Chapter 14 – The Cultural Attaché, the Store Room, and an Awful lot of Questions
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
So, let's get back to the core story.
After the row with my father, his railroading me into a Stockholm University, and my rejection of that, I had to find an alternative.
My idea was simple enough. I would go to America! I would swap my Swedish scholarship for one to the University of California in Los Angeles. I'd heard a lot about the UCLA. I'd seen films about it, read about it, and in Khartoum, I'd met lecturers who'd taught there.
The American style of life, that sort of freedom of thought, speech and movement that the US represented in the 60s and 70s, that sort of life would suit me. In Sweden and Germany, everybody has barriers. In America, I could feel free.
To set the ball rolling, one day after school I walked to the American Embassy and asked for the cultural attaché. The guards showed me a door, I knocked and went in.
I recognised the woman behind the desk from my visits to the American Club.
“Oh yes, I've seen you at the pool. You are Gábor! Take a seat, how can I help you?” she said in a friendly manner. Her name was Carol.
I reeled off my plan to attend the UCLA.
She said: yes, sure, it's possible. Bring in the documents, and I will ask around to see if there is anyone wanting to go to Stockholm. Swapping scholarships is nothing new. But, she said she needed a few details about me – age, school and “Where are you from Gábor?”
At the mention of Hungary I could see an authentic surprise in her eyes.
“You're Hungarian? Oh, I thought you were an Arab, Syrian or something like that,” she said, her voice audibly changing almost word by word to a deeper tone.
I explained I'd been living in Khartoum for the past few years, but I was a genuine, solid, true Hungarian.
“OK, Gabor, but listen, come with me, I want to show you something,” she said, reverting to her earlier, more carefree voice.
At this, she got up, led me into the corridor and told me we were going to another room.
Seeing the surprise on my face, she told me that the American Coat of Arms on the wall above her desk had a bug, a microphone, that the Sudanese secret service used to eavesdrop on her office. They had known about it for years, she said.
Just like that! Welcome to the world of espionage!
Now this was when I started to feel funny, because I couldn't really understand what she wanted to talk about that could interest the Sudanese intelligence services. I certainly didn't want to talk about anything that anyone else could not have heard.
Sensing my misgivings, she said there was a risk that any information on a potential defector might be passed on to the Soviets, as relations between Khartoum and Moscow were very good in those days.
Well, we went into a small store room, where they kept crates of beer and some sort of copying machine. She got two chairs, and we sat down to have a chat. I have to say the whole surroundings felt, well, rather queer.
Carol kept asking why a Hungarian like me wanted to go to the States, and why a Hungarian like me had come to Africa? Why had my father come here, and what was he actually doing? What sort of relationship do we have with the Hungarian embassy? Then she started talking about politics and convictions, communism and democracy.
I'd been in the embassy half an hour, discovered the cultural attaché's room was bugged, and here I was, in a back room surrounded by beer crates being grilled – albeit in a friendly way – about my political beliefs.
Of course, she was an employee of the United States government, and it was me, after all, who wanted to study in her country. So I thought if she wants to get some info on me, then fair enough.
I guess she got the answers she wanted. She said: “OK Gabor, that's fine. I will see about it. We are sure to meet on other occasions, in the club.” The way she said 'in the club' included the clear implication that I should not return to the embassy.
I thanked Carol and went home. I said nothing to my parents about the meeting, although I did try to find the scholarship documents. I found nothing. Neither the passports nor anything else. I guessed my father, in a rage, had stashed them away elsewhere.
For a cultural attaché however, she certainly asked an awful lot of questions, yet none had been about music or art or theatre. And it didn't take long for me to think Carol might have other, less publicised duties to perform for the government of the United States of America.