Jordan's South Rises, Again

Talk of War in Iraq Lights a Regional Fire

The off-ramp to Ma'an these days is guarded by soldiers with machine guns, checking the credentials of all who seek entry. The city was shut to outsiders, especially journalists, for weeks after the fall violence. Today, Mohammed Breikat, the city's governor, receives visitors in a large white building far from the center of town. His Olympic-sized office is lined with large leather chairs, fronted by hand-tooled coffee tables supporting outsized glass ashtrays. Breikat is not from Ma'an, fitting the custom in Jordan, where a governor never governs in his hometown.

He says stories of excessive force during the recent tensions are exaggerated or just plain false. "There were no helicopters, and no military. This problem started with gangsters who had heavy weapons." Many of the facts reported by the ICG, he maintains, "were pure imagination." The problem in Ma'an was the absence of law, in the governor's view, and the exploitation of that void by Chalabi and his supporters.

Hamed Kreishan and his son survey the damage done to their home in the Jordanian city of Ma'an.
photo: Jehed Nga
Hamed Kreishan and his son survey the damage done to their home in the Jordanian city of Ma'an.

The question of law is at the center of most discussions about Ma'an. Even critics of the government seem to agree that different rules applied here, and that the smuggling, whether of cigarettes or arms, was largely tolerated. "Ma'an has a special aura about it," says Rami Khouri, one of the authors of the ICG report, and now executive editor of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. "Ma'anis remember their place as a major caravan stop, as a trading post, and this is still meaningful to people," he argues. Khouri says the government held "that because the city was a latecomer to the country, that it had its own culture, and that because private industry hasn't really gone there, Ma'an needed a little extra help." This policy, he says, has clearly backfired.

Firsthand observers echo this sentiment. Adel Tweissi, president of Al-Hussein Bin Talal University in Ma'an, says "appeasement" by officials meant the problems steadily grew, unchecked, over the last three or four years. "There was no security, public or private," he says. "These problems, the outrageous thefts, were always on our minds."

Past the governor's office, at the entrance to town, the kingdom's ubiquitous "Jordan First" campaign, intended to distract people from the various Arab crises, is falling flat. Almost all the billboards that depict citizens of different stripes holding aloft the national flag have been defaced, either with white paint or a brown-looking sludge. Whether this is an example of the lawlessness, or simply a reaction to recent events, is unclear, though residents suggest it is the latter.

The few troops who remain here mostly guard the dusty entrance roads to the El Tor neighborhood, where one of November's largest battles took place. In this slum, the character traits that make Ma'anis famous are on display. From his grocery shop on the main shopping drag, Adnan Al-Shomali says this latest crackdown was motivated only by the coming war in Iraq. Ma'anis repeat that opinion to a reporter throughout the day, despite the constant presence of a government minder. The shopkeeper says he has run out of the essentials, like sugar, because of the siege. The supplies he does get are thanks to the bedouin, who smuggle goods to the city from Saudi Arabia. Cigarettes, another contraband favorite, are in ready supply; a shop across the street is packed to the top of its 15-foot ceilings with every imaginable brand.

Down the road, on the roof of Hamed Kreishan's residence, are pockmarked water heaters and a tattered Saudi flag, remnants of the government offensive. The bullets were intended for the now imprisoned Khamis Abu Darwish and his brothers Asri and Ahmed, who police say smuggled arms. Much of the ammunition aimed at them appears to have ended up in neighboring homes, the lion's share of it in Kreishan's, where 16 people live. There are bullet shells of varying calibers still in his walls, including a few 50mm shells he claims came from several helicopters that joined the battle. It is difficult to confirm what happened, and Kreishan doesn't deny that the Abu Darwish boys may have used his house for cover. Hardly a room went unscathed, and the family says that what the bullets didn't destroy was gutted by soldiers. "I don't know who to complain to," the patriarch says.

Kreishan declares his loyalty to Jordan, but can't see how the action in Ma'an could have benefited the country. Like most of the Ma'anis he knows, he owns a gun. "Don't all Jordanians have guns?" he asks.

A cousin of Khamis Abu Darwish comes by for coffee, and notes that while the government may have taken all the licensed weapons, most of the firearms in Ma'an are illegal, and therefore still here. "I think things will explode soon," he says, citing war in Iraq as a potential spark. Neither he nor the mother of the Abu Darwish brothers seem willing to admit that Khamis and his brothers were smugglers. And no one interviewed in El Tor thinks Mohammed Chalabi was anything but a simple, uneducated man.

Another open secret in Ma'an is that the local gun trade had been arming the Palestinian intifada. The weaponry, smuggled from Saudi Arabia, mostly, but also Iraq, grew increasingly deadly, with rocket-propelled guns replacing pistols and rifles. This has given rise to local theories that Israel played some part in November's violence. But a source with ties to the government suggests that U.S. pressure to act against terror, especially after Foley's killing, was a more likely spur.

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