Interrogating Calla

by Barbara Mujica
Captain Brad Minden knew all the tricks. He knew what questions to ask, how to instill fear, how to catch people off guard. He knew how to apply pressure and how to “enhance” his techniques. At thirty-two, he was a crack interrogator, capable of squeezing information out of a rock. That was until they brought in Calla. Then everything went to hell.

The moment he laid eyes on her, a high-voltage surge jolted Minden to heightened awareness.

“Name?”

“Calla.”

“Your complete name.”

“That is my complete name.”

“Are you married?”

“Iraqi women don’t use their husbands’ names. I’m sure you know that.”

“I’m asking if you’re married.”

“No, I’m not married.”

Minden felt his muscles relax. Why had that happened? He stared at the wall ahead, keeping his features impassive, his breath even. It’s because it’s easier to question an unmarried woman, he told himself, but he knew it wasn’t true. It was because Calla was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Even more beautiful than his wife. He didn’t want her to be married. He didn’t want her to belong to someone else.

He shifted his gaze, glancing fleetingly at her face. It would be disrespectful to look at her directly, but still, he had to know: Had she noticed anything? Had he revealed emotion? “Approachable yet dispassionate,” the trainer had told him years ago. No, apparently he hadn’t given anything away. All he saw in her eyes was fear, the fear of a doe who knows herself to be within rifle range of a hunter.

“Name?”

“Calla.”

“What is your father’s name?”

“Dawud al-Jamil.”

“Are you the sister of Yahya?”

“No.”

He thought she was lying. Yahya, the son of Dawud al-Jamil, had sent a donkey laden with explosives into a crowded marketplace the day before. Then he had detonated the load. The animal erupted into smithereens, spraying the vegetable stands with blood, guts, and bone and killing more than twenty sellers and shoppers. Or maybe he hadn’t flipped the switch himself. Bystanders had seen a woman with him. She was wearing a black burka, covered from head to toe, but people said it was probably one of his sisters. Maybe Calla. Maybe Lana or Noora.

Of course, it could have been a brother disguised as a woman.

They’d picked up Calla in a side street, running away from the market. She was dressed the same as the woman onlookers had seen with Yahya—but so were all the other women in sight.

Minden considered his options. The technique he preferred, even with men, was not the one you read about in the newspapers. He knew how to stuff humus into a detainee’s anus, of course, or to subject a prisoner to deafening noise. Twenty-four hours of Kraftwerk at 110 decibels could break just about any holdout. He understood the efficacy of punching, nakedness, and locking captives in coffins. But he knew—because he had read all the studies—that rapport building was the most effective approach to getting information. Detainees were fourteen times more likely to provide actionable intelligence when interrogators maintained a respectful or even a friendly demeanor and questioned them in a comfortable setting.

“Name?”

“Calla.”

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

“What?”

“I thought it might help you relax.”

Another glimpse at her eyes exposed the stupidity of the remark. He had terrified her. Her impossibly long lashes fluttered as she gaped at the folds of her dishdasha. “Relax!” That’s probably what Al-Qaida prison guards said to their victims right before they raped them. Captain Minden pressed his lips together and composed his next sentence painstakingly, using his very clearest Arabic.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Calla.” He made his voice sound gentle. “I just need to find out a few things.”

She lifted her hand and took the edge of her hijab, then wrapped it over the lower part of her face. Minden noticed that her hands were delicate and manicured, even though she wore no polish. They fluttered like tiny sparrows along the hem of her headscarf.

“Tell me about yourself, Calla. Do you work?”

Calla stared down at her knees.

“Some interrogators are rough, Calla. I don’t want to be rough. I just want to ask you a few questions. Answer them, and you’ll be that much closer to getting out of here.”

“I was a teacher,” she whispered. “Before the Americans.”

“What kind of teacher?”

“Little girls.”

“That’s lovely. Did you have a favorite pupil?”

Calla glowered at the table that separated them. She shrugged, as if to convey that the question was so nonsensical that she wouldn’t deign to answer it.

“My sister is a teacher,” said Minden. “She teaches second grade. She loves it.”

Calla remained motionless.

Minden signaled the female guard to take her back to the cell. “I think she’s had enough,” he said. “I’ll have another go at it tomorrow.”

That afternoon Brad Minden collapsed on his cot and fell into a deep sleep. It was his first break in about thirty hours. He dreamed about Calla, her gilt-colored irises, her elongated, almond-shaped eyes, her fringe-like lashes, her sculptured cheeks, her flawless skin, as smooth and golden as honey. In his dream she was smiling at him, her amber-rose lips parted slightly, her cheeks flushed. She raised one sparrowlike hand and rested it coquettishly on her chin. In his dream, he saw himself push her scarf back over a dainty ear.

A door slammed. Minden lurched forward on his cot and opened his eyes. On a clumsy wooden table that served as a nightstand, Katherine—blond, blue-eyed, and plump—and their two daughters smiled out at him from a framed photo. Minden pressed the photo to his lips, then bent over to lace up his boots. He felt like crap. It was Katherine, not his sister, who was a second-grade teacher. He was being dishonest with everybody.

* * *

Brad Minden had interrogated Calla eight times over the past two weeks, and he thought that he was finally getting somewhere.

“Tell me something about your family,” he coaxed.

“I have three sisters,” she said, finally. “Lala, Noora, and the baby, Sara.”

“How old is Sara?”

“Seven.” Minden thought he saw a smile flicker across Calla’s lips when she mentioned Sara.

He smiled at her. “I see you love little Sara very much,” he said gently. “Do you have any brothers?”

Calla’s jaw tightened. She shrugged her shoulders to show she had no intention of answering.

“Do you recognize this man?” She showed him an intel photograph of Yahya—heavy eyebrows and beard, but the same gilt-touched, almond-shaped eyes as Calla.

Calla stared at the photo, expressionless.

“Do you like American movies?” asked Minden, changing the subject abruptly. It was a tactic he’d learned to throw the detainee off guard.

“I’ve never seen a movie.”

“What about American music? You like Mariah Carey?”

Calla’s face lit up. “‘We Belong Together’!” She started singing softly in broken English. “‘Come back, baby. Please come…’”

Minden chimed in. “‘Come back, baby. Please come back.’ What other music do you like? Anything I might know?”

“‘Shake it Off’!” She was smiling now. “We can get pirate copies.”

“Another Mariah Carey! I like that one, too.”

“But she’s not a very nice girl.”

“Mariah Carey? What do you mean? Why not?”

“The way she dresses. She’s immodest.”

Minden smiled. “It’s that…women dress differently in the States. Customs are…well, not like here.”

“It’s disgusting!”

“Yes, well, maybe.”

Suddenly Calla bit her lip and turned away from him.

“Are you tired, Calla? Shall we call it quits for today?” He signaled to the female guard, who took Calla by the arm and escorted her out.

* * *

Three weeks had passed since their first interview, and Minden had learned almost nothing of importance.

“It takes time,” he told his commanding officer. “Sometimes weeks. Sometimes months. You have to be patient.”

But Major Henderson was growing exasperated. “Yahya al-Jamil blew up a mosque the other day. We’re sure it was him. The donkey. The explosives. Same MO as before. Then he disappears into thin air.”

“Have you brought in the sisters?”

“The neighbors think they’re in Syria. But Yahya is here, and we’ve got to nab him before he blows up something else.”

As the guard brought in Calla, Minden struggled not to notice the way the white dishdasha flowed and fluttered over her body. She moved like a dancer, with graceful, even steps that propelled her so lightly that she seemed to skim the floor.

“Name?”

“You know my name,” she whispered. She looked up at him with her enormous hazel eyes tinged with gold.

“I like to hear you say it,” he said softly. “It’s a beautiful name.”

She’s falling in love with me, thought Minden. She’ll tell me anything I want to know. I just have to bide my time.

Suddenly Minden felt as though a wad of pitch were coagulating in his stomach. This is wrong, he told himself. I can’t take advantage of this girl. She cares for me. I can’t use her feelings against her. It’s just…I don’t know…depraved.

“Are you married?” Calla asked abruptly.

Minden looked up, startled.

“Why do you ask?”

“It’s normal for a man your age to be married.”

Minden thought a moment about what he should say. If he said no, she would think him strange. An Iraqi man in his early thirties would be married. But if he said yes, she would think he’d been leading her on. She’d turn against him and clam up. Minden jerked back to reality. He had a job to do. She was opening up, and it didn’t matter whether it was because she loved him—falling for your captor, the famous Stockholm syndrome he’d learned about—or because he’d finally worn her down. He had to proceed carefully.

“Yes,” he said simply. “I’m married.”

He searched her face for disappointment, bitterness, anger. Instead, he saw her features soften.

She turned to him and smiled. This time it wasn’t a simper or a smirk, but a real smile.

“Yahya isn’t my brother,” she whispered. “He’s my cousin. And I wasn’t with him that day. It was Noora.”

It occurred to him that she might be lying.

“Where is Noora now?” he asked.

“They’ve all left the country. If I ever get out of here, I’ll follow them. We have relatives in Al-Qaim, on the border. They will take me to Ar-Raqqah, where my mother and sisters are waiting. I hate this place…all this bombing, all this killing. Noora, she’s a fighter. She loves the excitement of war. But not me.”

“Where is Yahya?”

“I don’t know, but I’m guessing he’ll strike again, maybe in the market. His favorite day is Thursday because people are getting ready for the Sabbath.”

Minden filed his report and recommended that Calla be released. He felt guilty about the interrogation. He had manipulated her emotions—an unmanly tactic, although better than locking her in a dark cell crawling with lizards. Now it was his duty to get her out of prison.

* * *

A few weeks later, Minden was navigating through a narrow, winding street toward the market when he caught sight a familiar face. A woman in a black burka. Only her eyes were visible, but Minden was certain he wasn’t mistaken. The honey-hued slivers of visible skin, the enormous, almond-shaped eyes, lids fringed in black silk, gold-specked irises. She looked up and caught his gaze. He couldn’t see her mouth, but he was sure she was smiling.

Suddenly, she raised her hand as if to signal someone.

Minden turned. Yahya appeared in a doorway. He looked right at the American and smiled. Then he stuck his hand into the folds of his dishdasha.

By the time Captain Minden saw the revolver, it was too late.
As the mother of a Marine who served two tours in Iraq, Barbara Mujica is especially interested in the issues facing today’s soldiers and veterans. At Georgetown University, where she is a professor of Spanish Literature, she serves as faculty adviser to the GU Student Veterans Association and co-director of the Veterans Support Team, a coalition of faculty, administrators, and student veterans concerned with making the campus more veteran-friendly. Much of her short fiction derives from stories that veterans have told her. Her story, “Jason’s Cap,” won First Prize in the Maryland Writers’ Association National Fiction Competition in the category Short Story.

In addition to short stories, Mujica writes historical fiction. Her novel Frida was an international bestseller and published in seventeen languages. Her novel Sister Teresa was adapted for the stage and the play premiered in Los Angeles in November 2013. Her newest novel, I Am Venus, was a winner of the Maryland Writers’ Association fiction competition in 2012 in the category Historical Fiction.

Mujica’s published scholarly books include Women Writers of Early Modern Spain: Sophia’s Daughters (Yale University Press, 2004) Teresa de Avila, Lettered Woman (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), Shakespeare and the Spanish Comedia (ed.) (Bucknell University Press, 2013), and A New Anthology of Early Modern Spanish Theater: Play and Playtext (Yale University Press, 2014).

© 2015, Barbara Mujica