Accused of being a spy

Lima recently shared a post about living in Kabul in the late 1990’s and some of the interactions we had with the regime that was in power at the time. I thought I would share one more similar story from the same time period.

One day Mom, my younger sister and I had just finished taking Farsi lessons at the office of the NGO that my parents were working for.  We stepped out of the compound and began walking down the alley towards the main road, looking for a taxi to take us home. Just as we were about to turn onto the main street, a white Toyota Corolla passed us, and then suddenly reversed to block our path. The car was full of government officials, recognisable by their huge black turbans and long beards.  The man in the passenger side of the vehicle began to angrily mutter “Jasoos, jasoos!” which means “spy, spy!”  Mom and my sister quickly turned and walked the other way, pulling their headscarves over their faces.

I had previously experienced several similar encounters. Once I had even had officials swerve their vehicle straight at me as if they were going to hit me, and then stop to ask me questions before explaining that they had “only been joking.” I had never been called a spy before, but based on previous experiences I calculated that showing fear was probably the worst thing I could do. As the male representative of our family, I stepped forward to speak to the men.

I greeted them respectfully, and as I did so, a man in the back seat rolled down his window and called out in English: “Excuse me mister, do you work for an intelligence agency?”  I tried not to laugh as I answered that I did not.  “My name is Sher Ali, this is Maulvi Sahib in the front, and that is Driver Sahib. Can I ask you some questions?”  “Sure,” I replied.  He continued with the typical barrage of questions that I had often been asked before.  “What are you doing here?  What are you doing in Afghanistan?  You are in school?  Where do you go to school? Where is your father? What does your father do?”  I answered each question as well as I could.

Meanwhile, Maulvi Sahib began to get impatient.  He could not understand a word that we were saying, but I think he was getting the picture that I was not a spy.  And he apparently had other more important appointments to attend to.  But before they left, I could not resist a question of my own.  “Excuse me, Sher Ali,” I said. “Where did you learn such excellent English?”  Sher Ali looked embarrassed, answering modestly:  “It is not really very good,” he replied.  “Oh but it is!” I insisted.  “You speak very good English.”  As the men drove away, I noticed that Sher Ali was beaming.  A little flattery never hurts.

4 thoughts on “Accused of being a spy

  1. Being accused of being a spy was not at all uncommon in Morocco. I was there about a dozen years after independence, and the government was still feeling is way. During the French Protectorate, the French had controlled civil authority, and they had networks of informers. All the embassies engaged in intelligence. And the new Moroccan government collected information in many ways.

    The Peace Corps was a rather strange idea, and as it was connected to the diplomatic mission, though only slightly, any Moroccans thought volunteers were spies. None that I knew were. One of my friends had a girlfriend in the consulate in Casablanca, and she did courrier work for the CIA, but he wasn’t involved.

    On the other hand, volunteers were closely watched by informants and police.

    Of course, it is difficult to prove you are not a spy, and logical arguments often went nowhere. What kind of information would anyone want from some little village in the mountains. But governments and paranoia go hand and hand, and there is always reason to be suspicious of foreigners.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very interesting. Unfortunately there have been cases of humanitarian work being used as cover for intelligence gathering. Though rare, it has been enough to make life difficult for those genuinely involved in such work.

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      1. Yes, that is a serious problem. Intelligence agencies and the military tend to be amoral. The Peace Corps was set up to be independent in an attempt to avoid this issue. I have never heard of a Peace Corps volunteer engaged in spying, and I hope it had never happened. Some PCVs went on to do other government work, but that is another story. The diplomatic service routinely collects information as everyone knows. I had a friend who became a foreign service officer, and writing reports about people she met was so distasteful that she left the government.

        Humanitarian missions should never be used for any purpose except helping those who need it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have never been accused of being a spy in a foreign country … and I hope it never happens. Having papers from the government confirming ones legitimate reason for being in the country can be helpful when dealing with over zealous low level officials who enjoy showing off their authority. Getting such papers is not always easy but they give pause to those who know their positions depend on not offending those above them in the hierarchy.

    Liked by 2 people

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