Me, and every other hack here, is getting gear, renting border homes, and generally getting ready for the war which is likely to start very soon.
Things are changing here, people are getting ready for the war. After a few months where Amman has, overall, felt like this sleepy, lazy place with few stories to do, few of anything to do, it’s now in a sort of near panic. For the past few days, most reporters are going on massive gear hunts. The experienced war correspondents are telling us the things we absolutely need to have, things I’ve never heard of. Like a voltage regulator, which you need if you’re going to plug your satellite phone into an outlet in a war-torn country without reliable voltage’dotherwise you’dll burn your equipment. Because Amman will always drive you crazy, me and four other reporters spent the bulk of two days looking for a voltage regulator (we did find one, at last). We still haven’t gotten a car-battery inverter that allows you to safely plug all your equipment into a car battery. This is one of the most useful tools, I’m told, and I still don’t have one. There is also a desperate hunt for good rechargeable batteries, so we don’t have to lug thousands of batteries all over the Western desert of Iraq. Other things I’ve gotten here recently include a sleeping bag, ziplock bags, a big emergency light that can go for eight hours. This is the stuff I found in Amman. I had to fly to Israel to get a bunch of other things. I got a new minidisk recorder and a data satellite phone, so I can be anywhere in the region and file stories through the internet. I also got an NBC kit’da chemical, biological and nuclear weapons kit’dwith the space suit and gas mask and atropine injectors. I’m waiting on my bullet proof vest and helmet which I’dll get on Wednesday. It’s certainly not just me doing this. Everyone is. On Friday, the entire reporter crew of Amman just kicked into gear and all anyone will talk about is getting gear. It’s funny, for the last few months it was kind of uncool to talk too much about the war or preparations. We would from time to time, but we’d make fun of the people who were constantly discussing what they’re doing to get ready. Now it’s all everyone talks about. Alright truthfully, we still mostly talk about sex and women and relationships and gossip. But war is rising in the hierarchy. There are people who have done this many times before and there are people, like me, who’dve never covered a war. So, we’re comparing notes and figuring things out. The annoying thing is that almost everyone I talk to tells me about some other essential thing I need and it’s costing a lot of money and my bags are going to be huge. It’s already at the point where it would be completely impossible for me to carry this stuff on my own.
I don’t feel scared about the war. I do feel cautious and like I want to be prepared and aware of the dangers. But I don’t feel scared. I don’t get the sense that anyone feels all that scared. There was a moment the other day when two of my best friends here were heading off to Baghdad and we were joking about when and if we’dll see each other again. And that definitely felt a bit scary, made the whole thing feel real. But that lasted a moment. I feel much more scared about not getting good stories, not taking advantage of this time in the right way.
Yesterday, two carloads of us went out to the town nearest the Iraqi border to scope things out and find a place to stay. We were assuming that we’d spend a few days or a week just sitting on the border waiting to get in to Iraq. Some entrepreneurial Jordanians bought a hotel in this town, Ruwaished, and are charging reporters $150 a night to stay there. I asked for a reservation sight unseen, assuming it was the only game in town. But when we went out there we found that it is the most disgusting place I have seen in a long time. This dirty little concrete rooms with the most disgusting bathrooms and cheap little cots that you sleep on. Just nasty. Later, I found out it’s also the town’s whorehouse (probably frequented by the Iraqi truck drivers who are constantly in town). Some news organizations are worried about having women staying in rooms alone, they might be confused for whores. So, we went around looking for a house to rent. In one of the town’s two restaurants I was shocked to see this man who was one of the first people I interviewed in Jordan several months ago. He lives out there, runs the restaurant and had a friend who’d be willing to rent his house. So, we drove out there and found this really big house with six giant rooms with thin mattresses around the walls. It’s pretty dirty and pretty poor, but totally fine for our needs and much better than the hotel. So, me and three other reporters rented the place. It’s about a grand a month’dan absolute fortune for Ruwaished. But we figured we could make that money back easily by renting mattresses on the floor for $50 a night to people horrified by the hotel. We actually got all excited thinking we could make some money off of this. I started thinking I could rent out my satellite phone which my bosses would not pay for, so it came out of my pocket.
The house has four families in it and we were told not to worry, the families would be removed as soon as we wanted them out. There were a bunch of little kids running around and we joked, nervously, amongst ourselves about making them homeless. We thought we were renting from the landlord, but we are actually renting from those families themselves. So, we’re not kicking anyone out.
We left the house and started driving towards the Iraqi border to check out these refugee camps we heard are being built. We didn’t get far at all when these army guys pulled up and told us to follow them to the local army garrison. We walked in to this room, which like every single Jordanian government room, had a dozen or something guys sitting around doing absolutely nothing. Everyone one of them stood up and each of us shook hands with each of them. I actually really like this Arab hospitality thing that happens every time you enter a place. You shake everyone’s hands and say ‘dMay God Give You Strength’d or ‘dPeace On You,’d or something and they say it back to you. My translator seemed pretty nervous and told me to stand with him and talk to the officer in charge and told everyone else to sit down and say nothing. The officer was actually very nice and went in to a long speech welcoming us to Ruwaished and saying we are most welcome any time. Except we do need a permit from the ministry of information. I didn’t tell him that I tried to get a permit from the ministry but the guy said that they’re not giving permits and I’d have to risk going out there alone. I just told him we didn’t know and we would never come back without a permit. We were there a long time. These conversations with bureaucrats are all the same. there is a lot of talking but very little is said. The whole time, I’m getting this cell phone text messages from my friends in the van we were riding with asking what’s going on and if they should escape to Amman or come into the station or what. They army guy told us he knew we were traveling with the van, so I told them just to stay wherever they were. Then there was a big flurry of activity as this little man with a big black mustache and a very expensive looking overcoat walked in and all the army guys stood up and he shook everyone’s hands. The army officer stood up to and the little man sat at his desk. The officer told us this was the governor of the region. So, the governor made a big speech about needing a permit and told us we were free to go eat in the local restaurant, but after that we had to leave. The local restaurant is so unbelievably disgusting, that we just left and high-tailed it back to Amman.
Speaking of the local restaurant. Before we were arrested or whatever, we did spend some time there, because we were told the proprietor is the big man of Ruwaished and everything goes through him, so if we want an apartment, he’s the guy to arrange it. It took an hour or something for him to finish what he was doing and come talk to us. Meanwhile, we noticed all these Americans and Europeans sitting around. My translator asked if they were journalists, but it was obvious they were lefty activists. Those human shields who went to Iraq to protect the place from being bombed. Whether you are for or against the war, these human shields’din my mind’dare absolutely despicable. The kind of na’dve idiot activist that makes me sick. It’s common knowledge (maybe it’s even true) that they’re expenses are being paid by Saddam. I’ve never heard them say anything negative about Saddam, their big enemy is George Bush. I’m no Bush fan, but Saddam is definitely a much bigger monster. These shields’dlike many others’dwere on their way out of Iraq. They thought they’d be protecting hospitals or daycare centers or something, but Saddam wanted them to protect military sites. So, they got frustrated and left. Whatever picture you have of them is probably right. one guy, a Dutchman, I think, was old and fat and had this disturbingly dazed look on his face. He stank and had a tie-die kind of t-shirt that was too small, so you saw part of his naked belly. There was an American woman’da yoga instructor from Venice’dwho had this self-righteous fire in her eyes and a sense of moral clarity that made me want to vomit. Another guy walked by’tall and skanky looking with dreadlocks and a long beard and all these tattoos. I swear that the stench of patchouli wafted over as he passed us. I’m not sure why these people bother me so much. It’s a sloppy, unrealistic analogy, but I keep thinking of some people going to the Reichstag in Germany in 1941 to protect Hitler from American aggression. I mean, you can be against the war, maybe you should be against the war. But you shouldn’t protect this monster.
As we’re driving back, a friend still in Amman called to say that her sources told her that the entire Ruwaished area would be closed when the war starts and none of us could get through. This is a major cause of panic, because my whole reason for being here’dfor staying in a hotel for months and spending all this money and getting all this gear’dis to get into the Western desert of Iraq as soon as it is reasonably safe. And not just me’deveryone here is after the same thing. We’dve been worried about Iraqis trying to kill us. I haven’t given any thought to the Jordanians not even letting me get to the place where the Iraqis can try to kill us. (By the way, mom and dad, I’m joking. I’m not going anywhere that isn’t safe and I’m traveling with veteran war correspondents who are not cowboys and know what they’re doing.) She said the government is meeting the next day (today) to decide what to do. I told her we should get some reporters together and see if we can pressure them to let us in. I said our main strength is that the Jordanians don’t want a bunch of bored, pissed-off reporters with nothing to do but write stories about the regime here. They should want us to get into Iraq, and out of their hair, as quickly as possible. My friend and I called a few friends and agreed to meet at the hotel’s conference room. When I walked in, the place was completely packed. Almost everyone I know and a lot of reporters I’ve never seen before. Everyone had the same panic I do’dwe can’t be stuck in Amman covering the war by watching CNN. Reporters, at least some, like to hear themselves talk, so there was a lot of pontificating. It kind of made me feel bad, because a lot of people seemed to have thought through things in much greater depth than I have. The main reason to keep us out, the most knowledgeable guy said, is that there are 13,000 American troops’dmostly special forces and their support people’dwho are going to enter the Western desert. They are officially non-existent. Officially, there are no American troops in Jordan. (On our way to Ruwaished, we stopped in this town right near where the US bases are and saw two obvious marines eating lunch. We stood their like giggling school girls discussing whether or not to approach them and ask what they’re doing. Then we got embarrassed and left. Very professional.) The King has secretly offered to host these guys, while publicly saying he is totally against the war and won’t offer any support to US forces. So, the reason to keep us out of Ruwaished is to prevent us from seeing all those Americans passing by. We discussed how to pressure them or what to ask for. The consensus was that we should request a convoy: we would all be escorted straight through Ruwaished and on past the Iraqi border. We could do it on their timetable, so they could make sure there weren’t any American troops there. A few committees were formed to approach the American and British embassies and the palace. We’re meeting again tonight to see how it all turned out.
After the meeting, I met a friend for drinks. Sitting near us are these two guys I’ve seen around. A friend told me they’re NPRIs, which are retired US army people who are hired as private contractors by the military at times of war. It’s not clear if they’re special forces mercenary types or if they just oversee construction or something. My friend said this one guy’da tall man who has a southern accent and wears all this Native American jewelry and a bowie knife strapped to his leg’dhas given him some valuable intelligence. So, I went up to him and asked him how we can into the Western desert and who to approach in the army. He didn’t answer the question, saying we shouldn’t go anywhere near the western desert. Then he went into this long speech about how much he loves Muslims because they live by rules that Americans have forgotten. If you fuck my wife, he said, I can kill you and not go to jail. If you steal from me, I can kill you and not go to jail. I like that. I like Muslims.