“I know your great namesake and family friend [W. Somerset Maugham] says that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. But actually, if you think about it, life isn’t like that. Life doesn’t have a neat beginning and a tidy end. Life is always going on. You should begin in the middle and end in the middle, and it should all be there.”
—Advice to a young writer in “Half a Life” by V. S. Naipaul
The quintet sat crosslegged in a circle on the flat roof of the three-story adobe building in Agadez. With a hint of humor, Janet told her four companions—or captors, she wasn’t sure which—“I have a triple advantage here. I’m the only woman and the only white.” She paused. “Also the only one without a gun.” She paused again. “Some advantage, huh.”
Below them, the dense dun-colored maze of the city stretched to the fringes of the open desert on the horizon. The prerecorded chants of the muezzins’ calls to prayer rang out in a cacophony from all of the dozens of mosques, the only sounds in a city otherwise silenced, without the usual African din of belching trucks, roaring motorcycles and screaming children.
Janet couldn’t understand where all the people were. This was a dense city, and because of the claustrophobia of their buildings, Africans did everything outside, from selling hardware and furniture to eating and washing. Where were all the people in this city of more than 100,000 residents?
It seemed like she and the four men were the only ones alive, the center of a tiny world. Why was she here? Janet had been heading for the nearby small oasis, not the more distant city of Agadez.
When the white sedan with the official government insignia on the door had pulled up beside her on the highway, she had told them where she wanted to go. She was sure they understood. They just ignored her. “Agadez,” the man beside the driver said, pointing in the opposite direction from the one she had been going.
“We don’t know what to do with you. An anasara here is a problem.” She’d often heard children yelling “anasara” at her. When she had asked about it, she was told “anasara” could have many meanings, depending on whether it was uttered playfully or gravely, with a smile or a snarl—foreigner, European, caucasian, heathen, unbeliever, enemy. It could be a statement of fact or a curse or a foreboding of doom.
She had had no choice. Over her continuing protests, the car took her the long way, what she thought of as the wrong way, to Agadez. “They will decide,” the man told her.
“Who are ‘they’”?
She started to say, “That’s a tautology.” But the two men, the driver and the one who spoke to her, both dressed in the white robes of desert Tuaregs, had something better than logic on their side. They carried rifles.
Janet was confused. What were Tuareg nomads doing in a government car? Weren’t they opposed to the government? Weren’t they fighting the government? Were they spies disguised as nomads? Were they nomads who had stolen the car? As much as she had seen of the world, she was at sea—at sea in the desert, she mused. Well, the desert was a kind of sea, as monotonous and monstrous as any ocean.
The Tuaregs took her to the police station in the center of Agadez, escorted her into a large room on the top floor, told her to give them her passport and left her there. They didn’t tie her up and the door wasn’t even closed. She could just walk out. Should she?
Janet looked around. There was a large table in the center of the room surrounded by straight-backed chairs. It didn’t look much like a torture chamber or even a jail. The windows, without bars, had an expansive view of the town.
She paced around the room, back and forth in front of the window and then circled the table. She couldn’t make up her mind whether to flee or to wait. Before she could choose, four men entered the room, the two Tuaregs who had left her here and two men in uniform. The quartet didn’t saunter or even walk, they marched, single file. The soldiers entered as if they were on a parade ground, with their immaculate uniforms and rows of ribbons. Even the Tuaregs, tall, statuesque and covered from head to to toe in spotless white robes had a military bearing.
“Please sit,” one of the soldiers barked in English. It wasn’t a request. It was the toughest “please” she’d ever heard.
She’d never felt so alone in her life. During past crises—a robbery on the street in Lagos, a kidnapping by an armed band of vicious Sendero Luminoso guerrillas in the Andean highlands of Peru, a plunge from a mountain top on the Thai-Chinese border—William had always been there. She’d so often denigrated him as poor William that it took an act of will for her to remember that his steadiness and courage had saved her time and again from plights her rashness had plunged her into. Where was William now that she really, really needed him?
He had been headed for Agadez, the very city in which she was under armed interrogation—interrogation, and then what? Torture? Death? For what? What had she done? Or maybe not what she had done but just what she was, those strengths that she had joked about. Being unarmed, white and female might be a fatal combination.
* * *
William didn’t like the odds. Three against one. And unlike all the others, the one didn’t even have a notebook, let alone a gun. He was alone. He wished Janet was with with him. Her wry humor and gritty determination would have armored him.
General Hasan, who was clearly in charge, began the questioning by plunging into the heart of the matter: “Why were you spying on us in the desert?”
The strange thing, or so it seemed to William, was that Hassan was reading the questions from a notebook. He then painstakingly wrote down the answers. The whole procedure was agonizingly slow. Why didn’t he just record the interview, William wondered. The obvious answer soon occurred to him: He had pen and paper but no recorder.
William heard a phone ring. It was a landline. Before leaving Niamey he’d been warned of the expensive devices.
On the third ring, Hassan broke off the questioning to answer. He listened. He talked in Tamashek, the recondite language of the Tuaregs. He listened. He talked. He listened. This went on for several minutes. Then he hung up. For the first time, he smiled.
“It seems,” he told William, “that you and your wife have both told us the same story. We were suspicious. The Islamists are planning to attack Agadez today. Tuareg leaders and army officers told outsiders to keep away and people here to stay indoors. You two had no business in the desert unless you were spies. And you looked exactly like their spies always look.”
“We wanted to blend in, look like Africans,” William said.
“You did too good a job.”
That was the end of the interview. It did not resume.
* * *
That night they made love for the first time in months.
Afterwards, lying beside her, he said, “When we separated in the desert, I felt two possibilities were better than one. Math was on our side.”
“Sometimes,” she said, “one plus one is more than two.”
“Addition,” he agreed, “can be more more powerful than subtraction.”
She was silent for a moment before adding, “Sometimes.”
Was this the last cough of a failing engine, Janet, always the pessimist, wondered. Was this the new spark plug an old carburetor needed, William, the congenital optimist, asked himself.
More choices lay ahead. “Choosing,” Janet told William as they were dosing off, perchance to dream, “is the hardest part of living.”