I spent the day talking with angry Iraqis and angry Jordanians in Amman.
I am so incredibly tired. I’m past tired on to some loggy feeling, like my head is in soup. I got four hours’ sleep last night, three the night before. Jetlag is so horrible some times. It’s easy to deal with the lack of sleep when I’m running around from one interview to another, but when I’m suddenly sitting, the exhaustion pours over me. But it’s only 7 in the evening and I want to stay up to try to get my body on some kind of normal schedule.
This morning, Arun and I drove to the center of Amman, where there’s this Roman Citadel on top of a mountain overlooking much of the rest of the city. It’s an active archaeological site, there are dozens of young men digging and moving stones. We were on a dusty plateau which, Arun explained, is the top of an old Roman fortress. Down the sides of the hill, we could see recently uncovered walls and corridors. He told me it’s a major site and a few years ago it would be teeming with European and American archaeologists and their students. “Today, not a single foreign person, not a single foreign dollar is involved.” Everyone is too scared to work here.
Amman’s population was around 3,000 a hundred years ago. It was still a sleepy backwater city in the 1930s, when then-King Abdullah moved the capital here from Salt because he was having trouble with local tribes there. Since then, the city has exploded, it’s still exploding. Amman is famously built on seven hills, like Rome. But now, the city is built on 27 hills. It’s growing so fast that almost everywhere I went today people told me how that place used to be the farthest out reaches of the city and is now in the center of town. Standing on the Citadel, we could see the city all around us, dropping down into the valleys between the hills. It’s not a particularly beautiful place. Every building, every house is built of large squares of cut white stone. Few buildings are higher than three stories. This blanket of square, squat stone buildings just flows out in every direction, the buildings so overlapping each other, you can’t see anything else (except for the ubiquitous brightly lit cellphone and fast food advertisements). Looking carefully, a small number of the buildings have some pleasing detail—maybe a series of arched windows—but for the most part this is quick, functional construction with no flourish. You hear a lot about how poor people are in Amman, how miserable the economy is, but the city looks clean, the buildings, though dull, are well maintained, they look almost shiny and new.
Directly below the Citadel, on the base of the next hill over, is a perfectly preserved Roman Theatre from 200 AD when this was the Roman city of Philadelphia. Arun and I got in the car and drove down there. He showed me around the theatre, which still has a drain in the center for the blood of the gladiators who fought and died here. The drain is lovely, a curlicue flower design in stone, with plenty of holes for the blood. Like with every tourist site we go to, the place is all but empty. There are a bunch of guides waiting for tourists. I can hear a guide giving a strong pitch to the one American tourist here—a young backpacker. He’s telling him he can drive him all over the country, show him everything. I was impressed by the pitch, the guide never sounded desperate (though this would probably be his one client all week, maybe all month), he just calmly explained how he can show him the most beautiful things in the world. But they were talking and negotiating for so long, I couldn’t stay around to find out if he got the gig.
Our goal this morning was to interview some of the poor Iraqis who come to Amman to sell smuggled merchandise to Jordanians. Arun was nervous after yesterday’s altercation with the police, so he found a tourist police officer and flattered him a great deal to the point that the officer offered to follow us around and make sure we got exactly the interviews we wanted. The officer pointed to two older men in full-length gallabiyahs and red and white checked kafiyehs. They looked Iraqi, he said, so we went up to them and sure enough they were from Basra and had come to Amman as tourists. I found it kind of bizarre that the whole world is talking about the inevitable war with Iraq and these Iraqis are calmly enjoying the site of an ancient Roman Theatre on their holiday. We talked to them for a while but it was pretty boring because they were in full “Saddam is great” mode. At first they said the economy is great in Iraq, everything is going fine because they have the greatest leader, the greatest father, the greatest man who loves his people and blah blah blah. He kept on saying, please you must tell the American people that the Iraqi people love peace and only want peace and don’t want any war. Every question I asked just led to another Saddam hagiography. Are you afraid of war? “How can we be afraid when we have the greatest leader …” Are there things you want to bring back from Amman, since Iraq has so little because of the embargo? “We need nothing, our leader provides everything.” I kept on looking at these guys, trying to figure out if he meant what he said or if he was just afraid to speak the truth. I couldn’t tell. They would get in this kind of mania and just talk and talk. He did, finally, say that they have no pencils or medicine in Basra, so he’s bringing his kids some pencils and some medicine. They are in the used car parts business and, I guess, they’re doing well. They were fabulously wealthy compared to the other Iraqis we met.
Sitting on an ancient stone bench in front of the Theatre, we saw a man in his ’40s who looked a bit like a dark Wallace Shawn wearing a smart Irish cap and a sports coat. He had a display of his artwork, mostly black-and-white and colored charcoal portraits and landscapes. He sits there every day for twelve hours or so and, if he’s lucky, he sells two or three portraits a day and makes about $15. He says it is a lot more than he made in Iraq as an agricultural engineer working in the fishing ministry. I was scared to ask him about Saddam, but he started on his own saying how horrible this man is and how he must be destroyed and he hopes the Americans do it. Talking right into my microphone with a small crowd around him, the man told me things I haven’t heard in any paper. He said that the 1991 uprising against Saddam was much bigger than anyone has reported. Almost every city rose up and the population really felt that it was time, Saddam would be ousted. He said that things were exciting and feeling free when, one day, helicopters flew overhead and dropped pieces of paper with a warning: if the leaders of the uprising were not turned over immediately, the entire city would be gassed to death. The leaders were in jail and probably killed that day. I asked him how he could feel comfortable talking to me so openly and he said this is how he feels, so he must speak. He’s been in Amman for four years, but all his family is still in Basra. I asked if most Iraqis feel the way he does. He said ninety percent. Then he corrected himself, 95 percent. No, more.
We crossed the wildly busy street in front of the Theatre to interview some more Iraqis. This city has the scariest driving I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve driven in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires and Mexico City which are all shockingly bad. There are absolutely no rules. People drive the wrong way down busy highways. Any two lane road quickly becomes four lanes, because people just drive down the median lines. We crossed the street the only way you can, by just walking in to traffic. The cars were moving quickly and we just pushed forward and somehow got across.
The street in front of the Roman Theatre is one the poorest parts of Amman. It still has a few cell phone shops, but the buildings are dirtier, older, more rundown. At one corner, two women—one quite old all in black and the other in her 30s (though she looked 45, at least) in a blue-and-white patterned headscarf—sat in front of boxes with cigarettes and dates. They had come from Iraq a year ago to make money here and send it back to their kids. The younger woman has two kids, her husband is a barber but nobody in Baghdad can afford a haircut, so he hasn’t worked in years. She reached in to her purse and pulled out a plastic bag folded over many times, inside were three photographs, one of each of her children and the other of her husband in their living room. She said she looks at those pictures and cries every night. The older woman has eight children in Baghdad, but she doesn’t have any photos.
Every morning, they go to a parking lot nearby where Iraqi smugglers sell them cigarettes and dates imported that day from Iraq. Then they sit on the sidewalk all day and, if things go well, make 2 or 3 dinars profit, which is around 3 or 4 dollars. If they can, they send one dinar to Baghdad. In the evening, they said, all the Iraqi cigarette selling women meet and talk about how much they hate Saddam and how much they miss their children. These women were as outspoken as the artist. The young woman, especially, despises Saddam. I asked if she wants the war to happen. She said she prays for it and dreams about it, but she doesn’t want to get her hopes up. I asked if she was afraid of war since her entire family is in Baghdad. She said of course she is, but she would pay any price to get rid of Saddam. She said all Iraqis feel this way. Coming from New York, where a pack of cigarettes is around $7, it was amazing to see packs of Marlboro on sale for about 70 cents. They were also selling these Iraqi cigarettes—one called Sumer, the other Babylon—for 30 cents a pack. The Iraqi cigarettes looked homemade in cheap folded-paper boxes.
While talking with the Iraqi women, a car of Jordanian police pulled up and asked us to stop. Arun mentioned that he knew some guy who was a big shot in the police department and the cops left quickly. Later that day, we went to check in with the Ministry of Information where foreign reporters are supposed to get their permits. The very nice man who runs the office told us he could get us permits to talk with anyone we want. But, he said, we must never talk to any Iraqis downtown. If we did, a crowd would form and they might get angry and get out of control. We didn’t tell him we spent the morning talking with Iraqis downtown. There was a crowd, by the way, listening to every interview we did. But they just seemed curious and I never felt threatened. There is a feeling of panic, or more like a feeling that maybe there will be panic some day soon. Arun pointed out to me all the special forces soldiers walking around the city. He said you never saw that even a year ago. We went by the American embassy and it’s like a fortress with tanks at every corner and dozens of mukhabarat security agents sitting in cars around the building. Even with my US passport, I was patted down and quizzed for twenty minutes before I could go in. Everyone I talk to off mic tells me that people are afraid this country could blow any moment. Nobody seems to know for sure how likely that is, but so many people have said the king is terrified, the powers are scared that the population, especially the poorer Palestinians, will get out of control and destroy the monarchy. The country has turned dramatically more religious. There are far more women wearing hijabs. It’s Ramadan now and a few years ago, it wasn’t a big deal to see someone smoking or drinking a soda or eating on the street. Not any more. I absent-mindedly drank a bottle of water and people stared angrily.
There is also a growing anti-Americanism. Like in that refugee camp yesterday, there is an ongoing boycott of American products (there is also a total obsession with buying American products). The primary motivation is the Israeli occupation. I think every person I’ve spoken with talks with such anger about the Israelis. I sat in the living room of an older, wealthy man in one of the nicest neighborhoods of Amman. He talked very pleasantly about Jordanian history and how things have changed and how the economy is doing. And then he got to Israel and, still polite, he literally bristled with anger about Jenin and the torture of Palestinian prisoners. He said this constant humiliation is all you need to know about to understand Osama bin Laden. This is a common theme among academics and others I’ve spoken with, that even though Osama never cared that much about the Palestinians, the Israeli occupation is what drives his popularity. I think pretty much every one of these anti-Israel speeches ends with the person saying they are ready for peace as soon as the Israelis are. I’m impressed by how current everyone is on internal Israeli politics. People are constantly talking about Mitzna, the new labor party leader, and saying that if he is elected good things could happen. They are following the Sharon Vs. Netanyahu battle for control of the Likud, though they seem to see that there’s not a big difference between the two. People often mention Condoleezza Rice’s name and even mention Pentagon officials I’ve never heard of.
I’m off to the best Shwarma place I’ve ever eaten at in my life and then to sleep.