Jacques Carrié

Under the Dragon’s Claws

There was a young woman in Rareland who loved the ocean, the mountains, the prairies, the animals, and the people in it. So tiny was her country, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, that no jet flying above it could see it, even on a clear day. So innocent, free, and happy was the population in Rareland that many philosophers from the most civilized nations of the world could hardly comprehend why.

“You have applied for this job, Caricias Montes, which fits your education, curiosity, and ambition as a student journalist, and we are delighted to offer it to you given your superior talent and fervent drive.”

“Oh, thank you so much. I’m speechless…overwhelmed with excitement.”

“You deserve it, Caricias,” said David Greenberg, from behind his expansive cherry wood desk.

“Thank you, thank you…”

“We chose you among 600 other qualified candidates from around the world because of your unusual honesty and warmth toward your people, the purity, and candor of your feelings toward mankind…almost angel-like.”

“Yes, I care for mankind, sir, immensely…I really do.”

“Indeed,” he said, sinking into his comfortable black leather chair. “You care more for mankind than you do for yourself, and that’s your greatest asset, we believe.”

“I’m humbly at your disposal to serve your organization and assignments.”

“Your triple nationality—Rareland, US, and UK—completes your qualifications, Caricias. Let’s not forget that.”

“It does.”

“Please sit down,” said the important man.

He took a deep breath, stared straight into her sweet eyes. They stood very receptive, ideal for the moment. “Your tiny island, Rareland, the place where you were born and grew up, with its tiny but renowned university, has a lot to do with your charm and intellectual capacity. But now, I’m afraid, you’re going to face the vastly wide and dangerous world of ours…starting with your hotel in London.”

“I’m not afraid,” said Caricias, with a robust tone.

“I have no doubt,” said the editor-in-chief of Dark Flowers, impressed.

Dark Flowers, a 2055 launched monthly magazine, covering art, culture, fashion, books, and politics, had already attracted great interest among the liberal young readers of the UK and other English-speaking nations.

She blinked twice, pushed some dark brown strands of hair from her eyes to one side of her face with a gentle hand to better hear what Mr. Greenberg was about to say.

“In a few days you’ll be traveling to Cuba, Venezuela, Spain, North Korea, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran, spending two weeks in each country. You’ll be researching the essence of a feature story you’ll end up writing for us on your return. Our reputation is at stake, so your accuracy must be infallible.”

“And…what will I be researching in those dangerous countries?”

“Dictatorship…tyranny…” said Mr. Greenberg. “Specifically, how these countries’ rulers in the past and in recent times became totalitarian dictators and tyrants.” He stood up rather briskly. “How they began to use their wretched minds, their revolting ambitions, and their evil methods.”

“…I can imagine already…”

“That’s not enough. We need hard facts and precision.” He smiled broadly. “And, we believe, you’re the perfect person to tackle this problem head-on for us.” A gleaming light radiated from his eyes; he started to pace the room around her and his desk, thinking. “The purpose is to present a story so compelling and factual that would finally make the United Nations change its structure and policies so dictators and tyrants can no longer exist on this planet.”

“Any proposals on the table…to help the UN achieve this?”

“Oh yes. Our own!”

He stared out the window, noting that from the cliff of glassed walls within the heights of this high-rise building, where he worked every day, he could see moving cars that looked more like advancing army ants.

Facing Caricias again, he said, “It calls for a new definition of ‘national sovereignty’—a very sensitive issue, especially among countries that are ruled by totalitarian bastards.”

He explained that national sovereignty should be earned by merit, good will, and integrity following universal democratic processes, fully transparent to the UN and the world, and only then allowed to exist as such or continue as such through automatic inheritance.

“Any violation of these principles should be immediately handled by the “Roaring UN” (an upgraded UN so named to show its ferocious power) and its newly formed Roaring Body of Inspectors and Roaring Army of Enforcers.”

“…with mighty weapons in their hands?”

“If necessary.”

“That would exterminate all the dictators and tyrants of the world, wouldn’t it?”

“Mission completed!”

“Sounds terrific—goodbye to the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Franco.”

“Amen!”

Mr. Greenberg returned to his leather chair, sharing a quiet moment with Caricias.

Caricias then posed the inevitable question: “How will I get there…enter each country?”

“By land…by sea…and by air…”

“Assuming multiple identities…using multiple passports?”

He laughed. “Oh no. You’ll travel as an ‘exchange student’—everything organized by the UN—taking advantage of your honor student status, clean police record, and rounded personality.”

She smiled. “I almost forgot…I’m still 17…”

“We will train you in every aspect of your mission…including how to behave…what to say and what not to say…in the unfortunate but unlikely case you get arrested and jailed.”

“How comforting…” she said, with a cynical smile, considering the magnitude and risk of her mission. “Will I be traveling as a…?”

“UK student journalist. Always a UK student journalist.” Mr. Greenberg said raising his voice. Then in a subdued tone, he added, “All our British Embassies will protect you one-hundred percent and bring you back home safely…come what may…”

Caricias remained pensive.

“A student journalist,” stressed Mr. Greenberg, “because you will not try to secure any secret or classified military or scientific document for the United Kingdom. Your mission will simply be to research and write a feature story…which we’ll publish in Dark Flowers. Your story will actually reach the entire civilized world, my dear.” He scratched one ear. “Plus…UN-sponsored exchange students are guaranteed freedom of expression in all known forms…per a widely publicized 2049 Security Council’s resolution. Of course, some of these countries might not respect this resolution, given their abysmal history in regards to respecting any type of UN resolutions.”

Caricias watched his widening smile form on his milky-white face. She joined in with a smile that illuminated the lovely brown skin of her cheeks.

“Two weeks in each of these uncivilized countries…that’s a fucking long time!” she snapped, twisting her mouth, surprising the important man greatly.

His reaction, to her colorful statement, was a belly laugh.

“I like a lot your hidden personality, Caricias. It’s a big plus!”

And so ended their meeting, the first of many to follow, all positive.

***

Nearly four months into her journey abroad, the last two weeks sharing living arrangements with an Iranian family in Tehran, after enduring the most absurd international awakening of her life regarding cultural matters, Caricias closed her Titan-3 ratphone, where she’d just typed a few thoughts like she did privately whenever she could, and put it back in her purse. Then she exited the bathroom.

She had earlier also clicked the “send” link to Mr. Greenberg—a routine she followed (or tried to) every week, passing along impressions of her “learning” (mostly propaganda). This time, she had included a provocative piece titled “How to Become a Dictator and Tyrant,” which she planned to organically include in the body of her still-untitled feature story. “All these countries I’ve journeyed through have many things in common, the least of them possibly being never understanding social satire, my forte,” she last wrote, feeling a bit pumped up, before sending out her weekly message.

Back in the room, she shared with Neda, she set her purse on the night table edging her bed, and let herself drop softly on the bed in a sitting manner, trying to relax. Neda was Caricias’ exchange family’s only daughter, pre-selected by Iran, about a year older than Caricias.

So far this Middle-East country seemed to be okay, its capital full of energetic walkers. Stores and restaurants likewise seemed to vibrate with ambition and hope. Her exchange family in Tehran had treated her warmly, especially Neda, almost sister-like.

No such things had happened in North Korea, China, and Russia. They didn’t seem to like her. Out there she felt alone and tense most of the time, even in school breaks. University students that rubbed shoulders with her in crowded halls appeared more like regime agents, especially their secretive watching eyes. Exchange families kept themselves aloof, never considering her one of them. Any talk was limited, pointless, and so boring, she’d often opted for watching some TV shows that turned out to be just as hollow and boring.

Cuba, Venezuela, and Spain were polite on the surface, sometimes friendly, but deeply sneaky inside. They always seemed to say “what is she up to?”

She now lay down on the bed fully and closed her eyes, sensing the arrival of peaceful sleep.

***

Loud barking dogs outside the house woke Caricias up a short time later. Someone restrained them, rendering the place quiet again.

For a moment, she collected her thoughts, half-awake.

All her journalistic impressions of these nine oppressive countries stored on her ratphone could fill ten or more pages in Dark Flowers, she imagined.

She has been mystified by the vicious contradictions she had observed in Saudi Arabia and Syria, and the obvious terror inflicted by the ruler of Syria on his people. Every country she had visited, for sure, had contributed something powerful and enlightening to her feature story, especially her organic provocative piece “How to Become a Dictator and Tyrant.” Written with satirical wit, it mentioned no specific country or leader, both abundantly reserved, on the other hand, for the body of the feature story.

Upon her arrival in London, and to her private room in the confines of the editorial offices of Dark Flowers, on the 57th floor, she would get busy finishing her project. At times, she wondered what her counterpart exchange students from each country she’d visited were doing upon their return to their lands. Would they also be publishing in some magazine or journal a feature story out of their free minds?

Her attention snapped back to life when Neda entered their shared bedroom, as usual without knocking and holding some travel book. The room was actually Neda’s bedroom, adjusted for this important Western visitor.

Typically, at this time of day, Neda’s parents were still at work, a half-hour bus ride away from home. They both worked in a boutique on the second floor of a recently opened mall. They trusted their only daughter’s judgment in almost everything she set out to do, having herself distinguished in school and extra-curricular activities. She shared a sociology class with Caricias at a prestigious liberal arts university, Caricias, of course, only allowed to “watch and listen” for a few days as a UN-sponsored guest, a routine she had practiced in every country she’d stepped in.

Neda, grudgingly, wore the mandatory hijab, her hair and body covered with a loose black cloth meant to hide her face and preserve her modesty. But she had been stopped several times this year by the “morality police” patrolling her neighborhood for violating the strict Islamic law regarding the proper manner of wearing her hijab. One time, she narrowly escaped jail time for joining a group of young progressive Iranians practicing parkour in Tavalod Park.

Parkour, a French fast-paced sport made globally popular in the 80s by several blockbuster movies, especially “District B13” and “Yamakasi,” involved a mixture of acrobatics and gymnastics while sprinting over city obstacles. Some of her jumps, rolls, flips, and somersaults could not help but reveal parts of her body—unacceptable behavior to the surveilling morality police.

Recalling a special weekend she’d spent in Austin (home of the University of Texas), with a friend last summer, Caricias greeted her Iranian comrade entering the room with her usual warm smile. “Howdy.”

Neda looked elegant and mysterious in her flowing black hijab, headed for the Persian blinds adorning the window, which she adjusted with one hand to slightly shade the penetrating sunlight.

“Oh…Texas-type greeting…I like that…” she said.

Caricias sat upright on the bed. “I bet you know everything about America by now—you’re so smart and curious. Have you ever been there?”

“No. Not even Texas.” She laughed and added, “Everything seems so big and open and friendly out there—from all the movies I’ve seen and the Internet—how could I ever miss knowing?”

“I’m impressed,” said Caricias, watching how she eased herself into the heavy wooden chair that faced a clunky old mahogany desk set against a wall. The desk was covered with books on history, geography, and travel. There were also a few maps of this hemisphere, one of them wide-open, displaying the Middle-East.

“How did you like North Korea?” Neda asked out of the blue, still holding her book.

“It looked beautiful and mellow from the plane…lush mountains, opulent lands, sumptuous rivers, and colorful villages…but…”

“But what?”

“It’s the…the imprisonment and misery of the people down there…created by their cruel leader and regime…that shocked me.”

She paused. “They brainwash their citizens since childhood to revere their leader as their almighty god, the only god in the universe and adore him to death…while negating them access to vital foods and items needed to live and survive—how ironical and nasty. I mean, never providing them decent housing, health care, education, and, most of all, freedom of expression.”

“I understand….” said Neda.

Caricias shifted position on her bed, seeking more comfort. “They spend most of the nation’s wealth—which is extremely scarce to begin with—on extravagant military obsessions—nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction, long- and mid-range ballistic missiles…while raising and maintaining one of the largest military forces of foot soldiers in the world…ready to attack and conquer any country they don’t like, especially the United States, at any time. Crazy!”

“Not different from the other countries you’ve visited as an exchange student—correct?” said Neda wisely, one hand playing with the black cloth that covered her head and body.

“Only degrees of differences…in their military ambitions and brutality toward their starving and faceless people.”

Caricias could clearly express an opinion having not only heard from victims but actually witnessed appalling incidents of injustice and cruelty on the streets from government officials during her journey. She went on, “Everywhere I went is illegal to be gay. Can you imagine…illegal to be you…yourself…the way you were born?” She paused. “Spain, for example, is now ruled by a king who not only doesn’t like gay people but succeeded in repealing approved equal-sex marriage laws and banning gay freedom altogether! Just because he says so!

“Ruling Russians are becoming expert silent political criminals—they expose journalists and politicians they dislike to lethal Polonium 210-emitting radiation and other highly creative forms of invisible weapons,” Caricias remarked, lowering her voice to a safer level, just in case.

But she wanted to say more to her friend. “Atrocious things happen every day in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, things like public beheadings, public torture by thousands of lashes, and other inhuman type of punishment simply for saying anything slightly odd or negative about the regime or the King. They call it being disrespectful. We call it freedom of expression, and it’s a great thing in Western countries. It verifies that democracy is working properly. If anyone is disrespectful is the King himself—disrespectful of human life! And does the punishment fit the disrespect? Hell no! Absurd! Absurd! Absurd!”

She took a deep breath. “With all this Earth-given colossal money, the least he could do is be kind and loving to his people—a legacy worth his place in history as a great leader, instead of a cruel tyrant.”

Neda watched Caricias lick her dried lips.

Caricias continued, lowering her voice even more, “Being lucky to strike vast reservoirs of oil in the middle of the desert (that turned a group of ordinary Arabs into billionaires overnight) and starting a family dynasty of self-appointed kings many decades ago don’t make these lucky bastards superior human beings or deities with divine powers! On the contrary, they’re fake human beings and fake deities! Imposters! And the United States—knowing that and worse things about them—embrace them as top allies! Only because they’re strategically useful to America in the Middle East. Good thing no such depravity happens on the little island where I come from. We’re all good people.”

“What country is that?” asked Neda.

“Rareland.”

“Ah…it must be a good place, eh?”

“It is…”

Caricias and Neda had become such close friends, hardly anything would escape their shared feelings or undivided attention. At her first chance, Neda had confessed, she would fly to London or New York or Paris to stay. The seduction for democracy was simply too irresistible.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Iran selects you as exchange student—my counterpart?”

She laughed. “That wouldn’t work…for Iran.”

“Why?”

“I would defect.”

Caricias smiled approvingly.

“Want some?” Neda had opened a bottle of some strong drink sold in a southern section of Iran, and they were drinking and laughing and saying silly things (which happened to be serious truths), mocking their own evening, having fun, as young people often do in the free world.

***

“I’m a North Korean dentist sitting in a café with some comrades in Pyongyang,” said Neda suddenly, playing the part as an actress. One of them is wearing a dark official uniform and matching hat, obviously not a friend. “Can I say anything against our regime?” she now asked the uniformed man, laughing.

“No, you can’t!” lashed out Caricias, playing the “uniformed man” role, laughing too. “Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!” She paused. “And don’t call our country ‘regime’ or ‘North Korea.’ Our country is ‘Korea’ or ‘DPRK,’ which, as you know, stands for ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’—as written in our constitution, but completely misleading because our government, in practice, forbids democracy.”

“Misleading…?” asked Neda, holding her laughter while teasing her friend by raising the top part of her hijab to the level of her eyes, so only this much of her face showed.

“Misleading,” said Caricias. “But don’t ask me why unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed! Democracy is an American thing, a freedom thing. We are anti-American!”

“Can I access the Internet?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!”

“Can I watch a foreign TV show or foreign movie?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!”

“Can I just listen to a foreign radio program…near our border?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!”

“Can I read a foreign novel?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!”

“Can I discuss a few religious things?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!”

“Can I wear blue jeans today?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!”

“Can I listen to rock or rap music?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!”

“Can I walk to the nearest store or any place in the city without being followed and watched by a government minder? Can I try to fool my minder and seek an opportunity to sneak off unnoticed?” asked Neda, amused, covering her eyes with the hijab.

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!” Caricias’ eyes became more intense. “In case you don’t know, I am one of your minders.” She smiled cynically. “You’ll never be able to fool me!”

“Can I drive a car around, sightseeing on a sunny day? Or at night to a hilltop with a friend for a breathtaking romantic view of the city?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!” Caricias stood up and paced the space in front of the imagined table, looking offended. “Korea is not designed for such silly things. Only top military officers and a few important people can drive cars under special conditions.” She pointed to an imagined street. “As you can see, all our streets are empty of cars, empty of lights, empty of life, and totally silent. Breathtaking romantic views are non-existent in our culture. Only bicycles roll during the day…if you can afford one.”

“Can I question two of the biggest lies ever told by our leaders to our citizens–first, ‘our country is Paradise on Earth’ and second, ‘it was here on July 27, 1953 that the American imperialists got down on their knees before the heroic Chosun people to sign the ceasefire for the war that they had provoked June 25, 1950’…as written in red on a commemorating plaque at the very border of North and South Korea?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed! And, as I’ve told you, there’s only one Korea!”

“Can I refer to our Great Leader by name, say Kim Jong-un, or just point at his pictures or statues while I walk around in the city? His pictures are all over Pyongyang—huge in size, covering building façades and all kinds of walls in squares, parks, train stations, airports, you name it, as if he’s the Emperor of the Universe. Likewise, it’s hard to stroll around without bumping into one of his enormous statues.”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!”

They were both laughing, enjoying their little game.

“Can I disagree with you?”

“No, you can’t. Unless you want to be sent to a labor camp or prison or be executed!”

Laughter got bigger, even hysterical at times. Their faces had turned pink.

“As a matter of fact,” went on Caricias, “I will have to send you to a labor camp or prison or recommend you be executed because of all the disrespectful things you have said in the past three minutes! In North Korea, I mean Korea, you think, say, and do what you’re told, period! Please follow me!”

More laughter.

“We’ve got to stop that…” said Caricias finally, realizing she was scheduled to fly back to London the next day, thus ending her long journalistic journey across nine of the most despotic nations in the world

“Hey, I have a gift for you,” exclaimed Neda, beckoning Caricias to follow her out the front door and toward an old tree outside, where she kept her bicycle leaning against it. She pulled a neatly wrapped box out of the bicycle’s basket and affectionately gave it to her.

“What is it?”

“A souvenir from Iran.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” Caricias said, holding the box to her chest with excitement.

But someone’s hands, strong and hairy, stole it away from her in a fraction of time.

In shock, she turned around. There were more hairy hands and black uniforms and loaded guns pointed at her in brutal fashion. About six mustached men.

“You’re under arrest!” said their leader, pushing her around toward a waiting car. “And you too, young lady,” he shouted to Neda, who remained frozen on her feet, watching in disbelief.

“On what charges and who are you?” demanded Caricias angrily at the top of her voice.

A rush of adrenaline ran through Neda’s body. “Fabricated charges!” she spat out furiously, waving a fisted hand, making eye contact with her friend. “Welcome to our beautiful Security Police,” she added sarcastically, now being dragged forcefully like a dog into the waiting vehicle.

***

David Greenberg happened to be watching the BBC’s international news at home when the item about Caricias’ imprisonment in Iran hit the airways late in the evening. The next morning all newspapers had it too, in greater detail.

Both young women—Caricias Montes and Neda Ahmadi—had become main subjects of discussions in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, and virtually all over the world. In Iran, people who knew Neda preferred not to say anything for fear of being accused of complicity and worse.

Several months later Caricias was officially charged with spying and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Neda had been charged with treason and more, her sentence 30 years in prison in a different city.

The British Embassy, Amnesty International, the UN, and other organizations kept pushing hard to secure their release and bring each woman back home. “What happens in Iran is our business. Criminal matters are handled by our courts. We’re a sovereign nation. Please stay away from our personal affairs,” one Iranian official had said to the media, and that was that.

Talking to the government in any form was as good as talking to a stone wall. Plus Iran’s known large arsenal of advanced nuclear weapons said it all in its formidable silent manner, Western reporters soon found out.

“When asked by BBC if any progress was in sight regarding Caricias’ incarceration, Mr. Greenberg simply said, “It’s up to the Supreme Leader of Iran.”

He also said, “At least Dark Flowers will continue to publish, issue after issue, Caricias’ now-famous “organic provocative piece” until she’s set free. When such day arrives, our magazine will then publish her entire feature story, the way she wanted (using whatever unedited text she’d been able to send via her ratphone). In the meantime,” added Mr. Greenberg defiantly, “the world will be served with reading, issue after issue, what we have, which is pure gold.”

***

First thing in the morning the next day, as promised, a teary Mr. Greenberg picked up a copy of the latest issue of Dark Flowers and, sitting at his desk, he turned the pages to the famous page, and began to read:

How to Become a Dictator and Tyrant
by
Caricias Montes

1. Assume power by an armed coup, assisted by ambitious military officers.

2. Surround yourself with lots of bodyguards, secret regime agents, CEOs, and celebrities liking your nasty ideas of ruling your country with oppression, injustice, unfairness, cruelty, and terror.

3. Open personal bank accounts in foreign countries to stash all the millions/billions you plan to steal from your country.

4. Develop and master your ability for lying and denying to the media.

5. Promise peace and prosperity for your country while super arming your country with weapons of mass destruction (potentially against your peaceful and vulnerable neighboring countries) and discreetly transferring big chunks of stolen funds from your country to your personal foreign bank accounts.

6. Distract your country with cheaply built regime-type recreation parks, highways, monuments, tall and fancy buildings, beach and mountain resorts, etc. to give the impression you’re doing something for your country. Bottom line: people in your country live in poverty, hunger, and misery while you enjoy the filthy-rich lifestyle expected of a totalitarian ruler which you’ve smartly built for yourself, your family, and your very loyal relatives and friends.

7. Celebrate with your closest and meanest military servants your transformation from feared dictator to evil tyrant.

8. Begin the systematic elimination of media outlets (newspapers, magazines, radio stations, TV networks, theatrical companies, movie studios, and Internet websites) opposing your political and social views. Use the methods specified in #9. Buy out all opposing media outlets by forcing them to sell. Also, buy out all national paper companies to deprive the print media of this vital component.

9. Begin the systematic elimination of university students, professors, intellectuals, writers, actors, artists, and social and political figures opposing your regime. Incarcerate them by fabricating stories of illegal or criminal magnitude committed by them, including espionage, treason, bribe, assault, even rape. If necessary torture them to obtain signed confessions or find ways to bring them to death by suicide, murder, or firing squad.

10. Begin the systematic elimination of opposing parties using the methods specified in #9 until your regime party is the only party left for people to vote for in the elections, thus ensuring your win every future election.

11. Eventually, change the constitution of your country, so you remain ruling your country for life. Good luck!

***

 
Jacques-CarrieJacques Carrié is an award-winning writer. He has been around (Columbia University, Texas A&M University, Lee Strasberg Theater Institute). He writes in English—his third and preferred language. He grew up in the south of France, went to school in Toulouse, and lived several years in Venezuela before flying to New York City for good. His works have appeared in The Texas A&M Engineer, Prop Magazine, Chicago Literati, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Houston Chronicle, El Mundo, El Nacional, and other places. Octiblast and Papelitos—his most recent novels—and Hard Contacts—his second collection of short stories—can be found on Amazon (www.amazon.com/author/jacquescarrie).

A Literary Magazine