I find myself in the midst of an anti-America protest and sitting on rugs with Iraqis discussing Zionist conspiracies and the great hope for a wonderful war.
I haven’t heard the Arab response to the Columbia disaster, but I’m looking forward to it. I can guarantee this is what I’dll hear tomorrow: the Israelis arranged it to get sympathy. Bush arranged it to get sympathy. This might sound horrible to say, but I’m telling you, this is what people will tell me tomorrow. I was actually at the big rally against America, against the war, when the Columbia disaster happened. Nobody knew it happened there, at least nobody mentioned it. They were screaming, ‘saddam, Saddam, bomb Tel Aviv.’d And ‘dWe are With Hamas.’d It was actually a rather anemic rally. They’re claiming 10,000 people. I’d put it in the very low thousands. And people just didn’t seem that angry. I didn’t feel afraid. I was afraid to go. Last night, when I got to my hotel room there was an envelope from the American embassy. They put these letters under the doors of all Americans (we have to give a copy of our passport when we check in) every week or so. Some warning. A few weeks ago, they warned us not to be in Jordan. Last night, they warned us there’s this big protest against Americans and we should avoid all the areas that where the protests will be. I decided to cover it, so did a lot of American reporters, but I was nervous. I called this guy I’ve become friendly with who is the leading Islamist opposition in Jordan. He’s a charming guy, a great politician. I went to his house and we drove together to the protest. But I had no reason to be nervous. The protest had a lot of angry slogans but it was nothing like the rallies you see from the West Bank or Gaza. People just didn’t have that look in their eyes. They were pissed off, but not violently angry. At first, I was staying to the side, in a clump of reporters. But before long, I was in the middle of the crowd, interviewing people, walking along. There’s a feeling in different countries and the feeling in Jordan is not one of violence or strong anger. It’s more like, dare I say it, whining. Pissed off, but not violently so. I was surprised to see so many Che Guevara t-shirts and posters. It was a protest put together by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic protest, not a secular, Communist protest. But lots of Che Guevara. Altogether, it was kind of boring.
Last night, I went to hang out with some Iraqis. I haven’t spent time with the Iraqi refugee community in a while, and I wanted to check in with what they’re thinking. Also, some of the Iraqis who I’ve spent time with in the past complained to my translator that I only come by when I want to interview them. Why don’t I just visit them and sit and talk? So, I went. I invited another reporter, one of the deans of the foreign correspondent community, a great reporter. We were a bit early for the guys I know, so we just knocked on the door of another house where Iraqis live and they invited us in. It was the same kind of place I’ve been in before, a concrete house with one living room with lots of rugs and another room where they sleep. They sleep and they sit on rugs. There were a lot of rugs, so clearly there are many people living there. We walked in on 15 or so people. But my translator happens to be the son of the woman who owns this house (not happens to be, that’s why we went to this house) and they got nervous that he would tell his mom that it’s not just four people living there. So they made a big show about how most of the people there are just friends and don’t live there, since they’re charged by the person, not by the house. Clearly, they all live there. They said what I’ve heard a lot from Iraqis here, especially Shiite Iraqis. Every one of them is for the war. We asked for a show of hands, and every one raised their hand, they’re all for the war. OK, you think. That means they’re all pro-America. Not at all. They went in to the same anti-America speeches you hear from everyone here. America is a Zionist country. The Jews run it. Why were there 4,000 Jews missing from the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks. How could Osama from a cave do this, etc. Boring. I was so bored, I started playing the snakes game on my cell phone while they talked. I guess it’s insulting. But it’s so boring hearing these speeches. But, I was so impressed by the reporter there with me. He turned to me in English, while they spoke to my translator. He said, they have grown up in a country of such darkness, of such constant mistrust, a place where their leaders are constantly making horrible plans against their people. Every newspaper they’dve ever read, every TV show they’dve ever seen is filled with lies, filled with propaganda to support a horrible leadership. How difficult, then, to trust America, to trust George Bush, to trust Israel. This is when I tune out. But he engaged them. He told them (he’s not American, by the way) that Americans are fundamentally good people. They don’t want bad things to happen to Iraqis. He said that we are at a historic moment. That within weeks Iraq will be free. America will get rid of Saddam and his regime and will replace it with something better. One of the Iraqis asked if we can help him get a visa to the US. The reporter told them that he has spent the last several decades away from his home country, traveling to horrible places. And he has learned there is nothing more important than being with family and being at home. The only reason to leave your home is because you can’t support your family there or you might be killed there. That’s why you came to Jordan, he said. They all nodded. He said that America will destroy Saddam, will replace him with a better regime. And Iraq will soon be a free country, for the first time in their lives. He asked them to reserve judgment just a little longer. He said that on April 1st, the war will be over, not too many people will have died, and that he and I will be in Baghdad at the al-Rashid hotel. He invited them to come to the hotel, find us, and tell us if he was wrong or right. everyone in the room was smiling and looking very excited. They kept saying inshalah, god willing. But smiling and putting their thumbs up. They said they will come to us on April 1st and they will take us to their houses and feed us. But if we’re wrong and if America destroys Iraq and ruins everyone’s lives, they will find us and kill us. They were laughing. We were laughing.
They all said what I’ve heard from many Iraqis. That most of the Iraqi army will throw down their arms on the first day of the war. Nobody will fight for Saddam. Nobody will fight for America. Their future is in America’s hands, but they can’t trust America. America supported Saddam in the past. They’re not sure America won’t support Saddam or someone worse now. They’re convinced that Saddam will destroy all of Iraq before giving up his power. He will try to kill every Iraqi. He will burn the entire country down. They said Saddam will never surrender, never go peacefully. They are very scared for their families. The war is worth it, they said, no matter what the cost, if it gets rid of Saddam. But they’re just scared.
I’ve been studying Arabic. Every day I meet with my tutor for an hour. It’s a lot of fun and it’s very helpful. I feel like I understand more and more of what I hear on the streets. But Arabic is so confusing. Here’s a weird thing. The way they refer to multiple nouns is so different from English. They have a singular, you know, one car, wahad sayarah. Then they have a specific way of referring to two nouns, two cars, sayareen. Then there is a plural for between 3 and 10 nouns, like 5 cars is sayaree’dun. But then 11 or more nouns is back to the singular, 50 cars is 50 sayarah. It’s strange. It’s hard. It’s different from English. And the constant use of god is also difficult. You greet people with ya’datak al’dafaiyah, god give you strength. That can also be how you say goodbye. If someone gives you anything, like a glass of water or whatever, you say islamu idayak. May god give peace to your hands. It’s constant. It’s like learning Mexican Spanish and realizing that Mother is the central word. You can use the word Mother to curse, praise, bless, thank anyone. In Arabic it’s god this, god that.
There are things I just love about being in the Arab world. One thing is the formal ways that people interact with each other. Whenever you enter someone’s house, whether they’re miserably poor Iraqi refugees or the Prime Minister or anyone in between, you know that within minutes they will bring you tea or coffee. I don’t drink caffeine, but there’s no way to argue, you just take the drink and take a fake sip and say may god give peace to your hands. This kind of elaborate formal way of greeting visitors is not limited to tea and coffee. It’s there everywhere. When I take a cab, if it’s a bunch of journalists and we all speak English, they’re sort of sullen and quiet. But if I venture a bit of Arabic, they are so friendly. They offer me a cigarette. Ask me if I want to get coffee. When you’re driving around Amman, you constantly see these guys and the side of the road waving their hands up and down, thumbs and little fingers extended. They’re offering coffee to drivers. They have these coffee pots right on the side of the road and they can bring you a coffee in two seconds. And if you speak Arabic with a cab driver and you pass one of these guys, the driver will offer you coffee. The Jordanians I’ve gotten to know better, the ones who will I’dll go out to dinner with or go to a store with (I can’t mention their names or details, because they can get in trouble) they insist on paying for everything. It’s actually a problem, because I’ve gone out with some people many times and they refuse to let me pay ever. I have so much more money than them. You all have so much more money than them. These are people thrilled to make $500 a month. So, I want to pay for their dinner once in a while, but it’s impossible. They say that if they ever come to America, then I can pay for their dinner, but not in their country. Today I applied for a Jordanian residency card and I’ve told my Jordanian friends that when I get that, I’dll be officially Jordanian and they have to let me buy. I love this hospitality. Whenever I ask if I should feel afraid, that once the war starts, will Americans be a target. Everyone gets offended at this. They say that I don’t understand Arabs. That I am a guest here and a guest will always be treated wonderfully. One guy told me that maybe walking alone I might be in trouble, but if I’m with any one Jordanian, I’m safe. A gang of 100 will not attack someone who is with a Jordanian, because they know that any Arab, any Jordanian, will defend his guest to the death. And not just him, but his entire family and his entire tribe. If I’m the guest of someone, if I’m just walking down the street with someone, I am under their protection, under their entire tribe’s protection. If anyone attacks me, they are attacking the entire tribe of the person I am with and that will lead to generations of vengeance. I don’t know, it makes me feel safe.