I wander around the frustrating city of Amman, talk with some somewhat confused Iraqis, and explore the chances of getting killed in Baghdad.
My brother shipped me some DVDs so I would have something to watch other than the horrible American sitcoms on TV here, like Reba, Ned & Stacey, and The Single Guy. Here’s how international shipments work in Jordan. He sent it Airborne Express, and it arrived from LA in two days. Then Customs wouldn’t release it until I gave them something like $150, which is almost the full value of the DVDs. I complained about this and they said they’d put it through an appeals process which took a few days, but finally they agreed to release the DVDs for $30. So, the guy who works for Airborne Express here called me up and said he was bringing them by. When he arrived, he just had these paper forms and no DVDs. He said the DVDs are in the censorship office and won’t be released until they are deemed safe to be watched in Jordan. That would take several days. He told me, today, to go and pick them up. I asked where, he said the censorship office is on the Third Circle. Amman is built on a series of hills (originally 7, now something like 29) and Jabel Amman, or Amman Hill, is the central hill and it is made up of a series of big traffic circles. Saying Third Circle (or 1st or 2nd or 7th) can mean the actual traffic circle or it can mean the entire neighborhood surrounding the circle’dmiles of twisting alleys and roads. But somehow, hearing him say Third Circle made me think, OK, I’dll just walk around the circle and there will be some obvious sign, like maybe an actual sign, that tells me where to go to pick up DVDs from the censorship office. Instead, I walked around and around and couldn’t find anything that looked like a government office. I called the guy and he sort of vaguely pointed me in some direction and when I got there I did find an office that looked like it might be a government office. I walked in, nobody spoke English, and in my horrible Arabic I somehow got someone to point, quite vaguely, down one street and told me to go there. I walked in that direction, found nothing, walked back to that first office, called the Airborne Express guy back and then handed the cell phone to one of the guys at the desk who eventually agreed to walk me to where the censorship office is. We walked for so long, down such strange and hidden alleys until he walks into a parking lot around the back of a building that looks like an apartment building and has no signs on it whatsoever, and through a door and there is the censorship office. Inside, it’s just a dirty old apartment. There are no signs anywhere, no indication that anyone does any work there, just these guys sitting around a gas heater (one put a sandwich on top of the heater) rubbing their hands. Someone pointed me to a back room which has these old metal shelves piled with stacks of DVDs, CDs, and VHS tapes. Some of them looked so old an dusty, like they’dve been sitting there for decades. Some looked brand new. I handed my form to the old man sitting at a dirty desk and he pulled out an enormous (I mean like 3 or 4 feet) register book and thumbed through the handwritten entries but didn’t find my order and told me to come back after Eid’the weeklong holiday that begins tomorrow. I threw a complete fit and called the Airborne Express guy and told him to tell this guy I am not going to wait two weeks for these damn DVDs and they must come today. So several calls were made, somehow, and they told me to come back at 1, which is in 2 hours, and I’dll believe it when I see it.
Sorry to go on at such length, but this kind of thing happens all the time here and it drives me crazy. I was walking back to my hotel muttering (I think I was muttering in my head and not out loud) about how goddamn embarrassing this is for Jordan. How the leaders of this bullshit country are constantly talking about Jordan becoming a knowledge-based cutting-edge economy, but how can that possibly happen if there are these hidden offices that nobody can find with stacks of old DVDs and CDs. If you want something from the US and it takes two days to get to Jordan and then seven to get from the government to your hotel. And seven if you yell; fourteen, twenty or more if you don’t. The level of inefficiency is unbelievable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in some government office looking at four or five guys sitting around a heater or sitting around a desk or just sitting. You never see a computer, never see any sign of busy efficiency. There are buildings and buildings filled with doors that you can open and see a bunch of guys sitting around a heater. A friend told me you have to re-register your car once every few years and it takes months of constant effort, constantly going to these offices. I wanted to activate the voice mail feature on my Jordanian cell phone. I’ve called the customer service number several times and have never gotten an answer. After five minutes, each time, the line dies. So, I went to the store where I bought the cell phone and the guy told me I have to drive to the cell phone company’s headquarters to activate the cell phone’s voice mail. I’m sure there is some office there with a bunch of guys sitting around. I bought a Satellite Phone last week which costs well over a grand. This is a private company, a hot new communications company. The number of forms I had to fill out is unbelievable. There were three or four different people walking up with different forms. Then I gave them my Amex card and they said they need a letter on letterhead saying they can use my Amex card. I freaked out then, too. I started lecturing this saleswoman, saying this country will never get anywhere if they put all these inefficiencies in the way. I told her it was completely absurd that she wants me to go back to my hotel, write some letter, and come back just so I can spend all that money with her company.
Wow. Those DVDs didn’t arrive, so I turned on the TV and my dad’s on it in an old movie he did before I was born.
I was at dinner with some Jordanians the other night and one of them was telling me that to understand the country, it’s crucial to know the word fuza’d. He said it’s untranslatable, really. But it basically means that moment when all those guys in some office actually get off their asses and get all panicked and try to solve a problem. If you start screaming at them or if you let it be known that you have big connections with the monarchy or with some big tribe or something, and everyone jumps up and starts trying to get the problem solved. But that’s the only way anything gets done here.
Since I’m bitching, let me talk about cab drivers. Maybe I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s so annoying, I’dll mention it again. If you think of a cab driver who just knows his city, gets you right where you want to go in a quick, efficient manner, this is not what exists in Amman. I don’t know if the city is just too strangely laid out or if the cab drivers are just idiots. But whenever you want to go somewhere other than the most obvious place, they just wander around back streets and alleys and get completely lost. I’ve taken to calling whomever I’m going to see on a cell phone and asking them to tell the cabbie how to get there. You’d think it would be an easy, uncontroversial conversation. Go left, go right. No. the cabbie is talking back and arguing and discussing and asking and complaining. I can’t tell you how often’several times a day’dI’m sitting next to a cabbie having some impassioned conversation about how to get where I’m going and most often I have to call the person back two or three times, because the cab driver is lost again. Part of it is this first, second, third circle thing. Where people tell their address in the vaguest possible way. It would be like saying, yeah, come over, I live on Columbus Circle, when your apartment is on 79th and Riverside. Oh, it makes me mad. It is so annoying.
The other night, I went back to the same Iraqi Shiite refugees I saw last week. I went with the same reporter. The first time we were there, they all said they are very much for the war with Iraq. They want anything that will get rid of Saddam. This time, we went right after Colin Powell’s speech. They were in a very anti-America mood. They were saying that Powell was lying and America is arrogant and aggressive. It’s so strange. they went on and on about what a liar Powell is. So, I asked them, ‘do you think Saddam does have weapons of mass destruction?’d They all said of course he does, he has chemical and biological weapons and he’s hiding them from the UN. ‘do you think Powell knows that?’d Of course he does. Even a five year old boy in Baghdad knows that. So, how is he a liar? ‘dAmerica is a liar.’d They were all saying, this time, they don’t want the war. America is going to be worse than Saddam. They want Iraqis to get rid of Saddam. Well, you’dve had 30 years, you haven’t done it yet. OK, they said, America should come and get rid of Saddam and then leave. But, I said, Iraq will fall into total civil war if there is a power vacuum. Yes, that’s true, they said. Every few minutes they went back and forth on whether there should be a war, but mostly saying it’s horrible and there shouldn’t be a war. So, the other journalist said to them, look the two of us can write stories that tell the American people that Iraqis don’t want the war and that might make a difference, if Iraqis don’t want this war, maybe the war won’t happen. They got very upset and told us under no circumstances to do that. They want the war, they desperately want the war. But they hate America.
Last night, about seven of us went to Champions, the big American-style sports bar. It’s the kind of place I would never think of going to in the US, but here you end up there, because there are so few places to go. Anyway, we were there and everyone was betting on how long the war will be. The guesses were between 8 and 20 days. The consensus was that the US forces would take over the entire desert in a couple days and transform Iraq’s air fields into US bases by day 3. They will also destroy communication by then, and will tell Iraqi soldiers that Saddam is dead. The big question, of course, is how long Baghdad will take. One reporter is certain Saddam will use chemical weapons on Saddam City in the first days’that’s the huge, like 2.5 million population, part of Baghdad where lots of poor, angry anti-Saddam Shiites live. Every other reporter has had extensive chemical and biological weapons training and they have protective suits and masks. Everyone else at the table has reported from many wars and generally scary areas. They all agreed this will be the scariest, most dangerous by far. The danger for any reporter in Baghdad is off the charts. In fact, all agreed that many reporters will die in the first few days of the war. I’m not going to be in Baghdad then, so don’t worry, but pretty much everyone else is eager to be in Baghdad then. They all agreed they’re in denial and aren’t really fully facing the risks. They also agreed that unlike other wars, the survivors of this one will not be the smartest or most careful or most experienced reporters, they will just be lucky. The fears are the obvious ones, but there are so many of them: chemical and biological weapons, US bombs, Iraqi fedayeen. But sitting there, it didn’t feel scary, I didn’t feel like anyone felt actual fear. I think it’s too much and too abstract right now.
I’m off to see about those DVDs. I’m going to bring my Arabic teacher along. She’s awesome and she has a temper, which I hope to harness.