I try and fail (we all try and fail) to get an Iraqi visa, but I do describe the Iraqi embassy and the lack of press freedom here.
The quest for an Iraqi visa is now at a fevered pitch. I went out with some reporters last night and we sat at this restaurant near some other reporters. We didn’t even say hi, we just turned to them and said “What have you heard about visas?” They said, “No one got in today, just one German lady.” Most of the foreign correspondents here are not at all interested in Jordan. They’re just in a holding pattern waiting for their visa to Iraq. Everyone has a different view of how to get in. There’s one Jordanian woman who goes around to all the reporters and says she has connections and if they give her $700, she’ll get them a visa. Pretty much everyone has given her the money but now they’re all convinced she’s a liar and doesn’t do anything except fill out the normal application. But now they’re screwed, because if they confront her, she can take their application back from the Iraqi embassy and then they have to start all over. I’m in a much better situation, because I actually am more interested in doing stories here in Jordan than I am in Baghdad stories. I really just want to go there to say I’ve been there, I guess. And I’m sure I’ll find some good stories. Also, I want to do some post-war stories from Baghdad and it would be helpful to see the pre-war version for comparison. But I’m busy all day every day here, running around interviewing people, then I meet up with the other reporters for drinks in the evening and they say they sat around their hotel rooms or their offices all day doing nothing. As one put it, “every foreign correspondent is going to waste a week in Amman at some point.” There is so much constant analysis of what the Iraqis are doing. The analysis breaks down into two main camps: 1. they are completely brilliant and sophisticated. 2. they don’t know what they’re doing. The first group thinks the Iraqis are carefully reading all of our reports and choosing which reports best fit their plans. The second group suggests that they are a completely disorganized bureaucracy and visas get issued totally randomly. I met the staff photographer for the New York Times yesterday, he hasn’t been allowed in, while the NYT reporter, John Burns, did get in even though his reports have really pissed off the Iraqis. Some other paper had their photographer in but their reporter couldn’t get a visa. some people are really anxious about all this. They’re spending $200 or more a day on hotels and stuff and their editors aren’t getting anything and it’s hard to convince an editor in New York that it really is impossible to make this Iraq thing happen.
The funny thing is none of these reporters like being in Baghdad. Everyone who has already been there said it’s horrible. Every hotel room is bugged and filmed. The TVs don’t work, because there are cameras in them. One guy unplugged his TV and a minute later there was a knock on the door, saying Sorry, Sir, your TV is unplugged. He took a shower and looked up and saw a camera. A minder, a secret service guy, acts as your guide and translator. Some of them are actually OK at guiding and translating, although they obviously effectively prevent any real conversation happening with any Iraqi. But some of them don’t speak English and don’t know where anything is. They are aware of where you are, what you’re doing every second of the day. People have told me you go kind of crazy under that constant surveillance. At first, you’re just freaked out and don’t know what to do and turn out all the lights when you go to the bathroom and shower very quickly and try to keep them from really invading your sense of privacy. Then you just give up and do whatever you want to do and it’s a freeing feeling. But then it all just settles on you and you feel like you’re going crazy. Add to this that you’re spending your days talking to people who are telling you how much they love Saddam Hussein but hinting with their eyes that they’re miserable. And add to that that you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few weeks. Will all the reporters be held hostage? Will the war start sooner than expected and the hotel will be bombed? Will you be stuck there for six months of misery or will you be expelled tomorrow?
I went for my second attempt at a visa yesterday. Last time, I was in and out so quickly that I didn’t get a real sense of the embassy. This time they kept me waiting a long time. I now know that we westerners don’t have to wait in line in the crowded lobby with all of the Iraqis and Jordanians. We go around the side to this metal door and walk into the interior waiting room. I sat there for an hour or so with Arun, my guide and translator. Iraq is so poor. The embassy is just crappy. It’s a big room with old cloth cushion chairs all around the walls. There are these thin, ripped blue curtains kind of taped over the windows. There are two TVs that don’t work. The decoration is all Saddam related. A big photo of him is taped to one wall with an Arabic quote “Enemies come and go and you stay solid as a rock.” Then there’s a huge quotation in big gold letters (probably from before the sanctions) about how good work supports our great leader or something. Arun and I quietly discussed all this while we waited and I became paranoid that they were bugging our conversation. Arun said to look around. The place was so old and shabby it seems unlikely any bugging device still works. I don’t get who is allowed in this internal room and who has to stay outside in the crowded lobby. All westerners are ushered into this room as are Arabs who seem a bit better dressed than the ones outside.
Just passed this interior room is the door to an open air plaza you walk through to get to the embassy offices. There’s this guy sitting at a desk in front of the door to the plaza. He’s mostly just watching TV and constantly fidgeting with his remote control to change the volume and picture and channel. I stood there, hoping to get him to let me in to the press office, while an old Iraqi woman stood and cried and cried. She said that she got permission from the embassy to go back to Iraq without paying the 50 Jordanian Dinar ($75) border fee, but that when she got to the border she was told she had to pay it anyway. She doesn’t have any money, so she had to drive the seven hours back to Amman. And here she is crying her eyes out saying she must get back to her family, but she doesn’t have any money. The guy with the remote control just kept on fidgeting with the TV settings and every now and then smirking at us. The woman was wailing and crying. The man looking away and Arun whispering in my ear, do you see how the Iraqis are. They have no heart.
Finally he turned his attention to us and waved us through and we sat in the press office for another half hour or so. There’s a big picture of Uday, Saddam’s violent son called the murderer by Iraqis. He’s wearing some kind of sarong thing and is bald and looks like a Buddhist guru. Nobody paid any attention to us, so we got to watch the press visa process. There were three men around a desk. Two were sitting at a corner facing each other and the third stood over them. They were moving constantly, handing each other papers, writing very deliberately inside passports and on different forms. Every now and then there’d be a question and the man standing would consult out this huge ledger book with a lot of handwritten columns in it. I noticed a computer in the corner, but no one used it. The men would be quiet, hunched over stacks of passports, furiously writing, and then there’d be an explosion of talk, they would hand lots of papers to each other and then the two sitting men would stand up and switch places and the standing man would move to a different position over them and the whole thing would quiet down and go back to furious, hunched-over writing. Arun kept on shouting out, in Arabic, “What about Mr. Adam?” The standing man would look over and say, no problem. He’ll get his visa, no problem. I got excited. I think, honestly, I was more excited about showing off to the other reporters that I got in than I was about going to Baghdad. This went on for half an hour, with Arun occasionally saying “What about Mr. Adam?” and the standing man being encouraging. Then an older man, wearing a better suit and with a more severe mustache walked in and waved me out saying come back in two or three days. Arun asked “Will Mr. Adam get a visa in two days?” And the guy said “Insha’alah,” god willing. Which pretty much means get out of my office and stop bothering me. Oy.
I then went to the US embassy. It’s a cheap shot, I know, but it’s quite a contrast with the Iraqi one. We have this gigantic, gorgeous fortress up on a hill in Abdoun, the most expensive neighborhood in Amman. And remember, the Iraqi embassy in Amman is their single most important embassy anywhere, since Jordan is their primary trading partner. The American embassy here is just one more third world backwater station. While waiting, I saw this older man, a distinguished looking guy in a suit, speaking excellent English. He was at a window basically begging a young consular official for a visa. Shouting through the glass, he was answering the young guy’s questions. “I have land, I have a house, a big house. I have money. I have 100,000 Jordanian Dinars.” They don’t give visas to people who don’t have a reason to come back to Jordan. He had to shove papers through the little opening at the bottom of the glass to prove he wasn’t at risk for becoming an illegal alien.
Then I went to a big newspaper in town. Some reporters there told me how censored they are by the Jordanian regime. How things have gotten much worse recently and they can’t write what they want at all. Then I spoke with the editor and he told me that everything is great in Jordan, there’s nothing bad to write about, the king is wonderful. He, like so many people, has a big picture of the current king and his father, Hussein, on his wall. These pictures are everywhere. It’s a big statement, I’ve found, to see no king picture. Basically, if I go to interview someone and they have the picture (about 75% of the time, maybe more) they are going to say the king is great and there is nothing bad at all in Jordan. If they don’t have the picture they’re going to say the economy is miserable, the people are angry and ready to explode, that the King is far too allied with the Mukhabarat security services. There is one thing everybody is going to agree on, everyone will give me a roughly identical lecture on how horrible Israel is and how Sharon is crazy and how he is jeopardizing the entire region but that the real criminal is Bush for supporting everything Sharon does. The tone can change slightly. Most educated people say they’re ready, hungry for peace with Israel. Younger and poorer people pretty much want to kill the Jews. But the basic structure of the speech is the same everywhere.
I’m actually about to get a real mouthful of that speech. I’m going to meet the two leading opposition figures in Jordan, the former heads of the Engineering union who were released from prison last week for being anti-Kingdom and anti-normalization with Israel. Should be lovely.