As soon as the kids started running back and forth between the neighbors’ houses the next morning, I took myself next door to Umm Hashem’s for breakfast. There was always plenty of bread and mezze at breakfast time, and lots of tea. She even had her daughter make me a thick Turkish coffee. “Of course we have school!” she declared, slipping into headmistress Sid Muna mode. “Abu Selsabeel will be here to pick us up soon.”
I went to school with her as usual that day. On our way, Abu Selsabeel asked about Abu Hashem. “He was in Amman all week,” she said, “and he was on his way home last night when they called him back to his office.”
Like many villagers, Abu Hashem was in the military, an officer in the Air Force. Since Black September 1970, when Palestinian factions in the Jordanian military attempted to assassinate King Hussein from the back of a motorcycle, Palestinians had been barred from serving in the military, and motorcycles banned for all civilian use. Since then, Jordanians of Palestinian descent have built some of the biggest commercial enterprises in the country. So-called “East Bank” or “real” Jordanians, especially from villages and rural areas, feel that they have the best chance of employment with good wages and benefits in the military, police and civil service. Abu Hashem and his brother had both done very well for themselves and their families in the public sector.
It was about that time that I began to hear rumors about Abu Hashem. Maybe he and Sid Muna were a little too well off for civil servants, even a headmistress and an officer of his rank. “You know,” people would say to me, “he’s got to be in the mukhabbaraat — the intelligence services. Haven’t you noticed that whenever there’s a terrorist threat, he gets called to Amman?” Of course, military personnel of all kinds were on high alert across the country at a time like this, so that was hardly a determining factor.
On the other hand, I was well aware that Jordan is a police state on the scale of Stasi East Germany. There’s very little crime in Jordan, because anyone could be mukhabbaraat and you’re sure to be caught, which in most ways makes it the safest place I’ve ever lived in the world.
I doubted Abu Hashem was mukhabbaraat. If he were, he would have a better cover. I never asked him. Why bother ask a question he could neither confirm nor deny? Besides that, knowing would only deny me the chance to secretly imagine or hope that he was. I knew the mukhabbaraat were watching me, probably listening to my phone calls and reading my texts, maybe reading my letters and emails. Given the amount of money the Jordanian government receives from the United States taxpayer, they were making sure nothing bad happened to us that might get splashed across CNN or FOX. Without a doubt, I had a minder, and I felt better imagining it was my neighbor, someone I knew and trusted.
I wasn’t above using that to my advantage when necessary, either. Once, when a taxi driver kept reaching into the back seat to grope me and refused to pull over to let me out, I was quick to say, “Let me out right now or I’ll call my uncle/father-in-law in the mukhabbaraat, and God help you!” It worked, too, even though I’m a pretty terrible liar, because I believed that it might be true.
When Sid Muna and I got to school, of course, the attacks in Amman were all anyone could talk about. “At first,” said Sid Abeer spiritedly, “all I heard was that there had been a terrorist explosion in Mshairfeh.” This was the name of a village several of our staff and teachers lived in. Sid Abeer shook her head at our looks of confusion and surprise. “I was surprised, too. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to blow up a little village like Mshairfeh.” She paused for emphasis. “Did you know there’s a neighborhood in Amman called Mshairfeh?” No one did. “I guess that’s where the Radisson SAS is located.”
They debated this for some time, comparing their knowledge of Amman and its neighborhoods. It made sense to me. Someone from the village had told me that Mshairfeh meant “high place looking down.” It might have been Umm Hekmet, even; I was always bugging her to translate or explain place names for me. The Radisson SAS (pronounced “sass,” I was learning) was near the top of one of the steeper slopes of the supposed seven hills on which Amman is built. Oddly, though, I have never met anyone from Amman who has heard of a neighborhood in the city called Mshairfeh. Perhaps Sid Abeer heard wrong, as some of our colleagues suggested.
That afternoon, when Alya and Aiat brought their English homework over, they wanted to know if I would be going with Sid Muna and the other teachers to the demonstration in Jerash on Friday. “Everyone’s going! We’re making banners. It’ll be fun!” It was unclear to me from their explanations whether Sid Muna had been ordered by the Jerash Directorate of Education to bring her teachers and students, or if this was a spontaneous gathering my neighbors had been moved to support.
Part of me wanted to go, the part of me that had brought me to a rally in Aachen, Germany, and candlelight vigils in Norwich, England, for the victims of September eleventh. The part of me that would later bring me down to Tahrir Square almost every morning until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned. I later ended up working for All Souls Unitarian Church in part because I marched with Occupy Faith for economic justice. It is often said of Unitarian Universalists that we’re “the ones who show up.” I was hearing very strongly the call to show up for the Jordanians killed. Yet, there was still my chickenshit side, and my practical side.
I sighed. “I can’t,” I said.
“Why not?” asked Alya animatedly. “Everyone will be there!”
“Peace Corps won’t let me.” Even if we didn’t have the shelter in place order, I knew this was the kind of thing that would give poor, sweet Samir at Peace Corps palpitations about our safety. It didn’t occur to me to tell the girls that it wasn’t safe, though. Perhaps on some deep level I knew instinctively that their deeply ingrained Bedouin sense of hospitality would be deeply wounded. Sharing bread in a Bedouin home traditionally obligated the host to take responsibility for your physical safety. I knew the neighbors saw their responsibility for me that way.
Instead, I said, “Peace Corps won’t allow us to get involved with politics or make political statements. This is a political statement.”
“No, it’s not!” scoffed Alya with that now-familiar ‘you crazy foreigner’ tone. “We’re marching for the people who were killed. They were all Arabs,” she said, a bit of an exaggeration and over-simplification. Though she didn’t know words like “solidarity”—and neither did I in Arabic—she went on to describe a solidarity action. I didn’t know how to explain to her, a twelve-year-old, in Arabic, that a solidarity march is inherently political and inevitably turns overtly political. I couldn’t illuminate for her the common usage in Palestine and Iraq of the funeral march as a political statement, and that given the tribal, cultural and religious ties of those countries to Jordan, that usage seemed likely in this instance. Even if I could have said all that, Alya was twelve. For all that she was both intelligent and perceptive, she was still just a kid.
That this was an alleged al-Qaeda action only furthered my conviction. As Abu Mas’ab al-Zarqawi’s faction, al-Qaeda in Iraq, had strengthened in the Anbar Province of Iraq, so had skepticism grown in Jordan. Zarqawi’s franchise of al-Qaeda was particularly and increasingly brutal and bloody and increasingly aimed at killing Iraqis more than coalition troops.
The alleged Zarqawi, so named because he came from the Jordanian industrial city of Zarqa, was known to be a member of the Bani Hassan, the same tribe as everyone in Faiha’ except my good friend Umm Hekmet. Yet she was the one person I most often heard defend him. Umm Hekmet is the one I remember telling me that this Zarqawi the CIA spoke of was at best a diversion, more likely a complete fabrication.
She knew or had met someone who was the nephew of a man from Zarqa alleged to be this terrorist orchestrating the worst violence in Iraq or the region altogether. “That man they say is this terrorist Zarqawi? He’s a gentle, loving man,” Umm Hekmet told me. “He’s a teacher and an imam, an educated man who loves his nephews and helps them with their studies. He wouldn’t do these things they say that man Zarqawi is doing to our brothers in Iraq. Muslims are dying in al-Anbar. Muslims don’t kill other Muslims!”
This was such a crazy statement to me that I didn’t know how to respond. Of course Muslims kill other Muslims, and have done so throughout time. Christians kill other Christians, Jews kill other Jews, Buddhists kill other Buddhists, and Muslims kill other Muslims. Not often, we hope, but people kill people regardless of faith or confession, nationality or language. Crime was very low in a police state like Jordan, but still there were crimes, including murders. Umm Hekmet must have known that, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to say so.
After the tragedy in Amman, though, the narrative about al-Qaeda and terrorism changed. Before that night, more than half of Jordanians said in polls that they supported Osama bin Laden. After that night, a majority of Jordanians polled opposed his philosophy and methods. I began to hear the word irhaabii — terrorist — used with sincerity, more often than it had been quoted with skepticism before. Umm Hekmet stopped defending Abu Mas’ab Zarqawi to me. I still occasionally met a nephew or cousin of the alleged al-Qaeda in Iraq mastermind who insisted that Zarqawi was a gentle, good man, but these encounters were rare now, not the norm when his name was mentioned.
There were marches all over the country that Friday. Thousands of people poured out into the streets of the cities of Jordan in peaceful demonstrations that had not generally been in the culture of the kingdom before. I only heard rumors of what they were like, because in the end my neighbors didn’t go down to Jerash to march, but what I heard was encouraging.
They marched in solidarity with their brothers who had died and been injured in the three Amman hotels. They marched in solidarity with their brothers in occupied Iraq. They marched in protest of the brutality of the attacks on Jordan, and against the brutal tactics of al-Qaeda in al-Anbar province and across Iraq. They chanted against bin Laden, against Zarqawi. It was a significant change in tone.
Three years later, living in Amman, I had become involved in the Jordanian blogosphere. There is a thriving tech sector in Jordan, because of or despite the new King Abdullah, depending on whom you ask. It is commonly said across the Arab world that if you want to build a Website or Internet presence and you want it done right, it’s best to get a Jordanian to do it for you. Bloggers like The Black Iris and new media collectives like 7iber were building a kind of civil society beyond traditional tribal politics, modelled on what they considered the best of American and European journalism and activism.
When war flared in the Gaza Strip at the end of 2008, known by some at the time as the Hannukah War but now more commonly remembered as Operation Cast Lead, this online civil society sprung into action. Led primarily by young people, well educated, fluent in English honed in private Amman high schools or universities abroad, they used the Internet to call for action in the streets. They participated in Friday protests at the Israeli embassy and elsewhere, but they also organized food and clothing drives on an unprecedented scale. Many of my friends and the activists I knew of worked for the corporate social responsibility departments of major Jordanian companies, many of which provided the logistical support to deliver donated goods.
In 2011, after Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi had fallen to the protesters of the Arab Spring, many of these same bloggers and activists took to the streets in Amman. Protests were brief, met with force but less brutally than in some other Arab Spring countries. A few concessions were made by the King and Parliament. In the years since, however, the King and Parliament have tightened the censorship noose on both traditional media, already heavily monitored, and new media. My favorite blogger, Naseem Tarawneh of The Black Iris, has become more sporadic about posting. He also got married and started a family. It’s hard to know for sure why his online habits have changed.
Looking back on the protests of November 2005, it’s tempting to ask how they fit in with later developments in Jordan’s civil society and activism. The bloggers and citizen journalists I followed in these later periods are all within a few years of my own age. They would have been in university or recently graduated at the time Zarqawi hit Amman. How did they react? The Black Iris was online then. How many others were? How did it inform their later activism? While I was learning their culture and society, their language and history, and the role the United States and Europe played in shaping their region, what were they moved by? I don’t have answers, but as a storyteller growing into my own sense of activism, the questions intrigue me.