THE place that The Prisoner thought of as his prison was, in fact, I an armed encampment in the Libyan Fezzan. Beyond the camp, to the north, were seas of dusty gravel and long drifts of sand that rose up into the volcanic massif of the Jebel Soda. To the south, past the oasis palms, were dunes that ran in graceful arcs of beige, and gold, and bisque down to the arid slice of the Wadi Tengesir that cut across the plain. Despite the palms, and the kaleidoscope of shifting sands, it was an altogether desolate place.
The encampment was circled by three tiers of barbed-wire fencing and a field of mines. Surface-to-air missiles poked their snouts at the skies, and a regiment of tanks was based nearby. The perimeter of the camp was guarded by a crack unit of the Libyan Army, and supplies were trucked in from Sokna to the north. All of this effort was exerted for the safety and convenience of the twenty-three men who actually occupied the camp, but the effort was wholly external. There was no staff within the camp to service the men. The occupants cooked their own food, policed their own grounds and latrines, conducted their own training, and held their own formations. Only their spiritual leadership came from the outside in the person of an imam who visited the camp once each week. Their temporal well-being was the responsibility of
The Prisoner, and even he was subject to the orders of a committee that sat far away in Beirut.
The Prisoner thought of himself as such because he was forbidden to leave the camp without the permission of the committee, and that permission had been denied for the past eleven months. He had been operational for seven years before that, involved in the hijacking of three aircraft, the bombing of a railroad station in Rome, the abduction of two members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia, and a string of other ventures which, although successful, had, in the end, cost him his anonymity. His face and his name now were known to the world. True, it was not the face and the name with which he had been born; plastic surgeons and export forgers had taken care of that, but enough about him was now known to convince the committee that, if not forever, at least for the foreseeable future he should be taken off field operations. He was too valuable to put at risk in the outside world, and so for the past eleven months the camp in the Fezzan had been his home and his prison. From there he had sent men out on missions that should have been his. Some of the missions had succeeded, some had failed, but none had borne his personal stamp. For eleven months he had stormed and fretted in his prison although, in fact, there was nothing to prevent him from leaving save the unenforceable directive from the faraway committee. He could, at any time during those months, have ordered up a vehicle and driven through the gates of the camp into the outside world. That he had not done so, had never even thought of doing so, was a tribute both to his sense of discipline and to his reluctant agreement that the decision of the committee had been proper.
Still, he stormed and fretted in his self-made prison, his life made bearable by his faith, his love of music, and the weekly visits from the imam. He prayed at dawn, at noon, at midaftenoon, at dusk, and after dark; and those prayers were bright beads on the strings of his day. The rest of his time was a routine grind: calisthenics, small arms drill, obstacle course, endurance runs, political orientation; all of this punctuated by indifferent meals. In the late afternoon the men played soccer on a section of packed-down plain, and after that there was a private hour that each man held for his own. The other men spent that hour on their cots in the sleeping tent, but The Prisoner spent his in a smaller tent that served the camp both as a squad room and as a
The Prisoner looked forward to the weekly visit by the imam as much for the single letter that he never failed to bring as for the religious guidance that he provided. The Prisoner was the only man in the camp to receive mail, for these were Holy Warriors cut off from the world. A grudging exception was made for The Prisoner. His reputation and his seniority allowed him to demand the privilege, and it was, after all, only a single envelope that was carefully examined and its contents read before being forwarded on. Always from the same source, and written in the same hand, the letter came to The Prisoner by a circuitous route, being mailed first to a blind address in Paris, forwarded from there to the Libyan embassy on the Via Nomantana in Rome, and sent from there by diplomatic bag to Tripoli. On those days when the imam brought the letter, The Prisoner would retire with it to the squad room, read it once, then again, and spend the rest of his private hour in apparent meditation. On those days he did not play music.
The imam who visited the camp was a man of true holiness, but he was also a practical man who knew when to close an eye. He was aware of the women who were brought to the camp every month, but he chose to ignore them, just as he chose to ignore the western music that The Prisoner played on his phonograph. The main concern of the imam was to keep his Holy Warriors finely tuned, and much of his time was spent in trying to convince The Prisoner that his enforced idleness was a form of positive action.
On one particular day, alone with The Prisoner, the imam compared his situation to that of a
“I have not accomplished
“Foolish words,” said the imam. “Listen to the words of Gholam-Reza Fada’i-Araqi.” In a sing-song voice, he recited, “In its Islamic meaning,
“I was offered no choice,” The Prisoner protested. “I was ordered to stay here. I was ordered into this exile.”
“And you accepted the order willingly. Remember this. The way of the hegira may be chosen only with the understanding that the period of withdrawal will not be too long, and that it will be used for the purpose of gathering forces in order to return and destroy the enemy. That is what you are doing.”
“How long is too long? What you call
The imam raised a warning finger. “No excuse will be accepted from those who submit to the rules of a Satanic society and who do not accomplish
“I will tell them that I have had enough of peace. I am a man of war.”
“You are not thinking clearly. Remember that most of the hundred and twenty-four thousand prophets sent to mankind by the Almighty have been forced at one time or another to perform
“I do not belong in such company.”
“Do you not?” The imam leaned forward intently. “The
The Prisoner thought: Does that describe me? Have I nothing left?
“It is you,” said the imam.
The Prisoner bowed his head. He thought of the girl with the broken face. “Yes, it is I.”