to follow Farid’s commands, they headed north on I-195 eventually connecting with the Baltimore Washington Parkway southbound to Washington, DC.

Their directions had them following the Baltimore Washington Parkway then a short dip south to Patuxet Freeway and the exit to the recording studio. Bahir excitedly pointed to the exit that he believed to be the one that Chris Allesandro, the Smithsonian Folkways recording engineer gave him. Farid wasn’t so certain that the exit Bahir gestured to was, indeed the correct one. “Bahir,” he said in his heavily accented English, “according to the map I think we want the next exit.” “No Habibi,” responded Bahir in equally heavily accented English, “this is the one, I’m sure,” the ‘sure’ intoning upwards; a pattern of speech that linguists call a ‘high rise terminal,’ or ending a declarative statement as if it were a question. (Where Bahir picked up this style of talking is a mystery since it is usually assigned to the vernacular talking styles of California’s ‘Valley Girls’ or young women in Australia.) He eased in to the left-hand lane slowed down and exited following the ramp as it turned to the left. At the end of the ramp they saw the sign: NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY.

So, to twist a well-known American phrase, “Two Arab guys pull up to a gate…” But this gate is not an ordinary gate. This gate marks a sacred parcel of government land. Within this territorial enclave houses thousands of employees who have the “need to know.” Those who don’t have “the need to know” usually keep a good distance from this gate, fearing that if they were to find themselves entering this gate they might not return to their “normal’ lives. “A need to know…” Know what? The term “need to know” refers to the super-secret data that’s contained in millions of files stored behind the walls of the buildings at the National Security Agency (NSA). Located just outside Washington, DC, the NSA is home to thousands of super-nerdy analysts and fellow snoops who oversee the complex data files collected by those who really do have the “need to know.” What they need to know, of course, is how the enemies of the state intend to – or hope to – disrupt the disorderly flow of information among federal agencies to bring the U.S government to a halt. Or bring it to its knees. Like all respectable government institutions, and especially like all those aligned with national security, the NSA stands firm; a citadel on the outskirts of the Nation’s Capital to deflect the intentions of those who might harm the country. And in front of this gate sit two lost Arab guys staring at the sign in front of them.

Bahir slowed to a crawl as a uniformed guard stepped forward with one hand outstretched in the universal “stop, do not move…” position while his and the other hand gripped a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, still holstered at his waist. This clearly meant for them to stop. They stopped, looked at one another, then at the guard and again at the sign on the gate. Bahir shrugged. Farid let out with “…whew, what now?” This time, he spoke in Arabic. The guard came over, peered into the car looking first at Bahir then at Farid, then stepped back and said, “Do you guys have an appointment?”

It didn’t take long for the guard to figure out that no, these two dark-skinned skinny guys did not have an appointment with anyone at the NSA. “So,” the guard said with some trepidation, “where are you from?” “Albuquerque,” responded Bahir. “And he,” pointing to Farid, “is from Los Angeles.” Annoyed, the guard said, “No. No, where are you FROM?” “Oh, Iraq, I’m from Baghdad, Iraq, Bahir said smiling proudly. (Bahir’s smile is wickedly attractive: a stripped- down version of the smiles of a conniving coyote and sly carnival barker.) “And I’m from Lebanon,” Farid said with a forced nervous smile. “So, what are you doing here?” asked the guard. Bahir now feeling a bit more relaxed and, as always, playful, responded, “We’re here to make a recording, a new CD for Smithsonian Folkways Records. I play oud and Farid here, he plays Doumbek.” The guard, now becoming a bit suspicious (or was it confused?) looked first at Bahir then at Farid and said, “So, you’re musicians? And you play what? “The oud,” said Bahir, “It’s like a guitar.” “The Doumbek, a Middle Eastern drum,” echoed Farid. “Here I’ll show you,” Bahir said as he started to open the car door, only to have the guard determinedly push back on the door. Bahir got the message and took his hands off the door letting them drop on to his lap. The guard now took on an air of supreme authority and instructed both to step out of the car.

The guard backed up to his little guard house, picked up his cell phone and pushed the number 1 button. Within minutes a big black Humvee hurtled to a stop in front of the Camry. Three big men jumped out wearing khaki uniforms with helmets labeled “MP.” Bahir had been lounging against the side of the Camry, smoking a cigarette. Now he jumped away from it, startled. Farid stood on the other side of the car staring at these hulking square figures moving towards them. It was at this time that they heard the dogs barking. Bahir instinctively bolted and squatted next to Farid on his side of the car. The three uniforms stopped dead in their tracks, one of them shouting, “Don’t move!” Another went back to the Humvee and quieted the dogs until he had their leashes firmly wrapped around his meaty hand. He led them to Bahir and Farid, their teeth bared while a low growling sound seeped from deep within their expanding chests.

If you’ve ever camped out in one of the many western U.S. forests or live near a forested area, then it’s likely that the howling of the coyotes has caused some concern. Their keening plaintive songs are eerie as they pierce the dark night’s quiet mysterious solitude. Since arriving in New Mexico Bahir Al-Fayed has heard the coyote’s songs. He does not like hearing them. In fact, he hates hearing them. They remind him of the snarling German Sheppard dogs that were used to intimidate and control his movements and that of his fellow prisoners during two periods of incarceration. Bahir had been accused of actively working against the regime of Saddam Hussein while a teenager in Baghdad. Farid, like Bahir is Muslim; both detest dogs, a consequence of their shared backgrounds. Muslims are taught to avoid the impure beast for fear of contaminating the home, not to mention their unclean odor.

The dogs inched closer to Bahir and Farid, straining against their leather leashes; Bahir now terrified, Farid more frightened at Bahir’s predicament than of the dogs. The dogs sensed Bahir’s fear and shortened the distance between them as the MPs ’pulled back on their leashes. “Keep them away,” pleaded Bahir, “we’re musicians trying to find the Smithsonian Recording Studio; we’re not terrorists,” he continued. The MP’s realized that something just wasn’t right, that these two guys were not dangerous; the dog handler pulled hard on the dogs’ leashes and commanded them to stop. Still snarling, the dogs obeyed the commands and sat staring directly at Bahir who was now scrunched even lower behind the car, the dogs’ piercing eyes bore a hole through Bahir. The third – and biggest! – MP strode ahead of the dogs and asked, in a less threatening voice, “Who are you and what the fuck are you doing here?” Bahir, now feeling a bit relieved answered, “Take the dogs away so we can explain everything.” The biggest MP nodded and instructed the handler to move the dogs back away from Bahir and Farid. Bahir stood up and thanked the big MP. Farid, clearly relieved, relaxed as Bahir moved towards him.

Bahir and Farid recounted their story of following directions to the Smithsonian Folkways recording studio using a Washington DC map that led them to here, the National Security Agency. The MP – the big guy, well the bigger of the three guys – appeared to understand but following routine orders and staring at two guys who clearly were not from Kansas (or for that matter, Montana, his home state) he decided to grill them a bit more. Once again, after assuring him that they were, indeed, U.S. citizens and residents of New Mexico and California respectively, Bahir and Farid offered to play their instruments for him. Curious, the big MP asked where their instruments were. “In the trunk,” said Bahir. “Okay, let’s see them,” the big MP responded. Bahir moved to the trunk of the car fumbling for the car keys in his pocket. One of the dogs snarled, a garbled snarl since it was being held tightly by its handler, but a snarl nevertheless causing Bahir to look back over his shoulder with a look of reserved fear and hatred. “Go ahead, dude, he’s not gonna bust lose,” the big MP assured him. Bahir opened the trunk. The big MP looked at the oud and Doumbek in their resplendent cases, surrounded by luggage and a half-opened bag of Doritos Corn Chips and, easing back while placing his hand on the black holster that housed a 45-Calibre pistol, he said, “Okay, now step back and move to the other side of the car and place your hands on the hood.” Bahir, shaking again, obeyed as Farid followed him. The big MP reached for his cell phone and called the officer-in-charge to brief him on the situation. The two other MP’s felt for their weapons as well, the handler slowly letting the dogs have a bit more reign as they lurched towards Bahir and Farid, their paws scratching at the gravel outside of the NSA gates. “Sir, we have a situation over here at the northwest gate,” the big MP said into his cell phone. After explaining that there are two middle eastern guys with a car full of expensive cases claiming that they’re musicians and that they got lost, he nodded saying, “yes sir, I’ll wait for your call back.”

The big MP had done a tour in Iraq shortly after the 2002 U.S. invasion while the Iraqi insurgents were gaining strength and confidence. The sight of those cases in the trunk of a car made him suspicious; he had seen too many of his fellow soldiers injured or killed by bombs placed inside cars. While in training he had read many accounts of booby-trapped vehicles that tore apart the soul of the U.S. Army in Vietnam a generation ago. He was being cautious and following orders. Bahir did not understand. He too had done a “tour” in Iraq. In fact, he had done two; he was imprisoned, the first time when he was all of 17 years old, the second time when he was almost a man of 20. Memories of those incarcerations spun back at him as he tried to hold his temper. Bahir has an active imagination. He is always seeing images from his past looping around in his mind something like having a private screening room running continuously inside his head. As Bahir stood behind the car, his hands sweating and slipping off the roof, those psychic films revealed a picture of a fellow prisoner in the crowded Baghdad prison as he was being hoisted up to meet the rope that would end his young life. Bahir heard the screams as the rope tightened around his throat. He remembered wanting desperately to look away as the executioner yanked the guy’s trousers and tore his underwear off. But Bahir and the other prisoners could not look away, their tormentors demanded that they watch, or they would be the next victim. The rope began to do its’ job as his exposed penis stiffened and ejaculated useless semen. The rope burned into this throat cutting off his screams and his body went limp. He was one of thousands of young professionals – a physician – that Saddam Hussein eliminated for reasons that died with him years later at his own grisly hanging. Bahir saw and heard these memories as he leaned against the green Toyota Camry, his feet spread and his hands on the hood and, mentally shielding himself from the growls and snarls of the dogs, he was gaining strength, tired of being treated like a criminal or, Allah forbid, a “terrorist.” “What’s the matter? All we want to do is show you the oud and Doumbek… we’ll play them for you, so you will know we are who we say we are,” he said in desperation. The big MP’s cell phone rang. It was the officer-in-charge. After a few minutes of listening to the officer-in-charge the big MP nodded saying, “yes sir, I’ll get the information and call back.”

“So,” Bahir asked, “what is happening?” Farid hadn’t moved at all during this sequence of events. He remained standing next to Bahir with his head down looking at his feet but feeling the heat of Bahir’s growing anger. “What’s the name and phone number of the person you were supposed to meet? Do you have it?” “Yes, of course, Bahir replied, the anger subsiding, “I tried to give it to the guard when we first came in to the gate.” “Okay, write it on this tablet,” the big MP instructed Bahir. “It’s in the car, in my book, my address book,” said Bahir. “I’ll open the door for you. Reach in and get it then write it down for me. And give me both of your passports and driver’s licenses.” “Okay,” Bahir responded in his characteristically clipped way of saying ‘okay,’ the ‘k’ sort of dissolving in this throat. After writing down the name and phone number of Chris Allesandro at Smithsonian Folkways Records and giving it to the big MP along with their passports and drivers licenses, Bahir and Farid were ordered to relax and sit down by the side of the car. The big MP called in the information and walked back to the other soldiers who were retreating to the guard’s shack with the dogs. During all this activity the civilian guard could only observe, his authority having been totally usurped by the U.S. Army. “I guess,” Bahir whispered to Farid in English, “they will call Chris, and everything will be okay, (this time his ‘okay’ was said softer with assurance and without a high-rise terminal intonation). At this point, Farid really needed to be assured. Yep, Bahir figured, Chris will explain everything to the Army guys. If only it was that easy.

Chris Allesandro’s work as a recording engineer and record producer is exemplary. He’s one of several technician/artists to walk proudly in the immense shadow cast by the late Moses Asch who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to record the indigenous music of the Americas, or as Mr. Ash so accurately called it, “people’s music.” After his death in 1986 the Smithsonian Institution acquired Folkways Records promising to honor Asch’s vision. As one of several stewards of Asch’s legacy Chris Allesandro brings a hard focus to the music he produces and records.
Great recording engineers are a breed apart. Unlike many experienced musicians who often focus mainly on their individual parts at the expense of the ensemble – a great engineer listens more broadly, focusing on the sound of the ensemble and the sound of the room – whether it’s a recording studio or performance space – so that the overall sonic experience is brought fully to life. The best engineers never overproduce by employing artificial enhancement to a voice or instrument; they strive to capture the essence of each instrument and/or voice at the moment of articulation, blending and mixing in situ rather than relying on post-production adjustments. Of course, digital technologies have greatly improved the tools used in the recording process, replacing the long-forgotten analog techniques. In the two previous recording sessions Chris Allesandro was extremely happy that Bahir seldom required more than a few takes for each track recorded. In most instances he knew that Bahir would lay down the best lines possible so that he could concentrate on capturing the exquisite resonances that Bahir coaxed from his Iraqi oud, so he could blend them with the resonant frequency of the recording studio to achieve the distinctive sound of Smithsonian Folkways recordings. Like most great recording engineers Chris Allesandro is meticulous, known for wrapping the many microphone cables that are used in the trade in perfectly round coils so that the interior wires that magically capture the recorded sounds are not twisted and damaged. Visitors to his studio stare in awe of these coils that lay so elegantly on the floor, like ropes on board a naval ship waiting for their call to hoist a flag. Musicians upon entering Chris’ recording studio and seeing these perfectly coiled cables on the floor or hanging on hooks know that they are in good hands. They became a metaphor of sorts: if those cables can be cared for with such precision and respect then the guy who wrapped them will bring the same precision and respect to the recording process.

Upon first hearing Bahir’s music, Allesandro was convinced that Bahir would become an important link between the musical cultures of the Americas and the Middle East. The scheduled recording session was Bahir’s third with Smithsonian Folkways. The previous two were solo recordings. Bahir was quite excited to be finally recording with Farid Attieh, a friend and artist he has great respect for. Bahir felt that this one was going to be the best recording yet. Allesandro agreed. At the very moment that the officer in charge of the security detail overseeing the northwest gate of the National Security Agency was calling Allesandro, he was trying to locate Bahir and Farid and was therefore not aware that the officer was calling him. Chris and the officer in charge did not make contact for two hours. Bahir and Farid had already been standing (and crouching) at the gate for 1 ¼ hours. It was late in the afternoon. Time seemed to stop for Bahir and Farid.

Bahir looked at the watch given to him a few months earlier by a friend in Albuquerque to celebrate his 40th birthday. “It’s 3:15,” he whispered to Farid, “where is Chris?” he asked in a desperate tone. Farid shrugged, more in solidarity with Bahir than with any real knowledge of where Chris might be (he had never met Chris Allesandro, this was to be his first recording with Smithsonian Folkways). The big MP strolled over to Bahir and Farid and, in a friendly and assuring manner said, “Why don’t you guys relax while we try to locate the person you’re supposed to meet.” It shouldn’t take that much longer.” “And if you want to, you can sit in the car with the doors open,” he suggested to them. Bahir and Farid thanked him but said they would rather wait outside the car and both leaned against the driver’s side front bumper. Bahir asked the big MP if he could smoke. Bahir smokes all the time, a habit that his friends in Albuquerque implore him to give up. But he won’t. Even when he lurches into coughing spells that sound like he’s about to turn himself inside-out trying to bring up the bile that rattles around inside his lungs. One time he coughed up blood. Thankfully, it was a minor infection. The tests that were ordered for him did not reveal anything abnormal. In Bahir’s world, there are few abnormalities. He’s experienced so much in his 40 years that abnormal behavior or situations appear normal to him. On the other hand, standing in front of a big MP with black and brown dogs licking their chops in the background while Farid nervously taps out a complex rhythm on the bumper of their rented car in front of a sign that reads “National Security Agency,” well that might be viewed even by Bahir Al-Fayed as ‘abnormal.’

“How long have you guys been here?” the big MP asked. Bahir glanced at his watch and was about to answer when the big MP, realizing that he didn’t frame the question just right said, “I mean how long have you been in the U.S?” Bahir and Farid answered almost in unison, “…eight years, about eight years echoed Bahir.” I came here in 2000 from Syria… Farid came a little bit later, I think. “…Right Farid?” Farid nodded as he wrapped up his brief solo drum session by letting his arms drop to his sides and clenching his hands somewhat nervously said, “…Yes, about eight years now.” “Your English is pretty good,” the big MP said. “Did you study before you got here?” Clearly, the big MP was trying to make easy conversation sensing that: a) these two are okay and; b) it’s getting late and we should wrap this whole thing up soon and all of us can get on with our lives. Bahir laughed appreciatively answering his question with a question, “My English is good? You should have heard me a few years ago. It was pretty bad. No, I learned English after I moved here, to Albuquerque. When I got there, I didn’t speak a word of English other than ‘hi’ or ‘I am Bahir Al-Fayed, from Iraq. I play oud.” Farid, as always waiting for Bahir to finish said, “I learned some English in Syria but because I have been around many Arabic-English speaking people in Los Angeles, I have the opportunity to speak in both languages. I took lessons at UCLA. Bahir and me we do okay, I think.” “You do, absolutely. I’m impressed,” the big MP said, while his cell phone roared out the opening bars of John Philip Sousa’s little-known march, ‘The Gladiator.’ “I’ll be right back,” he said to Bahir and Farid as he hustled back to the guard shack. Bahir began to feel tired. He sat down at the side of the Toyota Camry, closed his eyes and wondered just how he had arrived at this situation; how he had arrived in the United States. Sitting in a relaxing position with the dogs at bay, a slight chill beginning to tinge the early fall afternoon, Bahir slowly drifted off into a private world that even his beloved wife, Nasim, cannot enter. Farid sat down too, resisting the temptation to tap out an Arabic-inspired all rhythmic version of the John Philip Sousa tune that now haunted him, even though he heard only the first two bars!

Bahir Al-Fayed was born on July 1st in Sadr City, a section of Baghdad that has been a stronghold of Shiite resistance to those who have ruled that city-in-turmoil. The exact date Bahir was born is unclear. According to his mother, Sheeha it was 1969, 10 years before Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party came to power. This his mother knows but the exact date is unclear. She thinks it was sometime in April. “It was very rainy when he was born, very rainy.” Bahir remembers her telling the family. She didn’t know if Bahir would be a boy or girl and was concerned that she couldn’t keep the baby dry… “It was so rainy when I was going to the hospital…,” she reiterated, her soft voice humming in his mind. When he arrived, he became the youngest (and final) in a family of seven. Bahir was raised by his oldest sister, Zahara, who was 18 when he was born. You can look it up but don’t rely on the official records that are inscribed in the Bureau of Statistics in Baghdad. Just before Bahir was born the official building in which the Bureau of Statistics was housed was destroyed, a consequence of civil unrest. All the official birth records were burned along with numerous other official documents. The government then decreed that everyone who was born in 1969 would celebrate their birthdays on July 1st – a national birthday celebration that essentially honored everyone born in Baghdad, whether they deserved it or not.

Bahir’s father, Toma Kahlaf Al-Fayed was a hardworking successful rug merchant who never questioned the government’s dictates, even when they sanctioned atrocities like the hanging of Iraqi Jews in 1969, an event that enraged much of the non-Arabic speaking world. He was content to sit in his favorite chair after a hard day hustling cloth to eager buyers and read, smoke and stare at the street outside his house, wondering how the actions of unsettled political and religious factions would affect his life. Bahir remembers that nobody ever touched his father’s chair or changed its’ position. It was his throne and it commanded a perfect view of the simmering streets of Sadr City from a corner in the front room of their small middle-class house. The Al-Fayed family was Shiite, although few in the family were eager to fully embrace the rigid dogma of the Shiite Muslim faith, even though most citizens of Sadr City were fiercely devoted to it. As a young boy Bahir had ideas that ran counter to his father’s hopes for his sons, namely that he become a successful merchant or a professional of some kind, like his oldest brother, Mouhawi who is electrical engineer and not like his second oldest brother Salem, an artist. “Allah forbids! Another impractical one,” his father would say to nobody in particular when trying to reason with the young Bahir. But Bahir – had a mission: to learn to play the oud.

“When I first held the oud, I knew it was the instrument for me,” he heard himself saying while sitting outside the gate of the National Security Agency, reliving his early years in Iraq. He was 9 years old in his memories. The other boys in his neighborhood would play soccer most of the day, often imploring Bahir to join them. He did, sometimes, handling the ball well, his thin whippet-like legs carried him smoothly across the dirt field. He was an adept playmaker, sometimes stopping on a dime and reversing his motion, or adroitly slipping the ball to a teammate as he moved at full speed toward the goal. But most of the time he declined his friends’ requests to play…he had to practice, and practice…and practice some more so that the snake-like melodies that are hidden inside of the elusive Maqams could be coaxed out. “I practiced…I practiced so hard,” Bahir said, “…trying to bring the feel of the oud into my body…it fit so well,” like Nasim’s body fits into mine,” he said feeling lost, alone in a city he didn’t know, dealing with people he couldn’t understand and already missing Nasim’s soulful look and practical advice. Farid too was confused. As confused as Bahir, and as lonely and frightened. “Bahir, wake up!” It was Farid speaking in Arabic, nudging Bahir out of his reverie. “Those guys are coming back.” Farid was anxious.

The big MP followed by the two others marched towards Bahir and Farid. The dogs, thankfully, were inside the Hummer. “It looks like we finally have clearance for you guys,” the big MP said, “the administrative officer here finally reached your friend at the Smithsonian. He’s on his way to meet you. He should be here in a few minutes.” He handed Bahir and Farid their passports and driver’s licenses. Bahir looked at Farid and smiled, then at the MP’s. “Thank you, we are so relieved,” he said.“Look,” the big MP commanded, “you guys have to be careful when you travel around the country, especially when you’re in places with a lot of military presence,” he continued. “And damn, of all places to get lost and wind up… the entrance to the National Security Agency,” he said while shaking his head and adjusting the black helmet that swiveled slightly on his bare skull. “Do you guys have any idea what the National Security Agency does?” he asked. This time Farid looked at Bahir who sheepishly shook his head from side-to-side. “No, not really, unless they’re like the secret police in Iraq,” Bahir responded. The three MP’s all laughed, although not exactly at Bahir and Farid but more at the situation that has brought them together. “No,” the big MP said, “they’re not that bad. The NSA collects information on the country’s enemies, information that is highly secretive and hopefully helps the military prepare for possible attacks, like on September 11th. “So, they’re not police?” Bahir asked softly. “No, they’re not police,” the big MP assured him. They’re what we call super snoops.” This really confused Bahir and Farid, this word ‘snoop.’ Farid has heard of Snoop Dogg, although he does not like Rap music at all. Bahir has never heard of Snoop Dogg. “Snoop? What does that mean, Snoop?” Bahir asked. “Spies,” the big MP said. “Ah, that word I know,” said Bahir. “We had many spies in Iraq during Saddam’s rule,” he said sadly. “They informed on people…they told the Mukhabarat what people were doing behind Saddam’s back. They were not good people,” he continued. “The guys at the NSA, they’re good people, just very secretive, that’s all,” the big MP concluded. The three MP’s then looked at one another and laughed, sharing a joke that circulated around the unit about some of the super snoops at the NSA…one of those light bulb jokes. Bahir nodded and looked at Farid who looked back at Bahir then looked down at the ground wondering if that little screening room in Bahir’s head would begin to play back images of Bahir’s incarceration, something that often happened when he thought of Saddam’s Mukhabarat – the secret police. Just then a car pulled up to the guard’s little shack. It was a Subaru Outback and behind the wheel sat Chris Allesandro.

The big MP gestured for Chris to get out of the car and come over to where Bahir and Farid were waiting. Chris carefully walked the fifteen yards or so from the guard’s shack to The Toyota Camry. Bahir dashed over and hugged him, a big smile on his face and a tear of joy formed in his eye. Chris greeted Farid with a handshake then greeted the MP’s. “Wow, Bahir,” he said, “how the hell did you wind up here, at the NSA?” “It’s a long story Habbibi,” answered Bahir. Actually, it’s Farid’s fault. He cannot read a map,” Bahir continued with an even bigger smile. “No, Bahir, that is not true, you…,” his words trailing off as everyone began laughing.

“Okay, I think we’re done here,” the big MP said and gestured for everyone to go to the guard shack. “There are some papers for the three of you to sign and then you can go about your business.” The civilian guard who had been watching the goings-on all day, feeling completely useless greeted the ensemble. “Quite a day, huh?” he said to no one in particular.” The big MP asked him to serve as a witness to the signing of papers that would end the situation. He agreed and watched as Bahir and Farid signed their names to the official report that would be entered into the NSA Security Department records declaring that there was no breach of security at the northwest gate of the National Security Agency. Clearly relieved, Bahir turned to Chris and Farid and said, “Let’s make some music.” The big MP came over to Bahir and Farid and shook their hands. “One thing more,” he said. Send me a CD when it’s finished.” “Okay,” Bahir said smiling. “when it’s finished.”

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