I demand respect from a teenage hustler in Damascus and then sit on my bed and watch bad TV in Amman.
It’s strange how each border crossing is so different. Going in to Israel, they’re obsessed with security. They ask you a million questions about where you’dve come from, where you’re going. What you’re going to be doing there. They check your bags so thoroughly. It’s particularly annoying when you have a suitcase and a backpack filled with radio equipment and they want to check each piece. Going in to Jordan, it’s pretty much nothing. They just look at your passport, stamp it, and off you go. Lebanon is more or less the same, except three different guards check your passport to make sure there are no stamps from Israel (The Israeli border guards are willing to stamp this piece of paper instead of your passport for just this reason, and on top of that, I, like all reporters, carry a few American passports in case one gets stamped by mistake). They Syrian border is such an experience, going both ways. It takes forever. They read through your passport, check it with a million different other officers. They want to write down everything’deven when I’dm leaving. They wanted the license plate number of the cab I took and what make and model of car it was. It’s really intimidating. And I had it easy. There’s a line for Jordanians, another for Syrians, another for Arabs in general, and then one for foreigners. All the other lines were completely packed and chaotic. I was the only foreigner. I took a shared cab, and it actually took the Arabs much longer. There was an Iraqi couple in the car and it took them forever to get permission to leave Syria and then even longer to get permission to get into Jordan.
The shared cab was quite an experience. There’s a station in downtown Damascus where all the shared cabs leave, they called them serveeces. It’s packed with cars, all old yellow American Dodges and Fords, big cars with lots of room, but they’re so beat up and old. There’s one section that’s all Damascus-Amman serveeces. Dozens and dozens of them packed together. Then there’s another section of Damascus-Beirut serveeces. Each serveece has the name of the town it goes to and there were some names I didn’t recognize. They’re not in Lebanon or Jordan, I don’t think. Maybe they go all the way to Saudi Arabia or something. I got there, and this young kid, maybe 17, took all my luggage out of the cab I took from my hotel and walked me through the station. The first stop are these intimidating-looking soldiers who began to open my bags but the kid said something and they passed me through. Then all these different guys were saying ‘dAmman’d ‘dAmman’d. I decided I liked the kid, I trusted him and he would lead me to the right people. The kid waved them off and took me to one guy who said he’d take me to Amman. He asked for my passport, I gave it to him, and he was gone. Then the kid put my luggage in one serveece. I wanted to keep an eye on my luggage and on the guy with my passport, but I couldn’t and the passport guy was gone. I gave the kid 100 Syrian Pounds, about $2. I thought this was absurdly generous for seven minutes of work. But he looked very disappointed and gestured for more money. I gave him another 100. Then he said, Baksheesh, police. I said, what? No. That means bribe, police. he said, Baksheesh, police. And kept gesturing for more money. I gave him 200 Syrian pounds. He said, no 500. I gave him another 200. He said, 100. He kept on saying 100. I said no. No more. Much Baksheesh. (this all happened in my miserably broken Arabic.) He stood there, waving a finger in my face and saying 100. I said No. Much Baksheesh. I told him I knew the Prime Minister (it’s the only government title I know in Arabic). He didn’t care. 100. Baksheesh. Police. I said no. No. I just got to this point where I was sick of being taken advantage of by people. I was really pissed off and I said No. I don’t know why I took this big stand over $2. But I decided I’dm not giving him anything. Around that time, some younger kid, maybe 10, came up with a shoeshine kit and pointed at my shoes. I said no. He sat down, and was about to start polishing my shoes. I yelled at him, No! Then the other kid said 100, Baksheesh and he put his hands together, like they were handcuffed and said police. I said, OK, let’s go to the police and I started walking towards the police. He said, No. No police. This went on for so long, but finally the kid walked away. And then it was like a click. The whole place felt dangerous, scary. I had been seeing all these crowds of men standing around the cabs negotiating fares or doing whatever they’re doing. It seemed innocuous. And suddenly it just felt dangerous. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what the system was, I didn’t know which people were passengers and which ones were drivers and which ones were there to kill me or do something bad. And I was afraid the kid was going up to the cops and saying, the American won’t give Baksheesh and they were coming over to arrest me. Writing this now, I feel a bit silly, it all was fine. But at the time, it’s not that I was scared, heart-pounding, or anything. Just very aware and pretty damn nervous. Finally, we got in the car, five people in all, so it was crowded. I’dve heard that Syrians are the friendliest of the Arabs. That hasn’t been my experience. Not that they’dve been mean. But in Jordan or Lebanon, people are always asking me questions, laughing with me, congratulating me on my bad Arabic. In this car, nobody talked to me or looked at me. Pretty soon after leaving Damascus, we stopped off to buy food and drinks. I bought a bag of muffins and offered them around the car and everyone just waved me off. Then we got to the border. We were sitting around waiting so long and I was listening to Sinatra on my iPod. Two of the passengers were this father and his ten year old kid. The kid came up to me, looked at his dad, nervously, and the father nodded encouragingly. The kid said ‘dWould … you … like … Nescafe?’d It took him a long time to get the words out. I said thank you, no. But I sat next to them and showed the kid my iPod. He was very excited and was thumbing through listening to all the music. He seemed to really like the early Springsteen. Nobody could understand what this device is. His father kept saying, Radio? I said, no, computer. Many songs. He nodded, Radio. When we got back in the car, the kid switched from the front seat to the back and was basically sitting on my lap and we each had one of the earphones in an ear and were listening and smiling. I liked it. I played him this track I have on my iPod of a basic how to learn Arabic tape. It’s just some people saying in English ‘dGood Morning.’d And then saying the same in Arabic. That kind of thing. We listened for ten minutes and the kid kept smiling. Every word in Arabic, he would laugh and we would both repeat it in Arabic. Then I gave him my ear phone and I fell asleep. When I woke up 45 minutes later, I saw that he was still listening to the Arabic tape.
My Jordanian translator just called me and asked me how was Damascus. I said the people weren’t that nice. He said, no. they are not. They are not nicer than Jordanians. They hate the Americans. The hatreds in their hearts towards the Americans and Israelis is equal.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I thought that Damascus might be a wealthier, better city than Amman. Amman is so much cleaner and newer and more pleasant. I always put down Amman as boring and ugly. But after Damascus, it seems so new and clean and nice. It also seems more Arabic. The buildings are all in yellow stone. There are highrises and office towers, but they’re all in this stone and it makes it seem like a desert country. Damascus, for the most part, looks like a Soviet city.
I want to figure out what stories need to be told right now. It’s actually hard to do. Most of my work is on business and there are some basic business issues going on. I’dve been traveling so much and doing whatever stories show up and seem interesting. It’s hard to sit back and think about what are the big issues here and what are the shorter stories that get at those business issues. I talked to the head of the Syrian chamber of commerce today and he told me that Syrian businessmen are desperate to open trade ties with the US. They have pretty good trade ties with Europe, but they think the future is really with America. There’s this idea I hear over and over here, it might actually be true. That the war with Iraq is actually the first US-Europe war by proxy. Europe with the EU and everything is trying to set itself up as an alternative to the US, as a rival to the US. Europe wants to start winning all the trade wars. And the Arab world is crucial to this, because of oil and because the Arab world is a big market, 300 million people, that has been opening slowly and is likely to open completely pretty soon. If the US wins the war with Iraq, it locks up the oil there and then is free to pressure the Saudis and control their oil. Then next comes Iran and it’s oil and gas (Iran is bigger on natural gas than on oil, but recent developments allow gas to be transported much more easily and it will become a bigger rival to oil in heating and running factories and even in transportation). Jordan is completely the US’s ally, much more than Europe. Jordan has a Free Trade Agreement with the US, only one of four countries with one. It’s a dividend of their peace deal with Israel. Syria, the chamber guy said, hopes to get a free trade deal with America. It’s a long way off, I’d say. But I found it so interesting that Syria, the country farthest from having good ties with the US in the Arab world, is also desperate to drop Europe and move into the US. What’s kind of depressing and strange, is that Syria and Jordan both have the same big goal. They want to become major sweatshops for America. They want to be the place America buys it’s underwear and t-shirts and everything. It’s already happening in Jordan. The Free Trade Agreement is new, but they have a well-developed QIZ program, Quality Industrial Zones, I think, that were set up as part of the Israel-Jordan peace deal. There are nine of them. The way it works is clothes are made in a QIZ and must follow a formula. Eight percent of the work or value must come from Israeli companies. 25 percent must come from Jordanian companies (the rest comes, mostly from Asian companies). If they follow those rules, the garments can go into the US free of duty. So, some Chinese textile manufacturer ships in raw supplies, an Israeli company supplies the buttons, say, and Jordanians sew the whole thing up. They make things for the Gap and J.C. Penny and lots of other companies. All the factories are owned by Asian companies, not Jordanians. But the employees are Jordanian and it does bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year to Jordan, mostly through low salaries for sweatshop workers. I don’t know why, but I found it shocking that the big ambition for these Arab countries is to get to the point where they are equal to sweatshop Malaysia. There is a high-tech dream, too. But it’s to be another India, not another silicon valley. Jordan and Syria want to be the place where American companies set up computer support people’dguys who can write code or do telephone tech support much cheaper than any American company. India, of course, already has these high-tech cities where this is going on. Jordan has a major set-back in that their international phone rates are so high that it cancels out the benefits of cheap labor. In 2005 the rates are supposed to go down and Jordan can have both literal sweatshops and high-tech sweatshops. It just hit me that this is a sign of how poor, how undeveloped at least these two Arab countries are.
I also decided that I want to find Iraqis in Amman who are preparing for post-war Iraq. I assume they are there. Iraq does have tons of money, because of oil, and the general consensus is the country’s economy will explode the second sanctions are lifted and some normalcy arrives. I’d like to find out what plans are being hatched right now to take advantage of all that.
Amman has been so quiet for reporters lately. Everyone went back home, having given up on getting a visa and seeing that the war is a bit off. But reporters are coming back now. A few friends are flying in today. Others are coming shortly. I think it will be packed again. Everyone with a visa, of course, will try to get to Iraq right before the bombing starts. This is something I do not have any interest in doing, but most of my friends are desperate to be there for the war. One friend talked to an American army officer involved in planning and he said do not be in Baghdad when the war starts. We’re going to level the city and we’re not going to pay any attention to what hotel the reporters happen to be staying in. He also said they fully expect massive chemical weapon attacks from Saddam. All the reporters heading to Baghdad have had chemical and biological weapons training. There are two big companies that do this, in London, Virginia, and Tel Aviv. Everyone has chemical weapons suits and other mysterious equipment. But they all say they don’t really know what to do if an attack comes other than throw a suit on and try to flee. I’dve heard several arguments. No, you put one suit on right when the attack comes, take a shower in the suit and then put your second suit on. No, you put the one suit on and get out of town. No thanks. I am driving to the Jordan-Iraq border later this week just to see what’s going on there. But I’dve given up on getting any visa, so I’dll just stay in Amman or Beirut or Tel Aviv or somewhere nice and safe.