A long, fascinating, annoying flight from JFK to Amman
There is something shockingly casual about flying Royal Jordanian to the Middle East. They told me to arrive at least four hours early because the security was so intense. I’m used to flying El Al, where you’re quizzed and prodded for as much as an hour, so I thought this would be even worse. I arrived at the airport, went through the metal detector and I kept waiting for a security person to start the intense security process. No one wanted to talk to me, so I walked over to check in which took about two minutes. And that’s it. It was less security than a domestic flight. No one even asked if I had packed my own bags or if they had been in my possession the whole time. No one asked me why I was traveling to Amman. I could have arrived ten minutes before the flight. But I didn’t, so I had to sit in the brightly lit fast food area where cheery Christmas music is already blaring. I sat with a group of museum curators who are traveling the Middle East doing research into Palestinian exile artists. Mostly, we just showed off our various cool equipment. I showed them my new iPod, Jackson showed me his miniscule video recorder, I pulled out my baby DAT machine, someone else got out there international cell phone. It was fun, I have to say.
The airplane had that same casual feel. It hadn’t been cleaned. My seat had someone’s crumpled up newspaper on it and a wadded up blanket. People spent the hour we were on the ground constantly switching seats. The stewards and stewardesses were walking up to people and saying, “There’s a better seat over here, come sit here.” And the person would sit there and then ten minutes later someone would come who was assigned to that seat and the interloper would have to move, but not back to his own seat, the stewards would find an even better seat for him. I joined the game. I asked a steward if there was a better seat, since I was sitting next to a rather large man. He said I should sit over here, I could have two seats to myself. Sure enough, the guy who was supposed to sit there came and sat next to me. His elbow was jutting way into my space, into my sides, in fact. I was pushing back with my elbow. At one point, he shifted, and I moved my arm to cover the entire armrest to position myself better for the next round of battle. He turned to talk to me and I had the standard bristle, hating the idea of having to talk to someone for ten hours.
He asked where I was going and I mentioned the various countries. When I said Iraq, he smiled and said, “Take me with you. That’s my country. But I can’t go there. He will kill me,” he said, slicing his throat with his hand. I asked why Saddam hates him. “He thinks I’m with the people who are against him,” he said it in a way that suggested Saddam was just paranoid. But then he added, “I am with them because I hate this asshole. All Iraqis hate him, except the people in his village, Tikrit, because he gives them everything.”
This man, I don’t want to give his name for obvious reasons, told me he was flying to Damascus that night to meet his fianc’d, get married, get her a visa and get back to Detroit as soon as possible. “If I can, I’m flying tonight back to Detroit or tomorrow.” I asked why. Does he not like it in Syria. “I’m too close to my country. I don’t want to sit there and not be able to visit my country. I’d rather be in Detroit.” As it is, he said, he’ll probably be in Damascus for two or three months arranging his new wife’s papers.
Another man, sitting across the aisle to my right, heard I was a journalist and asked me to be fair. He then gave me a speech I’m sure I’ll hear every day for the next several weeks about how the US media is only for the Jewish and never reports the truth about Palestine. He is a tall, skinny guy with absurdly large ears and nose and he looked wrecked. He said he had been driving a limo in DC 10 to 18 hours a day for nine months without taking a single day off, so he could spend two months doing nothing but hanging out with his wife and kids in Amman. He doesn’t want them in the US, because the education is far superior in Jordan and, he said, more expensive than any US private school. He didn’t tell his wife and family he was coming, because he wants to surprise them, but he’s afraid that his wife’s cousin who works for Royal Jordanian might have spotted his name on the manifest and called her. He was really anxious they would pick him up at the airport and ruin his surprise.
I was getting ready to sleep, when this child one row up and just to the right became screaming. It was such a fascinating, compelling yowl that I took extensive notes. Here they are: High pitch squeal breaking in to full scream. Mother on the child’s left, in a hijab, staring straight in front and ignoring the kid. Father to the right, doing the same. I don’t care if this is some cultural thing, you have to shut that kid up. There’s another kid behind me with a real whimper, like a sick puppy, that goes away for a while but then when the squealer starts, the whimper gets louder and louder and the two are a frenzied chorus of bellowing kids playing off of each other. They stop exactly long enough to make me drift off and then they start again. This happens three times.
I do sleep for an hour and a half and then there is screaming so high and loud, I’m groggy and I think they are performing surgery and forget anesthetic. Then the kid in front of me is screaming and screaming and then it becomes this high screech. And then it breaks in two and I realize there are two kids in front of me who have been screaming together at the same pitch. Now they’ve split it and one is staying at that high register while the other is whimpering along with the kid behind. Then the two front kids rejoin each other in that high squeal. Then one of the front kids starts yelling “ya ya ya ya ya” which is sort of a scream of pain but sometimes he’s just saying the words “ya ya yaaaaaaah” then it becomes “ay yay ay yay ay yay” with a question tone at the end of the yays. The mom absentmindedly pats the kids back but that does nothing. Everyone around is staring at this kid and then we’re looking at each other with looks of “what the fuck is going to happen here.” Finally that Palestinian guy who is surprising his family leans over and starts talking to the screaming kids and they immediately stop and talk to him and smile and then everyone goes to sleep. Miraculously, I slept for six hours.
When I woke up, the Iraqi guy was very eager to talk. He wants to know why Christians like me believe Jesus is god. Muslims, he says, know that Jesus is a good man, but he’s a prophet. He’s not god. So, I try to explain why we Christians believe Jesus is god. It’s a really hard thing to explain, especially since I don’t believe that and don’t really understand why anyone believes that. I said something about suffering and how it was the only way for god to experience suffering or something like that. I was going on and on and making no sense at all and the Iraqi would give another reason why Jesus can’t be god, how can god be above and below at the same time. God is everywhere or he’s not anywhere. I think he won the argument. I then just told him, “you know, there are many different types of Christian and we all believe different things.” So he said, “So many Christians believe he’s a prophet? He’s not god?” I said, “Kind of. I mean, well, we think he’s a good guy and, well he had a lot of good things to say and you know I’m not very religious.” He then said “The Jews killed him.”.
The Iraqi had a different security experience than I did. He was questioned for an hour and a half by what he described as hostile security guards. He said he didn’t understand why they would question him, since his name is obviously Shiite and the Shiites hate Osama bin Laden more than anybody. I thought of the frat boy looking white guys at security and I didn’t think their training went to Shiite-al Qaeda relations.
It’s now 6:30 in the evening. It’s Ramadan, so everything opens now, after dark. Everyone has been sleeping all day. I’m going to go out to the market, buy a cell phone, get some dinner and then head to the Hotel Intercontinental where all the journalists hang out so I can find the best way to get into Iraq.