It was the summer of 1956 when I got one of the most important assignments of my life. I was to travel incognito to Cairo and ascertain whether the rumours surrounding President Nasser’s stance on the Suez Canal were true or not. And if they were, then I was to be the regional commander and squad head of the DPSD team which would set up base here.
I wasn’t particularly concerned about my duty, no. The cavalier attitude towards life which characterises many intelligence officials had already wormed its way into my psyche, and the small missions I’d done in the Soviet Union served to cement it. The Soviets were a crazy bunch all right, and to work against them was to put one’s life on the line without concern of death or injury. One had to be ‘utterly mental’, as my English friends would say.
My story starts, however, not in the busy metropolis that was Cairo, but somewhere in the heart of the Sinai desert close to the canal itself. My companions were the sun, the desert sand, my camel and a surly Bedouin who spoke in grunts. None of them were much fun to converse with. I was wearing typical Arab clothes, garbed completely in white. Honestly, it might help them all through the summer, but it felt ridiculous. If any of my friends back in Paris saw me like this, they’d likely crack a rib.
I took out a pair of binoculars from my saddle, staring at the horizon, trying to give the impression of a tourist admiring the view, oohing and aahing at the right places. Shahrdad, my Bedouin guide, looked decidedly unimpressed.
In reality, what I wished to ascertain were signs of troop movements. Nasser was no idiot, and it was obvious that he would deploy his men in order to protect his interests from the Anglo-Saxons, Frenchmen and Jews who would no doubt attack him if they saw any chance of losing this vital artery in the world trade network. He wished to nationalise it, or so the intelligence grapevine suggested, and France was in no mood for that.
“Let’s go back,” I suggested. “I’m tired and hungry.”
Shahrdad nodded and grunted, turning his camel around towards the way we came from. I followed him silently, the implications of what I’d seen weighing on my mind.
The Sinai Desert was armed all right. It wasn’t very very evident, but for those who knew where to look, the signs were there. Artillery movements always leave tracks behind, and troop movements weren’t that very easy to hide either. Not at the scale he was mobilising, at least. At this rate there would be no chance for the Israelis to get a foothold in the region. Something had to be done.
It was in this state of contemplation that I returned to my hotel. I needed a plan, and I needed it desperately. Maintaining the status quo in the Sinai Desert was against French interests. I served my country first and foremost. The sovereignty of any nation beyond my own was of little importance. And right now it was nothing but a barrier to my efforts. What I needed was a miracle. Maybe I could assassinate Nasser… But that would result in France disowning me to save her own hide. What I needed was a like-minded Egyptian officer. A traitor to his own cause. A man who would somehow be able to understand the viewpoint of western nations.
The next morning saw me in Cairo. The overnight bus journey had been horrible. Ah, the comfort of aeroplanes. If only this place had them. But I was travelling incognito and such material comforts were denied to me.
It was seven in the morning. I was sitting in a dingy café minding my own business, letting my bored gaze take in the sights of the city in the early morning. There wasn’t much to see. There were bicyclists hurrying to and fro, a few pedestrians and a couple of foreigners on the streets. Probably trying to catch an early morning bus to Giza. I sipped my coffee. At least I had good coffee. My friends from MI6 had tried to inure me to the taste of tea, but I felt it to be a vile drink, suitable only for their indelicate English palates. Lost in thoughts as I was, my gaze soon landed on the most beautiful thing in the room, a woman.
She wasn’t the greatest beauty I’d seen, true. She was slightly chubby, her skin a healthy shade of mocha. From this distance I couldn’t really tell the colour of her eyes, but I imagined them to be black, to match her hair. Her features were well defined, with a very sharp nose, from what I could make out. Her curly hair fell down, hiding her eyes as she looked down at her coffee, which she was cradling with both hands.
I almost felt sorry for her. She looked very vulnerable from where I was. A woman in need. I quashed that feeling down ruthlessly. I wasn’t Bond, James Bond. I was Pierre. A nondescript man who was good at his job precisely because he didn’t look like he could be a secret agent. I gathered information and acted upon it, I didn’t bed women and fly planes and bomb sensitive installations. Fleming should know better than that, I groused. He’d been in the British Secret Service during WWII.
And anyway, I had bigger problems to worry about than the fate of an unknown girl. I still hadn’t been able to solve my problem of actually getting a sympathiser into the higher echelons of this government. And the rate I was going, I probably wouldn’t be able to either. All I needed was one mole. One source of information within Nasser’s office, and I’d have completed my mission. Paying them off wasn’t an option. Nasser hand-picked his men. No. I would need to find someone who could be manipulated. But how? I had no idea of the people who debated in Egypt’s highest councils.
A stifled sob jolted me out of my thoughts. I looked up. The girl was crying. The café staff couldn’t care less. The cleaner was cleaning, the waiters were playing cards, and the manager was dozing behind his desk. I sighed and got up.
“Can I help you?” I asked with a a charming smile. She looked up, her eyes puffy. They were black all right, I observed in a detached sort of way.
“I doubt it,” she replied, her fluency shocking me. The area I was in wasn’t expected to hold the most literate Egyptians. Then again, she didn’t look Egyptian either. Another secret agent? ‘Hah, that’ll be the day, Pierre,’ I told myself.
“Who knows, maybe I can,” I replied, smiling.
She looked at me sceptically.
“Try me,” I insisted.
“Very well,” she conceded. “I require a cameraman. There is a press conference to be held by Egypt’s ruling council in about four hours. It’s one of the biggest stories to come out of Egypt this year, what with the speculation about the nationalisation of the Suez canal. Rumour has it that Nasser will announce whether he’ll nationalise or not.”
“Really?” I asked, pretending to be shocked. I would’ve tried to go, except for that I wouldn’t be able to fake a press ID in four hours.
“Yeah!” she seemed surprised I didn’t know. She wiped the tears off her face. “Can you handle a camera?”
“Yeah,I can,” I replied, trying to control my excitement. She was giving me a chance to get in! Oh yeah! My statement wasn’t entirely false either, I really could help her. I’d won quite a few photography contests over there in France.
A large smile lit up her face. “Please come with me!” she exclaimed. “This one report is very very important to my career! If I bungle this one up, I’m finished. The only way for me to survive will be to marry a man my parents choose.”
I looked at her in surprise. She looked like a woman many men would be after. Strong, working and well-informed. Why was she being forced to marry?
Realising that she was waiting for an answer, I let loose the smile I’d been holding back. She grinned broadly. “Excellent. Here’s Antonio’s pass. You can use this. What is your name, by the way?”
“Robert,” I replied, choosing from a list of names I usually used. Each of them had their own set of documents, and none of them had ever set foot in France. “And yours?”
“Maria,” she said, getting up. “Do you have a camera?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but it’s in my hotel.”
“What’re you waiting for? Go get it!”
I laughed and ran from the place, my heart beating at a fever pitch. I’d just been handed the keys to a very very large potential source of information, and hopefully a large potential source of informants. If I could convince any, my job here would be done, it would be time for the insertion of a team.
And plus, it appealed to the spirit of fair play within me. I would help her, and she would help me.
To be continued…