Taking it easy in Amman.
I’m sitting in a crappy, dirty internet cafe across the street from the big Safeway. This place smells like stale smoke, the keys are sticky, the computer is deathly slow. What’s funny is this is the only place like this I’ve been in. Amman is so modern and clean usually. Most internet cafes have new, fast computers. I’ve spent most of my time here in the middle class and wealthy parts of Amman. Not because I want to, but because they are completely separate from the poor parts. Amman is built on these hills and the higher up the hills, the wealthier people are. It’s kind of like two cities, there’s this wealthy place up top that might as well be part of L.A. and then there’s this poor city down below that is clearly third world. The hills aren’t such that you can see the poor parts from the wealthy ones or vice versa. They’re rolling hills and when you’re up in the wealthier parts you don’t have any idea that there’s this poor city below you. And in the poor parts, you’re just crammed in to these crowded little streets and you can’t see much of the hilltops around. As I wrote before, the city has grown so fast to the west that it has gone from 7 hills to 27 hills. The newly developed hills are even wealthier and even more removed from the poor parts. Most of the poor people are Palestinians, refugees from ’48 and ’67. But the wealthiest people are also Palestinian refugees. Jordan’s intellectual, cultural, and business elite are predominantly Palestinian. The rich ones and the poor ones are opposite in so many ways. The rich Palestinians support peace with Israel, because they have the tourist companies and other businesses that can benefit from economic normalization. The poor Palestinians are fanatically furious at Israel and don’t want any kind of peace.
I’ve done little worth reporting in the last day and a half. Mostly, I stayed in my hotel room and edited my first radio piece. I did go out last night with a couple reporters to a Hammam, a Turkish bath. It felt like a strange combination of ancient and modern. The inside is all Arabic arches and low light and strange, pleasing scents and soft Arabic music. But then there’s a hot tub that could be in any Marin County backyard. There is a strict order about how you do things. You walk in to this grand lobby and they direct you to a smaller sitting room. There are two or three guys around telling you exactly what to do. First you go to a locker room, which is exactly like any gym locker room. You are to take your clothes off, but wear swimming trunks. There’s no nude steaming in the Middle East. Then you go into the hammam itself. This is where there’s soft lighting and Arabic music and arches and all. It’s a huge room with a heated floor that is so hot in some places you can’t stand there. You first shower in one corner, then you go in for a steam. You enter the steam room through a narrow archway and then walk up some stairs. It is so hot in there. I mean it is hotter than anything I have ever experienced. I love a good steam. I always thought I like a very hot steam room. This was actually scary. My lungs seared with every breath. I felt dizzy and confused. One of the reporters seemed to like it and just sat there for a long time, but me and the other guy stood just outside the steam room, which was still so hot we had to nip further out to breath. After the steam, you shower again, then get in the hot tub, which felt cool after the steam. Then this chubby guy wearing shorts and nothing else walks over and says “Sir, please” and gestures for you to follow him. You lie down on a big polished marble slab and he lufas your entire body. He does it hard and quick and is just flipping your body around to get everywhere and dunking hot water over you. He kept pointing at all the dead skin on me and laughing. “Skin, yes?” Then another shower and you sit on another marble slab, this one heated somehow. Then a different chubby guy in shorts says “Sir, please” and gives you a massage. This is nothing like the massages you get in the US. This is a deep tissue thing where they really dig into the place where your muscle meets your bone. They’re doing all sorts of weird things with your legs where they push your toes back really far and then lift your legs in the air and slap your calves and then pull at your muscle and then sort of flitter their fingers over your calf muscle. I had a massage like this last time I was in Jordan and it was pure torture. It was this gruff Syrian guy who paid no attention to my obvious agony and basically ripped my muscles apart (though I felt incredible afterwards). This guy last night was so gentle and sensitive. A few times I flinched and he sort of murmured calming sounds and asked me if I was alright. He would pause after every new action to check and see if I was OK. At one point, he asked if I’m British or American (most English speakers here can’t hear the difference in accent). When I said American, he laughed and said “You are welcome in peace, my friend, I am Iraqi.” He then told me how much he hates Saddam and wants him dead and that he’s conflicted about the war, because he doesn’t want his family to die but he does want Saddam to get killed. Anyway, after the massage a third chubby guy in shorts wraps you in towels and directs you to this sitting room where you lie on big couches and they bring you pomegranate juice. It was quite nice, this hammam. One of the reporters told me to be sure to go to the big one in Damascus, which has been continuously operating for several hundred years.
The internet cafe guy just asked me where I’m from, England or America. He laughed and said, “You are Welcome, I am from Iraq.” And then he said America must kill Saddam. Every reporter says I won’t find a single person brave enough to say anything against Saddam in Iraq. But here, they can’t stop talking about how much they hate him. The guy is telling me, right now, about Saddam’s son, Uday, who everyone in Iraq calls the murderer. He says Uday walks around Baghdad with a tiger and lion on leashes. This guy says he was sitting in a restaurant when Uday and his feline companions wlaked in and everyone ran out as quickly as they could. He did see Uday order the restauranteur to give his cats a full Shwarma.
After the steam, we walked around Amman a bit. I heard from several people before I got here that Amman is the dullest Arab city. I didn’t know what they meant exactly. I’ve been having so much fun running around interviewing people, I felt like everyone is wrong, Amman is awesome. But last night, at 7 on a weekend evening, we walked through the city for more than half an hour, right through the heart of a hot neighborhood with lots of stores and stuff, and we passed like three old guys in kaffiyehs and nobody else. Every thing is closed, even restaurants. The city is incredibly dull. There are the four or so Western bars that are filled with reporters and marines and tourists. There are a couple big famous restaurants that stay open. But there isn’t much else to do here at night.
I think I’m going to “Dixie” tomorrow or the next day. Dixie is how foreign reporters refer to Israel when they’re in the Arab world. I kept on hearing people talking about going to Dixie or coming from Dixie and I finally figured it out. Tomorrow morning, if I get my Iraq visa, I’ll head there, if I don’t, I’ll go to Dixie.