I wrestle with the confusing contradictions of Jordan, its King and its fastfood restaurants.
Last night I went out with a group of reporters, most of whom have spent a lot of time in war zones. We ate in the Hotel Intercontinental, the place where all the reporters hang out, even though almost nobody stays there anymore. The Hotel was the only place in town during the last Iraq War, so it was completely filled with American reporters for months. The management expects the same thing to happen this war, so they’ve jacked up their prices on everything. Rooms are more expensive, phone calls to the States cost $10 a minute, faxes are $15 a page. But since 1991, a lot has changed. There are now almost a dozen decent hotels in town and news organizations are not going to use Amman as their only base for this war. So the Intercontinental is all but empty, but the management isn’t lowering prices or anything, even though all the other hotels are cutting their rates in half. But the bar there remains the central meeting point, so last night, like every night, I went to Mama Juanitas Mexican bar and restaurant (I have never seen anyone order food there and have heard it’s pretty awful) and ordered overpriced beers.
We moved to the overpriced (but fabulous) Lebanese restaurant in the hotel and the other guys shared war stories. Literally. I don’t want to say who was there, because it was all off the record and just a friendly dinner. There were mostly TV people, a newspaper reporter, and me, the one guy who hadn’t served in a war zone before. They said it’s all changed since Somalia. Reporters can get killed now. Combatants no longer consider reporters untouchable. One guy, who spent a lot of time in Somalia, described being pulled over by an eight year old kid with a Kalachnikov. “How’s an eight year old going to know anything about treating reporters with respect.” Afghanistan was even worse, 16 reporters (I think) died there, including a woman shot in the back for no apparent reason. The conversation got around to Danny Pearl quickly. It was so interesting hearing about him from their perspective. The people who were in Karachi with him said they were mad at him and mad at the Journal. They said that he was a very nice guy, but he made a big point about not hanging out with other journalists. He didn’t stay in the hotels that others stayed in, he rented his own villa because he didn’t want to use phones that are tapped by Pakistani intelligence. He refused to use a local fixer (a guide and translator) because they’re all tied in to intelligence. The reporters said you have to use the local guys no matter what. They know the situation on the ground and even if they’re more loyal to intelligence, they’ll make sure you don’t get killed. Pearl had an Urdu-speaking fixer from India who didn’t know the local people. “A local fixer would have stopped that thing weeks earlier. He would have said I never heard of these people. Don’t go with them,” one reporter said. “And you never get in a car without your fixer. Don’t go anywhere without your fixer.” The Journal was so excited that it accidentally stumbled on the Al-Qaeda computers in Afghanistan that it got hungry for more scoops. They were pressuring Pearl to come up with something good.
One reporter, the guy who has spent the most time covering wars, said that one of the best reasons to stay in the reporters’ hotel is that you can check things out with other reporters. He said in dangerous situations reporters compare notes all the time. They ask other reporters if they’ve heard about the sources they’re following, if they think some story makes sense. If Pearl had done that, every reporter would have told him that his “sources” were nobody worth following. The veteran turned to me and said “Check with us. We all do it. Don’t talk to anyone without checking with us.”
The big question on the table was whether or not anyone would want to stay in Baghdad during the war. Everybody (except for me) has an editor or a producer telling them they better stay in Baghdad during the war. And everybody agreed that they probably wouldn’t. This war is going to be nothing like the last one. There was some debate about where the danger would come from. Most seemed to feel that they wouldn’t get killed by American bombs because the guidance technology is so good and American forces know not to bomb the Al-Rashid, the hotel where all the reporters are. But Saddam will be desperate, the Iraqi people will be desperate, and who knows what will happen. I was glad that nobody wants me to be in Baghdad during the war (although a small part of me thought I should and show off to the world that I’m a big stud. I’m not going to do that, though, I promise.) They all told me to definitely go to Baghdad before the war. It’s fascinating, they said, if totally depressing. It’s sort of this bizarre world where anything can happen. I’ll find out on Sunday or Monday if my visa came through. If it did, I’ll hopefully go next Tuesday.
Today, after finally getting a good night’s sleep, I went to interview an economist here. It’s so funny. Every regular Jordanian I talk to says the economy is miserable, they have little hope about the future. Things have never been this bad. And then I speak with these professional economists (well, I’ve spoken with two) and they say everything is great. The King is great. The economy is great. It’s just that Jordanians are lazy and expect everything to be handed to them. Yesterday’s economist was these large man with a big beard who was so nervous and jumpy. He would talk to me in his lovely office at the university and then jump up and walk around the room pacing. He was so mad that anyone could question the King or question the economy. There’s 4.5 percent growth, he says. Every sector is doing great. And the King’s modernization plan couldn’t be better. Today’s economist was the opposite in manner, he was a skinny, gentle man who spoke softly and deliberately, but he said the same. The economy couldn’t be much better, but will be much better soon. Sitting under a large photograph of the King, he said the monarch knows exactly what to do and is doing it. “The King is ahead of the people, he is leading the people into the 21st century. He’s much better than the last king.” It’s hard to figure out who is right and what is really going on here. Jordan is a third world country, but it seems dynamic and thriving in a way that, say, Central America certainly doesn’t. There are lots of nice cars in the streets. Everywhere I go, I see construction of new buildings. Especially in Amman’s west side there are these gorgeous neighborhoods that have sprung up recently. They’re just beyond the gorgeous neighborhoods that sprang up in the ’80s, which are just west of the gorgeous neighborhoods that sprang up in the ’70s. Jordan has had these waves of wealthy Arabs moving in. In ’67, it was the Palestinian refugees from the Six Day War, most of whom weren’t wealthy, but many were. Then in the ’70s it was wealthy Lebanese fleeing the Civil War there. In the ’80s it was wealthy Iraqis fleeing the Iran-Iraq war. In the ’90s it was Palestinians from the gulf countries, especially Kuwait, who were kicked out because Arafat supported Saddam in the last war. “This country lives on the catastrophe of our neighbors,” someone told me. “When there is peace, Jordan doesn’t benefit.” So, compared to many third world countries, Jordan seems to be thriving. But at the same time, there is a feeling of profound disappointment. People were expecting a major peace dividend after the Jordan-Israel treaty of ’94. There was one for a few years, dozens of new hotels were built, tourism was at a peak, the US signed a free trade agreement. But these days there doesn’t seem to be much happening for the regular schmo. Unemployment is high. Shopkeepers aren’t selling as much, especially luxury goods. And everyone keeps saying the economy sucks. I don’t know. I hope to get a handle on it sometime soon.
The other weird thing is this loyalty to the king. The people I would expect to question the monarchy don’t. The university professors and Jordanian journalists I speak with can’t say enough about how much they love the man and how great he is. Even one guy who has been arrested a few times for questioning the king’s policies and was fired from the university four times in the last ten years because of disloyalty kept telling me what a brilliant man the King is. But the folks in the street don’t like the guy, at least I’ve spoken to. They say he doesn’t speak Arabic well. They say he’s out of touch with his people and that he grew up in England and doesn’t understand how to wield power in a country still greatly influenced by tribal politics. There are photographs of the king everywhere. On every major street you see these huge backlit posters. There’s the humble family man photos, where it’s the king in casual clothes sitting with his wife and kids. There’s the kind but commanding general standing proudly in a uniform. There’s the CEO shot of the King in a western suit looking smart and focused. And, most importantly, there are a lot of shots of the king with his father, the hugely popular late King Hussein. The most common one is Hussein with his arms around his young prince. I think the message there is clear. The current king, Abdullah, was never supposed to be king. Hussein’s brother, Hassan, was the heir apparent for thirty four years. Hussein’s younger son, Hamza, was the one being groomed for power. When I was in Jordan last, in ’98, on a press trip, we were given photo books signed by Abdullah. Our host was obviously embarrassed that the books were signed by the son nobody knew or cared about. He kept on saying, Abdullah’s good, he’s the king’s son, too. And then, suddenly, Abdullah was made king on the very last day of Hussein’s life for reasons nobody fully understands. So, these photos of Abdullah and dad make clear that he must have learned something from the old man. But they also attest to a fear about Abdullah’s legitimacy. And there should be fear. A lot of Jordanians I’ve spoken with just don’t like him.
It’s frustrating that I can’t write down everything I experience here and that some of the things I do write, I’m leaving a bit vague so I don’t give away incriminating details. I’ve already become friendly with people who have told me things that are fascinating and that I don’t want to publish on the web because it could get them in trouble. Jordan is nothing like Syria or Iraq, where you can get killed for saying a few bad words to a reporter. But it’s also nothing like the US. The intelligence here, the Mukhabarat, is present and is actually much stronger under the more “modern” King Abdullah. You can lose your job, you can find it harder to do business. And if what you say is bad enough you can go to jail. There is also a fear about the Islamicization of the country. Most people agree the country is getting more and more religious and more and more hardlined. The popular opinion is with Osama bin Laden and against the US. Every conversation—literally every single conversation on any topic—will have a good chunk devoted to how much people hate Israel and how unfair it is that the US supports Sharon no matter what he does. (Most people I speak with are quite savvy about the internal politics of Israel and say they like Israelis, they just hate Sharon. Well, one guy did tell me he wants to kill all Jews, but that’s rare.) So anyone with a non-hardline Muslim view is as scared of their neighbors as they are of the King’s intelligence forces. So, I’m not writing everything, but I hope to once I figure out how to mask who said what. Or, you can ask me to tell you when I get back to the states.
We then went to the nearby McDonald’s which was busy. It was 4:30, the time of Iftar, when Muslims can break their Ramadan fast. But my guide told me that a year ago, this McDonald’s would be completely packed at Iftar and we couldn’t get a parking space or even fit inside. I guess everyone’s been to an overseas McDonald’s and has noted the slight differences, but it still is strange seeing the McDonald’s sign in Arabic script and then seeing all these counter people in their McDonald’s uniforms and matching hijab headscarves. I was told they have to buy their own hijabs, McDonald’s doesn’t provide them, but they’re supposed to match the dark blue uniform color. There was a long Arabic prayer playing on the loudspeaker. Half the people wore traditional clothes and looked very Muslim. The other half were middle class kids wearing jeans and tight T-shirts.
I’m off to the Hotel Intercontinental to eat Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches with some American reporters.