Ahmed Errachidi, The General Who Was Just a Cook

At Café Loco, there wasn’t much crazy happening on a quiet, midweek night. There were a few people dining towards the rear of the place. I asked for Cathy the manager. Before they could point me in the right direction, someone had come right up behind me and in a very aggressive tone asked me who I was. He was so close I backed into him as I turned round to respond. I explained and he told me to come and sit down with him near the entrance to the restaurant. I explained how important it was for us to get an affidavit from Big John or Cathy confirming that they had met Ahmed and offered him a job. He got angry very quickly saying that he was sick and tired of “you lawyers” coming here and harassing them. I kind of liked that, thinking that I had been called a lot of things but never a lawyer. I wondered how many loud clothed, sneaker wearing lawyers he had met. Incidentally my visit was only the second Reprieve jaunt up there, so I’m not sure if that constitutes harassment.

He said that Cathy was his girlfriend and she does not want to help, in fact she wanted nothing to do with us, period. This was annoying to me! First, we had not been harassing them. In fact when my colleague Rhumana met Cathy some months back, Cathy had been very nice and even gave Rhumana her phone number so she could call and talk more about Ahmed. Second, I was not asking for a glowing testimonial on how great a guy Ahmed was. I just wanted something signed confirming the job offer and the dates that they had offered it to Ahmed. Third, this was a man’s freedom we were talking about, an innocent man – no, more than that this was Ahmed’s life we were talking about. I just couldn’t understand why they did not want to help him when it was in their power to do so, or why they did not want to tell the truth.

He became even angrier as I continued and got himself so worked up that he told me if I would not accept their refusal to help, I should step outside with him. I was thinking that surely he doesn’t want a fight, so I said okay and stepped outside with him. That’s when he really let rip; he was swearing and had his hands up in my face. He was up for it. Later when I told Clive about my visit, he said that he was glad I went to Café Loco as he could not think of anyone else at Reprieve who would be LESS intimidated by such aggressive behaviour. I asked him to calm down and that I had not come here for any trouble. I told him as plainly as possible while staring him straight in the eye that this was not a joke and that this was indeed a matter of life and death. His girlfriend Cathy had it within her power to help Ahmed. I was literally pleading with him to help. As I spoke man to man with him, or human being to human being to be more politically correct, somehow this seemed to reach him, and he listened. As he did so, his face changed; he seemed to understand. He said he would talk to Cathy and get back to me. I left it at that, shook his hand and then my head after he went back inside the restaurant.

That very night I saw the post 9-11 climate live and direct in full effect. Even here in London people did not want anything to do with anything that even sniffed of terrorism. They didn’t want to help Ahmed and what’s more they didn’t want themselves or their establishment associated with him, whether Ahmed was a terrorist or not. So the best policy was one of non- involvement, and that constantly frustrated me.

Later that week I met someone called Fabrice who had worked with Ahmed at his last gig for Christopher’s personnel at the Westbury hotel in London. He now owns a very trendy French delicatessen in west London, the kind of place that sells organic pressed apple juice, French camembert and saucisson. He would help us confirm that Ahmed was working as a breakfast chef when he was supposedly in Afghanistan in an al Qaeda training camp. His signed affidavit would give Clive his much loved and much told story about Ahmed cooking eggs in the Westbury Hotel as opposed to cooking up anything else in an Afghani training camp. Even Ahmed himself said to Clive that the American authorities have “made the breaking of an egg into the bursting of a bomb.” Fabrice and Ahmed did not get on at all and spent the short time working together arguing about one thing or another. This was great, because often and especially at work the person you remember most is the person you could just not stand to work with. We can all remember that manager we couldn’t stand or that co- worker we just loved to hate. So the fact that Fabrice did not really like Ahmed made for a much stronger affidavit, and unlike the folk at Café Loco and despite the fact that Fabrice did not particularly get on with Ahmed, he was still prepared to offer us a signed statement which I collected from him the next day.

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