Shaukat stopped at the newsagents’ on Blair Street to buy a newspaper. The man behind the counter stared at him suspiciously, but he was quite used to that, and his quid was as good as anyone else’s, so when he walked away he had the Daily Guardian under his arm.
It was a bitterly cold evening, and it began drizzling just as he reached the bus stop on Cameron. He stood under the shelter of the roof to read the paper. There were only three other people waiting, a couple and an older woman, and they gave him a wide berth. He was used to that as well.
The headline was huge and black: RAF POUNDS HIZBOLLAH POSITIONS. Under that, in slightly smaller type, was the subheading: MAJOR ADVANCES MADE IN ANTI-ISIS OPERATIONS. Shaukat tilted the paper towards the light from the shop windows so he could get a better look.
“RAF Tornado attack aircraft struck Hizbollah positions east and south of Beirut for the second day running,” the news item said. “Among the positions bombed were the terrorist group’s command and control centres and suspected weapon stores. One Tornado was hit by a surface to air missile and is reported to have crashed near the border with Israel. The crew’s fate is at this time unknown, but rescue operations are continuing. Prime Minister Latham announced that Britain would ‘impose costs’ on whoever had provided Hizbollah with the surface to air missile. That ‘someone’, Russian oligarch Dmitry Larcenov said, citing sources of his own in Moscow, was Russian President Putin himself.
“ ‘It is essential that Hizbollah be defeated, so that people do not feel frightened into joining ISIS,’ Prime Minister Latham said, before leaving for an emergency Cabinet meeting which was also to be addressed by US President Hillary Clinton. ‘Hizbollah, being a Shia group opposed to ISIS, is the cause of many recruits joining the Islamic State in self-defence. Anyone attempting to prevent us from achieving Hizbollah’s destruction is obviously coming in the way of defeating the Islamic State, and is therefore on its side. President Clinton agrees with me, and after the cabinet meeting we’ll be making a statement on our next course of action.’
“Meanwhile, Royal Marines who had landed in Beirut announced that they had made progress in fighting their way towards the main Hizbollah strongholds in the city. A spokesman for the marines acknowledged that there had been casualties but refused to disclose any numbers or identities. ‘I suggest you ask the Pentagon,’ he said. ‘They’re the ones directing this operation.’
“Speaking to the media, Opposition Members of Parliament Mike Parker and Jeremy Stanley said that Prime Minister Latham was acting as a proxy for American interests and had no...”
“Excuse me, sir.” Shaukat looked up at the voice. “May I examine your beard, sir?”
Sighing, he stood up. The policeman, pushing his helmet off his forehead, produced a pair of callipers. Peering at the reading, he shook his head regretfully.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “Eight centimetres, it says. You’re over length.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Shaukat protested. “Ten centimetres is the allowed maximum.”
“Not since this morning, sir. The maximum’s been reduced to seven and a half centimetres. Can I have your ID, sir? Thank you.” He scanned the document with a tiny scanner and gave it back. “That’ll be a fine of ten pounds, please, since it’s your first offence.” He grinned at Shaukat’s stricken expression. “If I were you, sir, I’d seriously consider shaving. There’s talk of banning beards altogether next year.”
“What are you doing here anyway?” the policeman’s partner, who hadn’t spoken yet, asked. “I’ve been watching you. You let three buses go by.”
“I’m waiting for my wife,” Shaukat said, watching as the first policeman scribbled out a receipt. “She’s supposed to meet me here.” He looked over the policeman’s shoulder. “Here she is now.”
He knew at once that he’d made a mistake, but it was already too late. “Ahhh,” the second policeman said. “What’s that I see she’s wearing, sir?”
“What’s going on?” Nazira asked, coming up, wiping the rain off her hands on her hijab. “Why are these policemen talking to you?”
“You’re wearing a burqa, ma’am,” the first policeman informed her. “You know as well as I do that’s a banned item of clothing.”
“This?” Nazira said incredulously, lifting the edge of her headscarf and letting it drop. “It’s just a hijab. It doesn’t even cover my face!”
“It still comes under the definition of burqa,” the first policeman said happily. “As per the latest definition, released by the government this morning, any form of Islamic head covering is classified as a burqa and banned.”
“It’s terrorist clothing,” the second policeman said helpfully. “Your husband, here, with his beard, and you, ma’am, with your burqa, well, you fit right in with the kind of Islamic radicals we’ve been told to look out for.”
“After all,” the first policeman added, “you could always cover your face with the end of this cloth and carry out a terrorist act, couldn’t you?”
“What with?” Shaukat said bitterly, and held up the newspaper. “This?”
“I’d advise you not to talk back to us, sir. That sort of action could have...consequences.”
“But,” Nazira protested, “I’m a saleswoman in a bookstore, and my husband works with disadvantaged children. We can prove it.”
“Anyone can work as anything as a cover,” the second policeman said darkly. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come along with us to the station.”
“What?” Shaukat repeated incredulously. “Even if this were a burqa, which it isn’t, all it carries is a fifty-pound fine.”
“Not when we have reasonable cause to suspect involvement in terrorist activity, sir.”
“Terrorist activity? We never did a thing.”
“You’re Islamic radicals, aren’t you? Why did you make your wife wear a burqa otherwise?”
“It’s not a burqa, and he didn’t make me wear it,” Nazira said desperately. “I wear it because I like it. It –”
“Oh, ma’am.” The first policeman held up a huge hand. “I don’t think your religion would approve of you talking out of turn, ma’am. All the books say Arabs don’t let their women talk.”
“That’s not true at all, and, anyway, we aren’t Arabs. Shaukat is Indian and I’m a Pakistani.”
“An Indian and a Paki together, is it?” the second policeman shrugged. “What would you be doing together except plot terrorist acts, I’d like to know.”
“Everyone knows Indians and Pakistanis don’t get along together,” the first policeman snorted. “How stupid do you think we are?”
“Tell your buts to the superintendant. Now will you come along quietly, or do we need to...”
Something smashed on the opposite side of the street, shattered plate glass tinkling on hard pavement. There was a strangled shout, and a momentary glimpse of two young men running hard, arms loaded with looted merchandise. The next moment they’d vanished into the darkness and the rain.
“So,” the first policeman sighed with deep, deep satisfaction. “Not just terrorists – you’re accomplices of looters as well, are you?”
“What?” Shaukat asked blankly. It seemed to be the only word he could say anymore.
“Got them to rights, Bert,” the second policeman said. “Distract us while their friends come along and do their bit o’ smash and grab. They’re for it now.”
“A fair cop,” the first one, Bert, agreed. “Right, let’s come along to the police station. Don’t dawdle, or I’ll have to force you.”
“Don’t dawdle,” the second one echoed. “Bert rather likes forcing people.”
“Especially when they’re terrorists,” Bert nodded. “Harry’s right. I love forcing terrorists. Go ahead, give me an excuse.”
“Can we call a lawyer?” Nazira asked.
“A lawyer?” Harry grinned. “Oh, no, ma’am. No lawyers for terror suspects, you know.”
“New regulation, as of this morning,” Bert said happily.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015