Tuesday, May 04, 2004
Thursday, April 28, 2004
This was my second landing in Amman.. both were bumpy rides.. Amman airport was basking in sunshine unlike the Baghdad airport I left a couple of hours ago.. I have seen most Middle Eastern airports and I would give Amman airport high marks for organisation and appearance.. I can’t explain why they have so many photographs of late King Hussain, when we now have a different king.. Still it must make sense to the Jordanians.
Formalities went swiftly this time since my passport already showed a record of previous landing and departure… They only accept Jordanian money for the on spot visa, so be warned future travellers to Jordan… This time I knew their system so I easily avoided custom’s inspection… Which is just as well since a search of my suitcase would have convinced them I was a tobacco smuggler.. Cigarettes are cheap in Iraq ($2-4 per 200) and I was carrying 7 large packs, then there was my pipe tobacco and then there was 5-6 packs of nargilah (hubly bubbly) tobacco I was asked to take with me for a friend…
As I left the through customs I found my self in my nephew M’s arms… he is another one I haven’t seen for over 20 years.. M went to work in Jordan during those wonderful sanction years.. He was one of an army of Iraqis who managed to leave Iraq to Jordan then found out no country in the world would give them a visit visa.. so they stayed put and took any job on offer.. making themselves illegal workers in Jordan in the process… Of course not everyone did that… some resorted to the political asylum game and paid big buck to purchase their way into any country who would accept them… sadly many also paid with their lives as they were victimised by smuggling gangs who sometimes sent them on impossible journeys on boats that were not sea worthy.. It seems there is a universal agreement that Iraqi lives are cheap… Their government killed them, the smugglers killed them, their liberators killed them (sorry… I meant collaterally damaged them), then their resistance killed them (sorry… I meant the device detonated prematurely… God’s will)… Shouldn’t the first article of a new Iraqi constitution talk about increasing the value of a citizen’s life a little?…. anything above the price of a bullet would be an improvement!
Sorry I digressed… So M is your typical street wise Iraqi scratching a living in Jordan.. More about him later… Before leaving the airport building I wanted to pay the Royal Jordanian Sales Desk a visit to check on the status of my ticket saga… What ticket saga I hear you all scream.. well, calm down… I will explain… I purchased this lucky ticket from a discount website.. It has restrictions like both departure and return dates are fixed and cannot be changed.. Since I missed the return flight 10 days ago thanks to the citizenry of Falluja, I am now liable to paying a fine of $120… It wouldn’t be so bad if that was all… The bad news is that there are no seats on the London flights for the next 2 weeks and all waiting lists are fully booked too.. So I am stuck in Amman and that’s the short version of the ticket sag a… I was advised to have a go at the HQ office to see if they can help…
We left from airport straight to the accommodation, which M booked for me… On the way I was able to see Amman for the first time in day light.. Surprisingly it is a hilly city, a little like San Francisco or Bradford… Like Baghdad, they have gone for horizontal rather than vertical expansion… But unlike Iraq, they use cut stone instead of brick as the basic building material.. Consequently colour of buildings is restricted to either white or a very pale yellowy brown colour.. This gives the city a very distinctive character, quite unlike Baghdad which has several styles each with its distinctive colours.. We were heading to a location that I would describe as a Greater Amman location… yet we passed several districts before reaching our destination.. On the way there M repeated a remark that I heard on my outward journey.. It appears that 10 years ago Amman w as merely half or even less than half its current size… But ever since the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent imposition of sanctions Jordan witnessed a building boom… The two events are correlated.. The deeper the sanctions bit Iraq the more business did Jordan as Iraq’s main conduit for trade both legal and illegal… M said that all of those districts we were passing through were only built in the last 6-7 years.. The taxi driver concurred by repeating an Arabic proverb “people facing difficulties lead to benefits to other people”… Put simply “your loss is my gain”.. The scale of this expansion needs to be seen to be believed, its on a massive scale..
They say that Taureans like their comforts… I have always prided myself for not being a typical Taurean.. I can cope with discomfort and put up with situations that others find unbearable.. Its with this spirit that I approached the idea of going cheap on accommodation.. I figured I am here for a maximum of one week, therefore no point to worry about standards of comfort I could have had in a hotel… This is rather the same philosophy many Iraqis view the occupation, or at least had this notion 12 months ago.. one can put up with havoc the Americans were causing because its all transient.. aint it?…. Well at least I was wrong where the accommodation was concerned.. The nearest I can describe this tourist flat business in Amman is the old YMCA, less the room service, and less working TV, err.. and less a working toilet, and with water pressure that was reduced to a trickle on the 4th floor.. But all is bearable and expected … it’s the other guests that was the problem.. They were a weird mixture of many Arab nationalities.. A few fundi beards (they used the lobby as a mosque), children played football in the corridors, there is a crying baby in the flat left to mine and another one in the flat on my right.. Luckily they were a boy and a girl so there was variation in the crying and sobbing.. Nearly all guests seemed to find the single lift in the building as a game to pass the time.. Its always stuck at another floor … Never mind pressing the button, you need a good throat to call it to your floor!!
Of course many of those residents were fellow Iraqis.. Here to escape the pressures of life in Iraq.. Perhaps scraping a living selling Chinese goods on pavements (and many do in Amman), or here to buy a car or collect one from a port to sell in Iraq and make the odd $100 on the entire deal.. Of course these are not the only Iraqis in town.. High ranking Baathists also found themselves in Amman.. Unlike the former group these people bought houses in those newly built districts.. You can see them in town by recognising their cars… But you need an expert for that.. Saddam used to distribute favours in the form of BMWs and Mercs.. they were the only new cars imported into Iraq for 13 years.. Consequently Iraqis are able to distinguish from model and colour which particular group in the regime a lucky driver of one of these cars belongs to!! .. M was pointing to me car after car as Iraqi owned… the amazing thing they carried Jordanian registration numbers!
After a brief stay at the so called accommodation, we were back out heading to the Royal Jordanian Head Office.. where M knows someone who may be able to help with the ticket saga… On the way there we had a sympathetic taxi driver.. His first words were “you Iraqis are unlucky.. I bet you all wish if Saddam is back now”… Now this situation became quite repetitive on subsequent taxis… Jordanians are so sympathetic to Iraqis that they wish if nothing had changed in Iraq…. Wow! … Give me a break.. How big do you want Amman to grow into?
The rest of the afternoon was spent lobbying the reception at the RA offices to let us in but to no avail.. The contact sent a message back saying he was busy and suggested we come to see him the following day (Tuesday 20th April)… Tried to look for alternatives but they were all hopeless options.. Air Turkey and Air Cyprus both can offer a flight but taking over 24 hours to reach London…. At one stage we visited an RJ sales office who looked at my ticket and checked the state of bookings then offered the advice to forget London and that my best plan is to pay the penalty and change the ticket to Amman-Vienna then to hope to find a shuttle flight to London… Well this would push my costs to 3 folds what I expected so it was an option only if I get desperate..
Following the airline visit we headed for a spot of tourism in the centre of the city where the old market place was located.. Had a meal at an authentic traditional Jordanian restaurant, something I do whenever I visit a new country for the first time.. The service was excellent, probably because most waiters were Iraqi!!! Some of my fellow passengers on the flight from Baghdad to Amman were there too..
In the evening we went back to the accommodation.. Managed to get the TV to work and we turned the TV loud to drown the noises from the neighbours and had a long chat to catch up on 20 years of news with M… I had several of those chats in Baghdad too.. the up side you get to know how close relatives and friends had spent their life in your absence.. the down side is that inevitably you forget to cover some aspects that you always wanted to know but on the day forgot to ask.. The accommodation had 2 beds so M stayed with me and we woke up very early to make the trip back to RA offices… The flight to London takes off at 12 noon so there was very little time to waste… Frankly I was pessimistic about finding a seat.. Since the waiting list is full, you can imagine that every Jordanian passenger is pulling all the stri ngs to get himself at the top of the list so what chance do I have to compete with them… Anyway M said he had a plan and that I must keep quiet and leave all the talking to him.. We arrived at the RJ offices again and the same reception people from yesterday were there again.. This time M went into overdrive turning the little matter of his uncle’s flight into an issue of moral ethics.. He cheekily told them that no one is helping the Iraqis in their current predicament with the occupation and that helping me would be a gesture to help Iraq and to pay back in a small way all that Iraq had done to Jordan…. Luckily my poker game training came to the rescue to suppress a strong urge to laugh.. This approach worked and we were issued with a magnetic card to operate all security doors in the 15 floor building… I will not go into what happened next, partly because I do not want to risk the jobs of people who work there and partly because I am not all that proud of it… We managed t o get to the relevant people who advised that I go to the airport on the off chance a seat would be available on today’s flight, otherwise they would ensure I can fly sometime in the next 3 days… The penalty was also waived.. By now it was 10 am and we had to rush back to the accommodation, pick up my luggage and head to the airport… We asked the people at the guest house to keep the room open in case I had to come back in the afternoon.. As if I would stay there again voluntarily.. but it was a precaution.. By 11.15 am I was at the RJ check in at the airport.. They advised to wait till 11.45 when they close the passenger list… A Jordanian businessman from the waiting list was lobbying hard to get himself a seat… He offered to pay the difference to fly First Class if that was the only option… I knew I was doomed.. At 11.45 they declared there were no seats available.. But this gentleman threw a fit so they had to call in the supervisor.. She came out and fiddled with the com puter for a little then lifted her head then asked which one of us was Mr .. Moi!!!! When I said it was me, she handed over my boarding ticket wishing me a safe flight… As I disappeared round the corner I can still hear the other passenger screaming.. He was one unhappy man… I was the exact opposite! …. Your loss my gain…
Obviously someone in the HQ made a call on my behalf… What brought me all this luck was not the contact M knew.. It was the story M used as part of the persuasion… This is the part I am not proud of.. He claimed that his uncle was … wait for it… a resident of Falluja (this brought instant sympathy!)… In rationalising what happened here I had to remember a quote from Michael Caine.. He said once “if you have a difficulty in life, use the difficulty itself”… Since all my delays were caused by the events in Falluja, perhaps it was morally justified to use Falluja to get out of the problem… One thing for sure, next time I am not buying a cheap discount ticket…
The flight to London was pleasant.. The man next to me was a property lawyer from Leicester on his way back from holiday in Thailand… After comparing notes about our journeys I explained the problem in Iraq following the burning down of the land registry office last year.. Between us we managed to think of a solution to handle current sales and purchases of property in the absence of an official register… We exchanged email addresses to get back to the idea one day…
I landed eventually at Heathrow which was basking under clear sunny skies… and that concludes my little trip folks… I may come back and write just one more missive about overall conclusions and answer the question every one asks, how did you find Iraq? Meanwhile I would like to thank Andy and Zeyad for giving me the chance to publish this diary on their blogs. For the record they are quoted below.