Now Playing: Goober & the Peas
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
Jordan didn’t really exist. Everyone I knew went through Jordan, yet no one ever went to Jordan simply to visit it. The country was a nebulous place somewhere between Iraq and the States. It was a modern-era way station for those of us going to and from the Green Zone.
Most of the civilians traveling through Amman never really knew the people or the country. Most travelers stayed in massive five-star hotels where even the bellhops spoke impressive English. The rooms were luxurious, with impressive views of the original seven hills settled by ancient Middle East tribes. The hotel bars served fine European beers on tap and hired Russian waitresses who were always friendly, dedicated, and gorgeous. The hotel restaurants offered fine food that never disappointed, and even offered urban specialties such as sushi. Visitors to these hotels knew they were in the Middle East because of the art hanging in the hotel lobby and hallways, yet because most Westerners never left the hotel except to visit the airports, they visited a sanitized version of the Middle East.
Although no one I knew ever traveled to Amman to see the city’s archaeological sites, eventually most people got stuck in Amman for one reason or another and could take short sightseeing trips. During the spring and summer, dust storms could easily close down the Baghdad airport, stranding would-be travelers in Jordan. The Iraqi government also shut down the airport during the days surrounding the elections, and from time to time the U.S. military closed the airspace around the airport for unexplained and unspecified “military operations.” These closures gave travelers a chance to see Petra with its ancient temples carved into the stone cliffs, the ever-shrinking Dead Sea where anyone could float, or the ancient Roman ruins scattered about Amman. Travelers who were able to visit these sites did so without any organized plans. The five-star hotels or the embassy usually helped organize these last-minute tours, and in a show of gratitude to their tour guides, most Westerners tipped generously; after all, where else could they spend their money?
Those who got stuck in Amman quickly grew tired of eating at the same hotel restaurants, and the more adventuresome travelers would ignore the RSO’s warnings about the threat of kidnapping and search out bars and restaurants in the city. Although Jordanians were by and large Muslim and poor, and the city did not have the same number of fine eating and drinking establishments that one could find in a city of similar size in Europe, Amman still offered more than one would have expected. The city had sisha patio gardens, Italian restaurants, and Starbucks. During many of my trips through Jordan, I visited an Irish pub with thick wooden bench seats and paneled walls. Roughly 60 percent of the clientele were Westerners, and they didn’t seem inhibited by the traditional expectations of a conservative country. People were throwing back shots, arguing about the war, and acting like they were in the States rather than Jordan.
Jordan had also become a wayfaring point for Iraqis. After the first Gulf War, some Iraqis moved to Jordan to seek out better economic opportunities than what existed in Iraq. When the second war began, a similar wave of Iraqis moved to Jordan. However, as the second war dragged on into its second and third year, many Iraqis began to truly worry about the future of their country. The economy grew worse and worse, and the daily sectarian violence unnerved even the strongest supporters of the Americans. Thus, many Iraqis who had the means chose to move to Jordan and joined the mix of foreigners passing through Jordan because of the war.
During the beginning of the second Gulf War, Jordanians were generally hospitable toward Iraqis. The Jordanians had accepted waves of Palestinians at various times during the last 50 years, and thus were somewhat understanding of the Iraqis. Who wouldn’t want to get away from the violence and bloodshed in Iraq? However, as the war dragged on, more and more Iraqis fled to Jordan. While some of these Iraqis were educated and had money to support themselves, many did not have the means to pay rent or buy food. They had come to Jordan in hopes of escaping the war and finding jobs, but the influx of poor Iraqis swamped the local social services and depressed wages.
The Jordanians were not as forgiving to Iraqis who didn’t have money to pay their own way. During my final trip to Jordan, I met an Iraqi friend who had somehow convinced the U.S. government to let him work temporarily in Jordan. He had left Iraq because it had gotten too dangerous for him to work with the Americans, yet his skill as a travel agent had ingratiated him to his bosses and allowed him to somehow keep his job. He had money, but the Jordanians were not accepting of him because they assumed that he didn’t have any money. Whenever we traveled together, I had to enter the restaurant or bar first to ensure that the waiter would promptly seat us or that the bouncer would let my friend in without patting him down.
Underlying the calm, familiar Western-esque settings in Jordan, a threat of violence and suspicion of violence followed every Westerner. The State Department RSO warned us to stay on guard at all times. During my year in Iraq, a group of insurgents had kidnapped a handful of Chinese workers who had worked in Iraq and were passing through Jordan. There were also rumors that insurgents were passing between the Jordanian and Iraqi border, which meant that the insurgents were also operating in Amman. Dark thoughts such as these normally stayed in the background, but from time to time, they would percolate to the surface if someone in Amman asked too many questions or seemed to be watching us too carefully.
The fears I lived with in Iraq sometimes led to irrational moments that make no sense in hindsight. One night, I went to Mecca Mall with one of my colleagues who happened to be passing though Amman on the way to a rest break in Namibia. Mecca Mall was a massive multi-storied mall with cell phone stores, big box department stores, and even specialty lingerie stores. After we wandered around the mall for two hours, we jumped into a taxi and told the driver that we wanted to return to the Four Seasons Hotel. The driver, who didn’t know any English, muttered something in Arabic but seemed to understand. As he pulled away from the mall, the driver almost immediately turned the wrong direction. My buddy and I tried to ask the cabbie where he was going, but he didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak any Arabic. In the end, I just kept saying “Four Seasons” in hopes that he would understand. It didn’t help.
At that point, the driver pulled out a cell phone and began talking to someone in Arabic. My buddy instantly grew suspicious. He reached up and yanked the driver’s cell phone from his hand. The driver shot back an angry scowl, yet didn’t fight back. He just looked very confused and exasperated. He wanted to communicate with us, but couldn’t. He also desperately wanted his cell phone back, but he wasn’t going to get it back. My friend had grabbed the cell phone because he thought the cabbie might have been calling his accomplices to help him kidnap us. However, in the end, the cabbie was simply a young man who didn’t know how to find the hotel, and he apparently had been calling a friend to get directions. He clearly didn’t know why the two Americans would take his cell phone. The cabbie didn’t live in a war zone, and he didn’t understand how as Americans in an Arab country, most of us were highly suspicious of everyone.
Despite all of these growing complexities, Jordan was a safe place for Americans until almost the end of my tour. In November 2005, an al-Qaeda-related cell attacked three major hotels in Amman—the Radisson, the Grand Hyatt, and the Days Inn. Although the hotels were used by many travelers for various reasons, they were filled with Westerners and diplomats connected to reconstruction and diplomatic initiatives in Iraq. Although it is impossible to know the exact motive of the suicide bombers, I always assumed that the desire to kill Westerners connected to Iraq was the primary motive for the attacks, which killed 60 people and wounded over 100.
I learned of the attacks after returning from a local Green Zone bar with a pack of friends. We had been drinking for hours and were in a very agreeable mood, yet as we pulled into my compound and heard the first whispering of the attacks, almost everyone grew pale. Our first thoughts were of friends who might be traveling through Jordan, and then our thoughts turned inward. All of us passed through the same hotels on a regular basis. Any one of us could have been at the hotels during the attack. Any one of us could have been among the dead.
We rushed back to my house and turned on CNN International. We looked at images from the damaged hotels, especially the Radisson, where the bombers had caused significant damage to the inside of the hotel lobby. These were images of places where all of us had been, now devastated and splattered with blood. Although we lived in a war and heard explosions all the time, those explosions happened on the other side of the concrete blast walls. We never saw those explosions when they happened, and when we saw them on CNN, the sites weren’t familiar to us, even though they might be only a mile or two from where we lived. The hotels in Amman were places that everyone knew very well, which made the attacks dangerously close and unsettling. It brought the war much closer to us than we would have liked.
Sensing the grim air settling upon the group of young diplomats sitting in my house, my friend Jeff leaned over and said, “We’ve got to turn this off. It’ll eat everyone up inside.”
With that simple suggestion, I quickly turned off the television and turned on the stereo. I went to my liquor cabinet and starting pouring shots. It was a Thursday night, the only night when we didn’t have to worry about getting up early the next day for work, and I refused to let the war stop us from having a good time.