Waiting for the Barbarians

Overwhelmed by the Wars Next Door, Can Jordan Ever Really Come First?

Beyond a hill that hugs the large parking lot where the drivers gather, there is an airport, and today, massive American transport planes and helicopters roar off for points unknown, their eventual purpose well-known. The taxicab drivers take no notice, and make predictions about the war.

"Of course we'll fight," one says. "The Americans will be eaten." Another talks of the great surprises awaiting Americans when they get to Baghdad, though he won't be specific. "You'll see," he repeats with a grin. Then there is a loud lecture from a very short man, extolling the heroism of the lion Saddam Hussein, before he becomes agitated and storms off. He returns a few minutes later more conciliatory. "I may not like Saddam Hussein," he says. "But it's my right that my country not be occupied by the Americans."

Despite the police raids and the difficulty finding work, many of the Iraqis say that for now Jordan is treating them well; they seem relieved at this time to think of Jordan first. "If you're already wet," says Ra'ad Karim, an exiled writer, "you're not afraid of some rain." Karim, joined by several friends he calls "the intellectuals" at Café Central, an Iraqi hangout in downtown Amman, says gatherings of Iraqis to complain about the regime is nothing new. "We got together all the time in Babylon," he said, his home in Iraq. Karim successfully registered with the UN, but says he will return to Iraq after the war he hopes will come soon.

Ra’ad Karim, an exiled Iraqi writer (left), and a friend hold court daily at the Café Central.
photo: Brian Wilcox
Ra’ad Karim, an exiled Iraqi writer (left), and a friend hold court daily at the Café Central.

"Amman is clean. No one asks where you're going, or what you're doing," he says. He and his friends spend their days writing for exile publications, holding court at the café, and recounting the jokes that sustained them in Iraq. Like the one about the two guys on the bus, bumping along, till the bigger of the two steps on the little guy's toes. The little man, enduring a crushed foot asks, "Are you a member of the Ba'ath" party?" and the reply is no. "Are you from Tikrit?" Again, the big man says no. Finally, "Are you with the intelligence service?" An impatient huff. "No, I'm not." Then the little man screams, "So, get your foot off of me, you son of a bitch!"

Karim and his friends survive writing for various Iraqi newspapers. The articles generate about $50 apiece. "Freedom is not really an expensive thing," he observes, saying that if Saddam were gone and the Iraqis were left with Satan instead, the devil would be an improvement. Everyone is waiting for this war, he says again and again.

When it's not jokes, poetry floats the grizzled Iraqi intellectuals. "You know the poem by Cavafy?" he asks. "The one with the lines 'Night has fallen and the barbarians have not come./And some who have just returned from the border say/there are no barbarians any longer.' "

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