Waiting for the Barbarians

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

 AMMAN, JORDAN—To sit for tea in the dim, moldy café in the courtyard of the buildings where the Iraqi refugees gather is to hold out hope for the demolishing end of Saddam Hussein's regime. An anxious energy powers the place, and the question that hovers isn't will, but how soon till America and its superbombs arrive. Of course no one wants war, all the residents say, but they hardly convince. It may be that many of those gathered here to escape Amman's freezing rain are followers of Mohammed Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric assassinated by the government in Iraq several years ago. For their loyalty, almost every man received jail time, and some bear hideous scars from frequent prison torture sessions.

"Since 1979, it's been one long war," says a young man with cigarette burns on one shin. The conversation has moved to a small room in the compound that serves as a barbershop (in fact the café is simply another room that happens to have a large plastic table in it). "The Iraqi army will not fight the Americans. The Republican Guard will not fight. Only the Tikritis, maybe" he says, referring to residents of Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. "If there is a long occupation, America will lose in the end," he continues. He checks that the shop door is closed, for in Amman these days, Saddam's informers are everywhere.

"But the people who are protesting the war don't know what the regime is like." The young man pulls away his thin jacket and paisley shirt to show off a scar on his neck, and another two lashes on his breast, caused by a power-cable whipping. "You tell Bush my people are waiting for him."

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.

These crumbling buildings are now known simply as the Iraq Compound, and at one time, they hosted almost 300 Iraqi exiles, down to just over 30 today. Everyone here paid hundreds of dollars in bribes on the Iraqi side of the border to cross. Once through, a very small minority of those coming to Jordan successfully register as refugees with the United Nations, and await resettlement in a third country, often New Zealand or the U.S. Others apply directly to countries like Thailand or the United Arab Emirates for shelter. Those who somehow find the large sums required to make the trip may very well end up in a place like Bangkok's notoriously brutal detention center, where they might easily spend a year.

But the majority of exiles sit in Jordan illegally, finding occasional construction jobs, or selling cigarettes and Iraqi dates by the side of the road. Many of the men here will be rounded up by the Jordanian police in random raids, packed into minivans, and returned to the country they fled.

Locals estimate that somewhere around 350,000 Iraqis have settled in Jordan since the Gulf War. Here they join upward of 2 million exiled Palestinians, giving Jordan the highest proportion of refugees to indigenous population in the world. War threatens both sides of the kingdom, a fact that—when combined with unemployment at 15 percent, a simmering revolt in the southern city of Ma'an, and the recent assassination of an American diplomat in Amman—would seem to give Jordan's King Abdullah a lot to ponder.

Last year, he launched a campaign under the organizing theme of "Jordan First." The idea, he said, was "a social contract through daily practice of our priorities." In short, this meant getting his country's mind off the Palestinian and Iraqi conflicts, the two huge elephants wandering around the countryside, and back to the daily business of the nation. "The point was to improve the quality of the debate," says Mustafa Hamarneh, a Jordanian scholar who advised the king on the campaign. "Instead of huge causes and ideologies, let's put the country first." Practically, it is not yet clear what the policy means, but some suggest it will mean getting Jordanians of all backgrounds to accept the country's cooperation with the U.S. when the war with Iraq begins.

So it's still too early to judge the campaign's success. Jordan First's logo, several pairs of hands holding aloft the Jordanian flag, is on Amman's buses, in store windows, on cars. While there were problems, according to Hamarneh, the document produced by the initiative "was very good, very plural, very open."

For the time being, though, much of the country will certainly keep talking about Iraq. Jordan seems willing at the moment to admit the coming round of Iraqi refugees, if only to camps on the border. And now that the international press has arrived, those Iraqis already here are enjoying the new power of their experiences. And predictably, they're not all telling the same story.

At the taxi stand across the street from the Iraqi Compound, drivers wait to take fares back and forth to Baghdad. It is said that among these drivers are Saddam's informers, shuttling more than just passengers across the desert. This is the reason many of the refugees say they won't register with the UN, a high-profile move that would be noticed by the Iraqi regime, through its cab-driving proxies.

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.

"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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