I go from Tel Aviv to Amman (learning the secret to crossing the border much more quickly) and I sit on carpets with an Iraqi soldier and his friend, the smuggler.
Driving around Tel Aviv is stomach-wrenchingly frustrating. Drivers are awful and obnoxious, of course. When you’re waiting at a red light and it turns green, the guy behind you will honk his horn so quickly, quicker than it would be humanly possible to get your car moving. And if you take an extra tenth of a second turning a corner, that same guy behind you will honk. People are honking at you so often and so obnoxiously, it’s actually worse than New York. I immediately took to driving very slowly when anyone honked at me, just to piss them off some more. I spoke with some Israelis who said, of course, that’s what everyone does. So it’s this great cycle of honking and slowing and more honking and even more slowing. But the other drivers aren’t the worst thing about Tel Aviv. The roads seem to be on a grid system, but they’re not. You’re going down Namir Street and you know it was parallel to Ibn Gvirol. But what you don’t realize is that they have been subtly diverging so that by the time you want to take the quick left and get on Ibn Gvirol that street is now several miles away, rather than the couple blocks you thought. It is so easy to get completely lost in Tel Aviv. Someone in the Tel Aviv municipality obviously got very excited about street signs. They made them huge and lit from inside, I guess to make them easier to read in the dark. But even though the signs are huge the writing is small and they set them up at every corner so that the sign for the street you are on completely obscures the name of the street you are passing. There is no way to see the cross streets unless you drive on to them, which means you’re constantly turning on to the wrong street and getting even more lost. And then the names of the streets, my god does that drive me crazy. There are so many Jews to thank for helping create the state of Israel and Tel Aviv is so small that the streets are constantly changing names. To get to my house there, I drive on ‘the Foundation for the Establishment of Israel’d Street which, two blocks later, becomes Shlonsky Street (to honor an important Hebrew poet), which then, after just two more blocks becomes Tabenkin Street, to honor an important early labor Zionist. Then it becomes David Marcus street after another two blocks. This is happening all over the city, so if you have to drive from the north to the south, the street you’re on may change names several dozen times. And it’s not like the states where its just an honorary name. They actually change the name of the whole street. And then the names of the street are amazing. I take a left at ‘those Killed by the Kingdom’d street, which commemorates rightwing Zionist paramilitary killed by the British before Israel was founded. Then I take another left on ‘those Exiled to Kenya’d Street, also commemorating rightwing paramilitary (I live, I guess in a rightwing area). I don’t feel like I’dve successfully conveyed why I spend hours every day in Tel Aviv wanting to rip the head off of every driver around me. But I do.
I went back to Jordan and this time I used the VIP service to get across the border. Wow. Last week, coming from Amman took hours just to go a quarter mile. This time, I show up at the border, give my passport and about $60 to a woman at the VIP service and they take care of everything. I didn’t have to go through customs, I barely went through border control. They put me in a van and whipped me across the border. The whole thing took maybe 15 minutes. $60 doesn’t seem like enough to pay for the difference. It was a bit strange that I showed up and they whipped me through, even though there was a room full of Palestinian college students on their way back to school in Amman who had obviously been waiting for hours. But me, they hurled through. On my van, there was a Palestinian-American guy who got sick of living in the US and implicitly supporting its racism against Arabs, so he moved to Jordan. He told me that some days the Israeli border control won’t let anyone on the regular bus which costs about $2 and forces everyone to take the VIP service for $60.
I got to Amman and right away went with Arun to interview some Iraqis. He told me he asked around and found the Iraqi neighborhood. We pulled off the side of a highway and there was an old bus with Iraqi license plates. The two drivers were sitting on the road surrounded by a huge spread of car parts. They were each holding a wrench and it looked terrifying. They seemed to be rebuilding the whole engine just before taking off on the 12-hours-through-the-desert drive. They would not talk to me. They said it would just get them in trouble. So, Arun and I ran across the very busy highway and walked up to the Iraqi neighborhood. It’s the poorest place I’dve seen in Amman so far. The houses and stores are small and dirty. There are dirty kids playing soccer in the stone alleys. We walked up to a tall man wearing an ankle-length robe and a big leather jacket. He was striking. And he was happy to talk. He lives outside of Baghdad and he’s in Amman for ten days waiting for his brother to come from Europe to give him a lot of money to bring back to his family. He’s a reserve soldier, he fought in the Persian Gulf war, in the Iran-Iraq War, he says he’s been fighting his whole life. He said the Iraqi army is ready for the Americans and will defeat them. So, I asked, are you training? No. There’s no training. We don’t need any training. We all know how to fight. I’dll just take my Kalachnikov to the base three days before the war. Is the army preparing in any way for the war? No. We don’t need to. We know how to fight a war. He kept on saying that the Americans will always win if they bomb from the air, but will lose if they fight on the ground. But he also said that no reservists have been given any orders, none have trained, they just have fought so many wars that they’re ready and will just naturally show up at their bases when called. But this guy was so interesting. I ended up spending three hours with him and his story changed back and forth all over the place. A couple hours later a friend of his said that 50% of Iraqis will fight for the Americans against Saddam. Then the soldier said, Nobody is going to fight for Saddam and nobody is going to fight for America. They’re just going to protect their families. He said that neighbors are gathering in groups to stock up on food and water in preparation of the war. But then, I asked him again, are you going to fight and he said of course he would. His family are all in the regime or in the Ba’dath party and know that a new regime will destroy their lives, so they’dll fight to protect what they have. At one point, he said Saddam is very bad but whoever the Americans put in his place will be much worse.
I was talking to him in this small abandoned shop. Then I followed them to another shop where a crew of guys were taking dozens and dozens of rugs out of the shop and putting them on a truck. The rugs, they said, belonged to poor Iraqis who have had them for decades. They were sold recently’trucks go through the streets of Iraq calling out to buy rugs’so the families could buy food. They are invaluable rugs, handmade decades ago and beautiful. The poor Iraqis get 16 Jordanian Dinars (about $24) and then some Iraqi middle men gets 21 Dinars and these Iraqis in Jordan buy them for 24 Dinars and ship them to Saudi Arabia where they sell for 30 Dinars, about $40. they have to come to Amman first because that is the only border open to Iraq. In fact, the guy said, everything of value from Iraq is now either in Amman, just left Amman or is on its way to Amman. Everything from family carpets and silverware to ancient archaeological treasures. He said I can find every single thing of value to an Iraqi on sale in Amman.
The rug merchant, a friend of the soldier, invited me to their house which is just a few feet away from the carpet store (I say store, it was just an empty concrete room with a lot of rugs piled up). Their house is three medium sized concrete rooms with rugs everywhere. They sleep on rugs in the back, they sit on rugs in the living room’dwhich is completely bare except for the rugs and one plastic chair. Then there’s a very modest kitchen with one of those gas canisters that you just open and light. We sat around the rugs, the rug merchant, the soldier, a bunch of young 18ish Iraqi guys who never said a single word but followed our conversation very attentively. And one Egyptian guy who their friends with. I asked them if they had any questions for me. The two older Iraqis’the rug merchant (who is heavyset, squat with a big, square head and, of course, a mustache) and the soldier (who, as I said, is tall and skinny and elegant looking)’djust looked at me as the Egyptian guy went on and on in some endless tirade about America and all its evils. I kept asking him exactly what America had done to piss Arabs off so much. He just had all these speeches ready about how America wants to destroy Islam, that is our true goal. I asked him for some evidence and the only thing he could come up with was that the students at the American University in Cairo aren’t very religious. He kept saying that all Americans hate Arabs, hate Islam. I kept telling him that more than 90% of Americans don’t know anything about Arabs or Islam and don’t really care. They just worry about their own lives and can’t be bothered with foreign issues. He didn’t believe me. He said that everyone knows the Americans are very smart and very powerful and everyone knows many things and that America is a democracy so whatever Bush does reflects what we want. I told him that’s just not true. I told him that if he met my friends or my grandparents or whatever he’d like them. He wouldn’t feel they wanted to destroy Islam. I didn’t get anywhere with him and I found it boring and I wanted to talk to the Iraqis.
When I asked the Iraqis what questions they had, the tall soldier just wanted to know why America is so focused on Saddam. He said, sure the guy is bad, but there are worse people, like the North Koreans. Why are we so obsesses with it. I said I didn’t know, but I think it has something to do with oil and with creating a launching pad in the Middle East against terrorism. There was something so different about how the Iraqis talked and how the Egyptian guy talked. The Iraqis weren’t filled with readymade speeches, they just seemed tired and sick of it all and just wanted to know why we wouldn’t leave them alone. Actually, the squat rug merchant said that most Iraqis support a war, they want America to get rid of Saddam. But they’re worried. He said (I’dve heard this elsewhere) that the uprising against Saddam after the Gulf War was very real and very widespread and the Americans just abandoned them. He said he’s worried, all Iraqis are worried, that that will happen again. They want to believe in America, in the war, but they don’t know if they can. The soldier went back and forth on this, saying nobody would fight for anyone and he would fight for Saddam.
The rug merchant said that everybody in Iraq is terrified. They can’t say anything because they know that Saddam’s spies, the Mukhabarat, are everywhere, in every family. Around every corner. The terror is in every house. He said they’dve all seen many people taken away to prison and never return just for saying something casually to a friend. I asked the soldier what he thought. He got a big smile, and while he was laughing, he said, ‘saddam is good. I’dve never heard of any of this stuff. Everything is good in Iraq.’d Everyone in the room was laughing hysterically. One of the 18-year-olds who had been quietly, sort of somberly sitting in the corner started laughing so hard he was literally bent over. I asked him what he found so funny. He got very serious and said ‘saddam is good. There is no problem with Saddam.’d The soldier then said that Saddam is so peaceful he doesn’t even know he invaded Kuwait. This is a joke that kills in a room full of Iraqis, I discovered. They were all in absolute hysterics at that one.
The soldier told me that every Arab believes that the Jews destroyed the World Trade Center, that 4,000 Jews weren’t at work that day. I got mad and said that is absolutely not true. I said that many Jews, many Muslims, many Christians died that day. But a lot of Jews did. He seemed to be listening, I don’t know. That was one of the moments where it occurred to me to be afraid. The room felt a bit more cramped and I noticed that the young Iraqis kept walking in and out, talking excitedly, sometimes, on cell phones. I started fantasizing that they were hatching a plot to kill me. I asked Arun if he felt safe. He smiled and said, Yes, very safe. They’re very nice. So, I decided to feel safe and I did. I was very open about most things and tried to tell them what I really thought. But it sounds absurd representing the American people. I felt like my voice sounded strange, like I was delivering a speech in Congress. I was making these broad statements about how decent Americans are and I don’t know what. It feels a little embarrassing.
It would strike me, sitting there, that I had woken up in Tel Aviv. It’s on the other side of the largest barrier in the world for these people. What would they think, what would they do, if they knew that. Well, I didn’t tell them. I didn’t want to find out. Finally, I got up to leave, they were very nice. I mumbled something about how I hope that our two nations can live in peace or something.
I’dm now leaving to go back to the Iraqi embassy. I was there all morning. My new fixer says he will definitely get me a visa today at 1:30 or tomorrow morning. We’ll see.