I hear a terrifying view of what might happen in the Arab-Israeli conflict that could destroy Jordan.
Yesterday, after leaving the Iraqi guy’s internet caf’d, I went to interview this powerful, wealthy man. He used to be the prime minister, his family owns several major shopping centers and gigantic farms and is apparently involved in arms smuggling. I know all this because my guide, Arun, knows everything about everyone we interview. I mention to him a name and he says, “Oh, yes, his family is from Nablus and they are allied to so-and-so and they made their money in Kuwait.” At the McDonald’s the assistant manager said two words to us, and Arun said to me later, she’s from a very important Christian tribe in the North. Every one we meet, he knows from their name if they’re Christian or Muslim, if they are Palestinian, Beduin, or Jordanian, how powerful they are, where their family or tribe is based now. (Not everyone is tribal, but the tribal people are very powerful). I’m always so impressed, but he says, “a little child would know that.” It’s a small country, only five million or so, and family and tribal ties are much more important than in the US, obviously.
So, we go to meet this wealthy, powerful man. Arun introduces himself and they are quickly smiling with each other. It turns out a relative of Arun’s was helpful to the man, I’ll call him Ahmed, during his last election. Ahmed has a lovely office, a big Arabic style villa in a nice neighborhood. He wears expensive, European tailored clothes (casual, though) and speaks English incredibly well, using American colloquialism. He’s a liberal, he said, and he’s one of the last ones here. Much of the conversation was about how Jordan is becoming so Islamic, so anti-American. He said, “We’re having this conversation very freely, I’m telling you what’s on my mind. That won’t happen in ten years. There will be strict rules about what we can say.” He and his friends are changing how they dress and what they do. They’re not growing beards or wearing galabiyas, but they are dressing more conservatively, socializing less ostentatiously. He told me about his son, who went to school at Harvard, worked in finance in New York for years. He’s back in Amman and works in some major financial services company with all these American-educated yuppies. He said that every one of them now goes to the mosque at Noon. For even one of them to go to the mosque once would have been strange five years ago. This Islamicization is spreading all over the Arab world, obviously, fueled by anti-Israel and anti-American feelings. He said that Islamists will win the elections here in April. This terrifies him, he said. The country has such a thin liberal, democratic tradition (It is not democratic at all but has a tradition of some people wanting democracy) that is disappearing.
Ahmed lives in Abdoun, the wealthiest new neighborhood in Amman. I drove through it the other day and it’s just these huge white stone mansions and fancy shops. It’s the only place I’ve been where the building’s aren’t just the same unadorned square. Here they have different pretentious styles with columns and strange modern angles. Anyway, he talked about society in Abdoun, all these absurdly wealthy people going to dinner parties with the King (he had dinner with the king last week, his son did yesterday). He said they are getting richer and richer. Whatever economic growth the country has goes first to foreign companies and second to those in Abdoun. The wealthy there have no idea what is happening out in the villages or in the poor downtown area. When Ahmed travels, he says it’s shocking. People are so miserably poor in parts of the country. They aren’t getting basic sustenance. And he said they are question the king’s regime in angry and certain terms. There is great dissension throughout Jordan, but the wealthy and the decision makers have no idea it’s going on. They’re having too much fun. It made me desperate to go to one of those parties and see that world and then visit the angry villages.
Ahmed and I talked a long time about something that is on everyone’s mind here: Transfer. There is an obsessional fear that Sharon will use the opportunity of the Gulf War to simply transfer the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank and maybe Gaza to Jordan. This will destroy the Jordanian regime and Jordan will become the Palestinian state. I hear talk of this all the time. Ahmed and others are convinced, they say that Sharon has made clear this is his goal. Ahmed says his greatest fear is that the US, that Bush, will support the idea. Has already supported the idea. Ahmed was at the US State Department last week and felt they were hinting that they might go for this idea. There’s a fantasy that it will solve the Middle East problem. But, Ahmed said, the Palestinians on the West Bank remember 1948 and 1967, when so many of them were forced to leave, and they will not allow it to happen this time. Leaving, they know, means spending the next several generations in miserable refugee camps. Staying means winning a homeland. They will stay and fight to the last man. Jordan can’t let it happen. The country is already around 65% Palestinian and the King is weakest with them. If another 3.5 million Palestinians come, the country will become all but completely Palestinian and the king will be overthrown. Most likely an Islamic, Palestinian state will arise. And the level of anger here and around the Arab World will make what is happening now seem pleasant. I’ve spoken with several people who say that young Jordanians, poor and uneducated, rich and educated, talk about the joys of being a suicide bomber. I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been a Jordanian bomber yet, but transfer, they say, will lead to waves and waves of them. I don’t think I realized just how deep and powerful the Palestinian issue is for Jordanians and other Arabs. It’s funny, they treat the actual Palestinians like shit—keeping them in crappy camps. But the cause is sacred. Ahmed said the Jordanian regime is so scared of transfer that they have stationed troops all along the border and the Jordanian army will prevent Palestinians from coming over no matter what. The worst case scenario is something like this: Sharon waits for the worst day of the war with Iraq, when, say, 500 American troops are killed in Baghdad or something, and it coincides with a massive attack in Tel Aviv or somewhere that kills not five or ten but several hundred Israelis. The Israeli Army then knows that the world media is focused on Iraq, that American sentiment will be with Israel because of the massive attack and he can do whatever he wants. So, he sends troops in and they kick the families over the Jordan river. This all causes uprising by poor Palestinians in Amman, so Jordanian soldiers have to leave the border and suppress the uprising. This leaves the border free and you have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Palestinians pouring across.
Even though Ahmed was so open in his criticism of the government, he made it clear that he can’t say anything critical of the king. He said it’s easier for poor villagers to do that, they have less to lose.
After Ahmed, we went to the Engineer’s Union. Since Jordan doesn’t really have political parties, the unions have become more instruments of politics than advocates for their members. Yesterday, the king disbanded the committee that runs the engineer’s union and a week ago put several of them in jail. The union is launching an anti-normalization drive, meaning they are fighting any kind of normalization with Israel. There’s a new committee—that the king also disbanded—of the engineers, doctors and lawyers with help from the journalist union, pushing for an angry disengagement from Israel. Walking in to the Engineer’s union, I didn’t exactly feel afraid, but I felt aware of being an American in a way I haven’t here. It might as well have been an extremist mosque. Most of the men were in traditional clothes and beards and clutching Korans and there were signs everywhere attacking Israel and attacking Jordan’s peace with the country. I’m going back today to interview the two former heads of the union. Should be interesting.
I have a lot to do today and I better go eat a big breakfast, because everyone fasts during the day during Ramadan, including non-Muslim reporters who can’t find an open restaurant. I get so hungry. I can’t even sip water or drink some juice. You can get arrested for eating in the street. They take you to jail and keep you there until the end of Ramadan.