Saturday, January 17, 2004

After 14 weeks in Baghdad, I’m at the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, about to dig into some pad thai noodles, deep fried marinated beef and strawberry and chocolate ice cream. I’m enjoying this.

Tomorrow, I’m off to Rome for two days. Then home to New York. I haven’t slept in my own bed since Oct. 6. But I know from my last trip to Iraq that I will miss Baghdad.

I’ll think about the story for weeks. I’ll miss all the great people I worked with. I’ll wish I had more time to finish all my story ideas. And I’ll wonder about the repercussions as the Americans make concessions left and right as they run for the exits.

For now, though, I’m remembering a mid-way break in Jordan in November, when I was given a different perspective on things by bringing my Iraqi translator, Ali, 21, and my Iraqi driver, Hassan, 23, from Baghdad.

They had never traveled outside their country. They didn’t have passports. They spent a week’s salary to pay for their hotel room. They were astounded at the prices Westerners paid for things.

Journalists ride out from Baghdad in GMC convoys that now cost anywhere between $350 to $500 per vehicle. My translator and driver paid $50 to get to Amman and thought what we were charged was offensive.

They obtained travel documents from the nationality office in Karada before the trip. The government has stopped issuing these now, and it’s again difficult for ordinary Iraqis without coalition business and connections to travel outside the country.

But even with official permission, crossing the Jordanian border was nearly heart-stopping for Hassan, who worried for days before the trip that he would never be allowed to cross.

“There are 42 cars ahead of us in line,” Hassan wrote in a journal he kept of the journey. “Maybe they will deny me entry. Our driver is filling his car every five minutes with the extra benzene (gasoline) he brought so that none of it will be thrown out by the Jordanian customs officials. What a silly regulation.

“I see an Iraqi passenger ahead of us who is kicked out. He wants to know the reason but all he receives is a blow on the back of his neck. ‘Go away,’ the man says. The officer calls me next. I am almost completely trembling. ‘Why do you want to go to Amman?’ the officer asks.

“Ali answers. He tells them we are working with an American journalist and we have a eight-day vacation to spend in Amman. The officer looks at me and says, ‘What about you guy, are you working with the British media?’ He is laughing but I can barely answer. “Okay, you can enter,’ he says finally. Thanks be to God, we are through.’’

Ali told me later that the officer asked him where they were staying. The Four Seasons, Ali said, pulling out a business card for our travel agent in case the man wanted proof. He didn’t.

At one hotel, the front desk accused Hassan and Ali of taking bottled water from the minibar, despite their denials. I know they didn't take a thing, because I showed them the minibar prices which were enough to convince them not to even open the fridge. But the accusation went over badly, as we all agreed the hotel probably would never have argued with any other foreign guest over a $1.00 bottle of water.

Everywhere they went, Hassan and Ali asked Jordanians what they thought about Iraqis and what they thought about Saddam. Nationalism was sort of a theme. Lots of Jordanians told them they adored Saddam and were sorry about the war.

Everyone seemed to agree that there are tensions because many Iraqis who come to Amman arrive without job prospects, live in poor neighborhoods and some become thieves. And many Jordanians studied in Iraq for free under Saddam Hussein, enjoyed special benefits and some looked down on their Iraqi classmates.

But everyone also agreed there were many, many exceptions to all this. There are Iraqis in the richest neighborhoods in Amman and plenty of cross-cultural friendships, the Jordanian taxi drivers said.

“We talked in general about Arab governments,” Ali said, translating after one lengthy, animated discussion in Arabic. “None of the Arab people can understand the politics of his government. And the Jordanians are telling us, ‘Don’t think if you see on TV that the Americans came to Iraq to build a well-developed democracy. Don’t believe it. Iraq will never be cured.’ ’’

In the beginning, Hassan and Ali were convinced that there was nothing they could possibly want in Amman. Almost everything you saw in Amman, you could get in Baghdad, only cheaper, they said.

But this wasn’t true. Hassan, who is a bit of a shopaholic, went on a spree in Aqaba, a special economic zone and port on the Red Sea where there is no sales tax and where fleets of shiny new cars await mostly Iraqi buyers.

After weeks of nonstop chicken scallop, chicken kebab, chicken fried rice, humus and fatoush in Baghdad, I couldn’t wait to order from the Thai and Italian restaurants in the Four Seasons Amman.

But Hassan thought Thai food was too sweet. He thought the squid in seafood salad tasted like plastic.

So he and Ali ordered takeout from McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, both so far unavailable in Baghdad. They brought it back to the hotel and happily ignored room service, except for ice cream.

By the time we reached Wadi Rum, a red earth moonscape south of Petra, both of them were a bit spoiled. We had our own private tents in the desert but the mattresses were soft.

“This is difficult Maureen,” Hassan said. “I am used to the Four Seasons.”

They had never camped under the stars before, nor driven into the desert in a four wheel drive land rover that followed no visible road. Nor driven around wasting gas just to look for a good vantage point to watch the sun set.

Petra was a learning experience.

“Why do we need three hours,” Hassan asked when I told him I was going to spend two days visiting the famous Nabataen city of tombs and facades carved out of rock. In the end, after riding a camel, a horse and a donkey, and after climbing hundreds of steps to admire a view of the entire site, both pronounced themselves satisfied with having spent two days looking at rock.

But Ali said it was reasonable that ordinary Iraqis – given the chance to travel - would not think first of historic ruins and museums and cultural sites.

Instead, they would think first of more concrete comparisons with home, of where and how to buy a car more cheaply than in Baghdad, for example, so they could make money.

“This is Saddam’s legacy. He destroyed our ability to appreciate these things. We will think only of how to make a living,” Ali said.

Both Hassan and Ali were also startled to see in Aqaba how close Israel was to both Jordan and Saudi Arabia. After all these years of listening to speeches about Israel being the enemy, able to launch missile strikes into the Arab homeland, it was strange and unsettling to see it up close and seemingly in coexistence, at least here at the edge of the Red Sea.