I spend the morning with the leading opposition figures in Jordan.
I went to the engineer’s union this morning to meet its ex-presidents, Laith Shbaylat and Ali Abu-Sukr (I love both names, they sound particularly cool when Jordanians say them). I use their names because they proudly say whatever the hell they want to say right into my microphone, so writing this won’t get them in trouble. They are, perhaps, the leading opposition figures in Jordan. They are Islamists, pan-Arabists, anti-Israeli normalization. They are constantly getting arrested by the regime, including last week. In fact, last week the king ordered the engineering union’s ruling committee to be disbanded because he didn’t like their outspoken political work. See, there are no political parties in Jordan. The parliament was disbanded a year ago and elections were postponed. The leaders of what would be civil society in any other country–the intellectuals, independently wealthy, journalists–all sit under pictures of the king and spout platitudes about how great he is and how wonderful Jordan is. The only vocal opposition are the unions, oddly. They have actual democratic elections with real debate. They have liberals and secular nationalists and Islamists. Although these days the Islamists are winning by far. Liath Shbaylat created a special committee of the engineer’s, doctor’s, journalists and some other unions to oppose any peace or normalization with Israel. That’s what caused all the uproar last week.
I want to describe Laith. He is going places, I think. I’m actually shocked he’s not on CNN every day and his name isn’t a household word in the US. He’s a tall man, wears great suits, has a neat beard, and has these happy, smiling, dancing eyes as he talks in fluid, idiomatic English. He’s very seductive and exciting. His voice is sort of constantly shocked and delighted by the outrageous things he’s saying and that other people are saying about him. I found myself happily saying, “But people say you’re worse than Khomeini, you want to create a miserable Muslim dictatorship.” And he’d howl and hit the table and say “These people are stupid. They are so stupid. I want nothing of the kind. I am just a man who speaks his mind. If I don’t speak my mind I’m worse than a prostitute, who sells her body, but not her views.” He talks such a good game. That Islam only teaches justice, that’s all they want. That all his friends are liberals and feminists and Christians and, sure, they have a different utopian vision, but right now they’re united in the goal of bringing true democracy to Jordan. Even on Israel, he’s got this great patter, about how the Muslims love the Jews and consider Jews to be more Islamic than European. That Israelis are welcome to be part of a great Arab nation that will span the entire Middle East and North Africa. But when he does get specific, it’s enough to terrify most Americans. He wants all Israelis who weren’t born in Arab countries to be sent back to Poland or wherever they came from. He referred, obliquely and smilingly, to his social program that feminists might object to but then said that wasn’t important.
The whole time I’m having this conversation with Laith, Ali Abu-Sukr is sitting right there. He is a quiet man in a dour suit and even dourer face and he speaks little English. People say he’s much more extreme than Laith, though they claim that’s not true. He would look deep into my eyes and tell me, in Arabic translated by Laith, that he sees no reason for Jews to remain here. But it was fun sitting with these guys after so many Jordanians told me they were crazy extremists. I felt like they liked me and that I liked them, although I totally realize that they were seducing an American reporter and I sound like an idiot suggesting I fell for it.
I mentioned to Laith that I might want to visit Ma’an, the city in the south that has been the site of huge protests and army actions against the protestors. Ma’an is closed by the army and no foreign journalists are allowed near it. And Laith, specifically, has been forbidden from going there, since he’s a big hero down there and could only cause more uprising. So, he got so excited about having a big media event. He started talking fast and asking if I could get a group of reporters to go down with him to meet with the uprisers. That we would create a big event and he would be protected by us from getting arrested or worse. He said we’d have to hide a TV camera in the car, but he knows a guy who can do that. I got kind of excited about the whole thing. After I left Laith I called one of my new friends, a producer for an American network news show, and he said it sounded interesting. But then he said “You don’t want the government to know you’re thinking of doing this.” Then he paused. then he said “Since you told me about it on your cell phone, they already know about, I’m afraid.” I felt like such an idiot. It’s widely accepted that they’re listening to our cell phone and hotel phone calls and, maybe, following some of us. They won’t hurt us. The last thing Jordan wants is to piss off the US. But they can make things harder journalistically if they perceive one of us as unfriendly. So, why am I writing all this down, you might be wondering? I don’t know, I’ve talked to a lot of reporters and they seem to think nobody is ever going to look on a website. It’s just not how they think. They bug, they tail, they read the New York Times and watch CNN. They don’t even know what goes on on ABC or NBC news or anything. I could put this weblog on the front page of the Chicago Tribune or broadcast it night and day on public radio and they would have no idea.
I have to say I feel kind of proud that I’m, doing all this Jordan reporting. Nobody else is. Everyone else I talk to is waiting in their hotel rooms for their Iraqi visas. Many have been sitting around for two weeks. I know I’m not the only guy doing actual Jordan stories, but I must be one of the only ones, I certainly haven’t met anyone else whose doing them. There was a rumor going around today that the new list of Iraqi visas was coming out at 7 tonight. So, I went promptly at 7 to the Iraqi embassy. While waiting, an Italian journalist got his visa. He was so excited he was hugging and kissing the consular official and saying, I will take you to dinner, I will take you to dinner. I thought it was a good sign. Some people think the whole thing will break soon and everyone will be allowed in. Though, other people think the whole thing will break soon and nobody will be allowed in. The other big topic is who will get to stay during the war and who wants to stay during the war. Anyway, I was waiting in the now all-too-familiar office of the Iraqi press attache as he went through a big list of names. I waited a long time as an Asian journalist got his visa right in front of me. He smiled at me, I got excited, and then he said that the list was too long and it was sorted by number and he didn’t want to look my name up so I would have to call Baghdad and find out if I had a visa number assigned to me and if so then he could issue the visa. But he didn’t have any suggestions of who to call in Baghdad. Finally, his assistant gave me a number which, I have since learned, doesn’t work. As I’ve said before, I don’t feel that upset about it. But these other guys are going crazy. Their whole reason for being right now is tied up with getting that damn visa. If they don’t get it, they miss the big story of the decade.
Last night, a lot of the reporters were discussing, as they often do, “this life” and how long they want to stick with it. There was a lot of horror story tales. One correspondent showed me her passport which is as thick as a paperback book (the state department keeps putting more and more pages in, if you need them) and was a diary of the hotspots of the last decade. there were visas to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, Pakistan, et cetera. The discussion covered how hard it is to find love when you’re on the road most of the time; how to help your parents and loved ones deal with the fact that every time something huge and horrifying happens in the world, you are in the middle of it. There was a big debate about whether you ARE the job or you DO the job or something like that. There was an argument about whether people could quit if they wanted to. One person said she could quit any time. Others said she was fooling herself.
I went to the US embassy. There was a big hall of people waiting in the visa area. I walked through the huge but quiet crowd, my feet clicking on the marble, and went into the little room for American citizens. It was empty and cleaner and I got served right away and then went clicking my way out. I felt like I was flying first class or something. I was happy to be treated better but kind of embarrassed and horrified, too. It made me realize what a big deal having an American passport is in many parts of the world.