Spy games

I'd been warned before going to Asmara that I might be spied upon. In the extremely small capital of an extremely secretive regime, diplomats told me they assumed they were being watched by their neighbors and probably even by some Eritreans who worked for them.

On my first night in the city I was at a bar with some other foreigners, among them teachers and members of the small diplomatic corps. We were the only non-Eritreans there, and not difficult to spot. A half-dozen of us were sitting around a small, low table, drinking the sometimes skunky but not altogether unpleasant Asmara Beer, when an Eritrean man walked in and pulled a chair up very close to the table. If I turned my head 90 degrees, I was right in his face.

The guy was young-looking and stylish, in a tweed jacket and black spectacles. The bar was dark, but he carried a paperback book. He sat down facing away from us, never once making eye contact. Instead he stared off into the middle distance, the book lying unopened next to him, for at least a half-hour. He puffed on a cigarette or two, but didn't order a drink, and left without saying a word.

To the foreigners I was with, there was no question this man had been sent to eavesdrop on our conversation. They'd had similar encounters many times before in Asmara. I hadn't yet been conditioned into that way of thinking. But I had to wonder: would a real spy be so obvious?

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