Last night I was channel surfing and accidentally came upon a riveting 2008 Jordanian documentary called Recycle, by filmmaker Mahmoud al Massad, on PBS's Independent Lens. (You may read about it and view a clip at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/recycle/film.html.) It was shot in Zarqa, Jordan's second-largest city and birthplace of the late al Qaeda mastermind Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
In the film, al Massad rides shotgun alongside an ex mujahadi fighter named Abu Ammar,* husband of two and father of eight. Abu Ammar struggles to support his large family by trolling the run-down streets of Zarqa with his young son, collecting used cardboard in his old beater of a Volkswagen truck. His is a life of poverty and defeat, yet moderate faith.
This film was personal to me. I have been to Zarqa more times than I can count. Quite a few of my research subjects in Reclaiming Honor in Jordan are from Zarqa. It is a gritty, run-down, somewhat foreboding place and home to a number of Palestinian refugee camps. It is dark enough that one of the Jordanian princesses repeatedly urged me not to go or, if I must, accompany one of her son's friends. "They don't see many Westerners there," she cautioned, "let alone blonde females traveling alone." I thought people would be more open with me if I looked a little vulnerable and didn't have a local with me who might be tempted to share whatever dishonor killing secrets they disclosed to me. It was a good choice. Yes, people stared. But mostly they were kind, helpful, supportive, and generous. Some served me tea (the unofficial national beverage). Others scraped together some piasters and offered to buy me a Coke. I guess they figured all of us Americans love our Coke. It'd make me feel at home. But on an average Jordanian wage that is equivalent to being offered a fine Champagne.
My last interview one day was with a man who co-owns a luggage shop in downtown Zarqa with his brothers. I had my data, but he and his brothers wanted to chat me up. The Jordanians are extremely friendly that way. They talk, talk, talk, and talk. . .then talk some more. I noticed dusk was upon us, and I certainly didn't want to be in Zarqa after dark. So I began to pack up my belongings and say my farewells, when one of the brothers gave me the side eye and said, "Your bag is really in bad shape." He was right. It was. Abused, misused, overly well traveled. But I thought it sent out the right message. I'm not rich. I'm not worth shaking down or robbing. But then he shocked me by saying, "Before you go, you must pick out any bag you want from our shop and use it." By that time, I knew from my survey that each of the brothers earned less than US$300 a month and had a family to support. Their bags cost about 20% of that. No way, I thought. I can't take anything from them. Hell, I have more bags than I can count at home. So I said, "Well, thank you, but you've already helped me so much by participating in my research study. I can't accept more from you." They insisted. I mean really insisted. They said, "But you are the one helping us try to address this problem we have. You care about us." And so I left their shop with a new black portfolio tucked under my arm. But mostly I left with a swollen heart from realizing that those brothers actually got it. They really got it.
About a year and a half later, as I was preparing to leave Jordan for good, I traveled back to Zarqa specifically to say farewell to the brothers. They remembered me and invited me home to dinner with their mother. I showed them the book that came out of our collective efforts and told them the Royal Court had bought multiple copies. They were bursting with pride that their opinions actually reached the country's decision makers.
But back to Recycle. There is a brief scene in the film that shows the aftermath of what is called Jordan's 9/11. On the evening of November 9, 2005--9/11/05, as it is written in Jordan--al Zarqawi plotted simultaneous attacks on three hotels in Amman. More than 60 innocent people were murdered, including many from one extended family gathered in a Radisson SAS hotel ballroom to celebrate a wedding.
I had just arrived in Amman a couple weeks prior and was staying in a bed and breakfast within a couple blocks of two of the bombed hotels, the Radisson SAS and the Grand Hyatt. I shall never forget the seemingly endless wailing of sirens and the chaos outside. In the aftermath of those terrorist attacks, people in Amman did what people in America did when we had our 9/11. They gathered. They wept. They prayed. They held vigils. They raised funds for the families who lost loved ones. Al Massad shows a clip from one of the vigils I attended. It brought it all back to me.
One of the more horrid aspects of that bombing is that it was probably preventable. When King Abdullah II succeeded his late father, King Hussein, to the throne in 1999, al Zarqawi was living as a guest of the government in a Jordanian prison. To celebrate his accession to the throne, the new king offered amnesty to him and others. Six years later, the lives of 60+ Jordanians and probably many others were the price paid for this mistake. And, yet, no mention of this was made in the local newspapers. The state controls the media in Jordan.
Freedom of press is a beautiful thing. It is not to be taken for granted.
* "Abu" in Arabic means father, and Arab fathers generally take great pride in being referred to as the father of their eldest son. Hence, Abu Ammar's first-born son is named Ammar. Similarly Abu Musab al Zarqawi's first-born son is named Musab.
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