My first day of reporting includes a surprisingly pleasant trip to the Iraqi embassy and a daring escape from Jordanian intelligence in a Palestinian refugee camp.
Last night I went to the Hotel Intercontinental where, I was told, all the journalists hang out. I figured they’d know how I could get into Iraq. Sure enough, the bar (it’s in a Mexican restaurant of all things called something like Mamacita Juanita) was filled with American and British reporters and TV crews. I went up to one guy, a British cameraman, and he said he just got back from Baghdad but has no idea how they got into the place. He pointed at a CNN producer in a black turtleneck. I walked over to him and within minutes was engrossed in a lengthy conversation about the proper way to get an Iraqi visa. It started off with the CNN guy and his friend from Fox News and, over the course of the next several and increasingly drunken hours would include, at various times, the Chicago Tribune correspondent, an NBC reporter, Getty photographer, any number of Fox News crew and reporters and a lot of people whose jobs I never discovered. And every single person had a completely different understanding of how to get a visa into Iraq. A few felt you have to bribe some Iraqi guy, although there was a lot of debate about whether the guy you bribe is in Amman or in Baghdad and nobody could agree on the cost. Some said around $500, others said it’s in the thousands. One guy just said “It’s the Baghdad Lottery.” What everyone agreed on is that the Iraqi embassy releases the new visas each Sunday, so every foreign reporter in Jordan is spending all week just waiting for that day and when it comes nobody can quite figure out why their name was or wasn’t called. Of all the people I met only one is actually stationed in Amman, the rest are just here waiting to get the word on whether they can go to Baghdad. One guy actually did get his visa this week, but he’s going back home to Brooklyn to wait until the war starts. “If I survive the war it’ll be a miracle, but what’s the point of doing this if I’m not going to be here when the action comes.”
It is great fun getting drunk with a bunch of foreign correspondents, I must say. There are a lot of good stories and there’s a kind of electric excitement that we’re all in the place the whole world is looking at with fear. It was a pretty exuberant evening; at one point, the Getty photographer got very mad at me that Marketplace didn’t give me a cell phone. He was yelling at me and telling me there’s no way to go to Iraq without one. But they cost $18,000, he said, and I explained that Marketplace was not going to be paying any $18,000 for some phone. He’s a fan of the show and started screaming “get me Brancaccio [the host of Marketplace], get me Brancaccio.” So, on his satellite phone, we called David Brancaccio at 2:30 am from Amman’s Irish pub and demanded a satellite phone.
After all the build-up about the Iraqi visa, I was quite anxious about getting to the Iraqi embassy early. I woke up at 6:30, after 3 hours of sleep, and headed out quickly. I stood in line at the Saudi embassy for almost an hour until someone told me that my cab driver took me to the wrong place. I walked over to the Iraqis and there was a huge line of Arab men waiting to get in. A reporter told me to ignore those guys, walk right past them, and just enter without waiting in line. So I did. They put me in a big waiting room, with a big, smiling painting of Saddam Hussein. I was actually hoping something strange and scary would happen so I could write about it. But nothing did. I was called in to this office, by then my translator arrived. We talked to some official looking guy in a suit sitting at a desk under a sepia photograph of a very young Saddam Hussein in an army uniform. The man took my information and said, no problem, I could have the visa in a few days. And then we left. No bribes, no long lines. No battles. Kind of disappointing.
I had reserved the whole day for Iraqi visa business, so I was kind of stunned to find myself at 10:00 am with a free day. So, I figured I met as well start being a reporter. My fixer—driver, guide, translator—is Arun. He’s an Aramaic Christian, which means he speaks Aramaic—the ancient language Jesus spoke—and worships in a way that may be closer to Judaism than to other forms of Christianity. For our first stop, he took me to Kaba (sp?) refugee camp, where Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 still live. He told me that sometimes when Israel does something that Palestinians hate, they stand on the roofs of the refugee camps and throw stones at any tourist buses that pass. Then he told me not to be afraid. I was expecting something a refugee camp to look like a refugee camp. I don’t know that I thought there would be tents, but I didn’t expect just a regular looking city. It’s definitely poor, but it’s pretty much a permanent city, with concrete buildings and cell phone shops. Arun’s family came to a refugee camp when they fled Jerusalem in 1967, but they left after a few months. Arun seemed to disapprove of the people who remain there. He said that many of them own houses outside of the camp, have thriving businesses, but keep their primary residences in the camp because the UN pays for their food and clothes and medicine and housing.
We talked with one shop owner who sells sodas and candy and stuff. He said that there’s a big boycott against American products and, especially, Coca-Cola. Everybody says they won’t drink Coca-Cola, because it’s an American company and America sends money to Israel. I noticed the shop had plenty of Cokes in the fridge, so I asked the guy why he sells it. He said people should look within their hearts to seek change, not to soda cans. He said 90% of the shops stopped selling Cokes, which is fine with him. He sells more now than ever. He sells so many Cokes that the distributor has to make a daily stop and put a huge pallet of Cokes in front of his store because people buy so many of them. He said he now sells 1,000 cans a day, which is hard to believe since his store is so small and I don’t think it could hold 1,000 cans. He also said that everybody loves American cigarettes, that 50% of the money he makes comes from American cigarettes. The favorite: Viceroy. But, he said people are broke. The economy has collapsed because of the intifada in Israel and the West Bank. The refugee camp’s economy is linked to the West Bank and as long as there are curfews there, the refugees aren’t getting money sent from family, they’re not doing the kinds of business deals they used to. He said he used to sell a lot of candy and other things, now he just sells bread and staples. Well, he said, cigarette sales have actually skyrocketed. People used to smoke a pack a day, he said, but now, because of the troubles, they’re smoking three packs a day. They buy cigarettes before they buy bread.
We walked to a shop a couple doors down. A tiny place, it sells perfume and kids toys and cosmetics. They guy said he bought the entire stock more than a year ago and hasn’t sold hardly any of it. He said he would never buy or sell any American product. This guy was about 35, with a beard and scarred face and intense eyes. His son came in to the store, and he grabbed him, proudly, and said “he’s four, and he hates Israel.” Then he leaned over and cooed, “you hate Israel, right? You hate the Jews.” The kid was shy and tucked his face into his dad’s leg. The man pointed at a toy Kalachnikov he is selling and said the kids play shoot the Israelis. He said they’re only able to do that in the refugee camp. When they do it outside of the camp, the police tell them not to. He said it’s nothing new, when he was a kid he would play Palestinians and Israelis the same way.
We walked a few blocks away and soon a crowd gathered around this strange American guy with headphones and a big microphone. I was interviewing an old man and the crowd grew thicker and thicker. There were kids and young adults and old people. They were yelling along with the man, a long tirade against George Bush and Ariel Sharon. I didn’t feel scared. I felt bored, because the man just said the same things over and over for half an hour. I also, oddly, felt embarrassed. I kept on seeing more people joining the crowd and I kept thinking “this interview isn’t good enough to merit this attention.” I felt like people would judge my interviewing skills or something.
Suddenly, a tired looking guy in dirty black pants and a white striped shirt grabbed my translator who told me to follow him. The man is a Jordanian security agent and said we can’t talk to anyone in the refugee camp without having a permit. He told us to follow him to the security station. Arun told him that we’d just go get our car and be right behind him. As we walked to the car, Arun said, this is very bad. We will spend the night in the jail. They will take my guide license away. Do you mind if we escape? I said that’s fine with me. We got in his car and sped down the crowded road out of the camp. We were riding in the gutter, passing cars and busses, we got to the main highway and Arun pushed so hard on the accelerator and we jetted away. The whole time, Arun is describing exactly what was going through his mind. “They are Bedouin, the security officers. They don’t like the Palestinians. They’re very scared the Palestinians will uprise, so they don’t want them talking to Americans and getting excited. They don’t want anyone talking to reporters except if they say Jordan is great, America is great. We would spend the night there. They would call intelligence in Amman to find out who you are, they would wait for Jordanian intelligence in the US to find out about you before they let us go. It would be very bad. But now, we’re running away, so it will be worse if we get caught. We were driving further away from Amman, to Jarash, the amazing giant Roman archaeological site, and knew we would have to return passing the same camp. Which we did a few hours later. Arun told me, just act normal. Nobody will pay attention.