These past couple days have been a whirlwind here in Amman. The phrase ‘hit the ground running’ comes to mind. Only if I am indeed the runner, I’ve stepped out of the moving vehicle, took two unsure strides, then tripped over my own legs, face-planting in a tragicomic manner befitting America’s Funniest Home Videos. Toss your zinger whenever it comes to you, Bob Sagat.
Of course this picture is in my mind more than anything I’m sure. Yet as my friend and fellow but-far-closer-to-being-a-legit freelancer friend Melissa Tabeek dashes off notes, interviews high-level officials and brainstorms story ideas like a pro, I can’t help but feel like I need to get to work on something substantive. And now. Yalla Matthew Yalla!
I got a bit more into the swing of things a couple days ago. As happens on most Fridays here, protests were held both in the capital and elsewhere throughout the Kingdom. As has been the rallying cry of most of Amman’s protests over the last year or so, pro-reform activists marched down the main street from Hussein Mosque. The demonstrators, many members of Jordan’s Communist Party, decried government corruption that they said leaves politicians living comfortably while the people suffer from federal ineptness.
As is the custom, while Jumu’ah wrapped up and worshippers began stacking up their cardboard prayer rugs, protestors flooded into the street.
“Jordan is for the free!” shouted a diminutive rally leader perched on the shoulders of a comrade, megaphone in hand. The 300-strong waved Jordanian flags under a cloudless azure sky. Those at the head of the march unfurled prefabricated banners in the brilliant, unmistakable red of socialism.
“Yes to free healthcare, yes to free education,” read one.
Others carried smaller, less professional signs.
“Tarawneh’s accomplishments: raising prices, one vote law, arrests, media law,” read another, held by a teenage protestor in a Che Guevara shirt.
“Freedom detainees, you are the past and we will follow you (to prison)” read a series of seven signs, referring to a rash of recent arrests of pro-reform, but peaceful protestors over the past couple of weeks.
While government corruption and calls for reform are nothing new at demonstrations, arrests of participants under the guise of anti-terrorism laws seems to show a growing intolerance of speech critical of the government. It’s unsettling to say the least.
Yet under the intense friday sun, police forces — whose numbers nearly matched those of the protestors — were content to form a barrier between the main protestors and small clusters of pro-government men, whose sporadic outbursts could be heard during the lulls in chants from pro-reformists.
“This is King Abdullah’s Jordan, so if you oppose him get out!” shouted government supporters, some standing on ladders to draw attention to their cause.
The reformers marched on, largely unconcerned with the counter-protest tagging alongside their own. After about 30 minutes of marching, the demonstrators closed the day’s rally by singing “Mawtini,” a poem adopted as the national anthems of both Palestine and post-Hussein Iraq.
While this anti-government rally was far larger and demonstrated a higher manner of organization than the one I attended in May, it also felt considerably less tense. Maybe it was the fact that I knew what to expect. Perhaps it was because I didn’t receive threats of being taken to the police like last time. I don’t want this to diminish the passion each side expressed, for that was unmistakable. But then again, maybe it was something else.
For that half hour, as I scrambled amongst media, both sets of protestors, police and onlookers (puting on a clinic in the 5 Ds of protest photography I might add), I felt distinctly that this is the way it should be. The overwhelming majority of pro reformers were Jordanian youth. With 70 percentof the Kingdom’s population under the age of 30, they stand to inherit enormous obstacles: a flagging economy, a bloated and ineffective bureaucracy, scant natural resources, and amid all of this they are surrounded by a region undergoing radical changes that threaten the stability of their little country. Countries much stronger have fallen into anarchy when challenged by much less.
Yet despite all of this, they conducted the protest with a level of both professionalism and levity that has to make even critics nod in respect. They moved in one synchronized block, chanting in unison, their zeal cranked to 11, but always in check. They greeted people with honest embraces.
I trotted backwards, snapping photos of two teenagers marching in lockstep behind one of those red banners. With bright smiles, they kissed me on the cheek and thanked me for recording their efforts.
As the protest reached its conclusion, participants took part in a round of applause for everyone involved. The whole thing seemed to bring about a feeling of hope for what this country could be. For even a usually insouciant gent like myself, I couldn’t help but crack a smile.
Which makes what precipitated afterwards all the more disheartening. As we made our way back towards the masjid — Melissa interviewing a demonstrator while I reveled in the appalling sweat tattoo left on my shirt by my backpack (grey was a bad choice) — discordant shouts up ahead signaled a scuffle. Rushing up a steep side street, a small cluster of both pro and anti government protestors were locked in an amorphous embrace, kicking and punching, shoving one another into parked cars and up against shuttered storefronts. Despite the large numbers of police present for the protest, only a few made it up the hill to intervene, outnumbered and largely ineffective.
After about 5 tense minutes, the fighting broke apart and moved halfheartedly back towards the mosque on King Talal bin Abdullah Street, where the lions share of police discouraged any more squabbles.
While there was only a small number involved in the fighting, it was disheartening to see nonetheless. One arrest was made, but the man was later released. And after that feeling of hope I experienced proved fleeting, the cynic in me returned. Just another friday in Amman. Too much to say, but I’ll leave it at that.
June 28, 2012 by Matt Collette
Prior to arriving at their first class in Jordan, which was scheduled to begin shortly after a jet-lag-inducing flight across the globe, journalism graduate students Matt Kauffman and Melissa Tabeek received an assignment from journalism lecturer Carlene Hempel.
“She said she wanted something on protests and Syria, so we started reading and absorbing everything we could,” Tabeek explained. In short order, the pair of journalists had plans to attend street protests and visit universities in the capital city of Amman.
Kauffman and Tabeek’s resulting stories were part of a larger collection of work by more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate-level journalism students on a five-week Dialogue of Civilizations programto Jordan. Hempel and Denis Sullivan, a professor of political scienceand director of Northeastern’s Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development, led the Dialogue.
The program, Hempel said, took on the qualities of a long-term embedded assignment fit for a professional foreign correspondent. Over more than a month, students met with top government officials, built strong ties with community members and produced stories on topics ranging from the Middle East conflict to business and sports.
“I kept saying to them, ‘Your audience is The New York Times readers. That’s who you want to gear this for,” Hempel said. “And the coverage did span the whole newspaper, from the front page to the back.”
Within a few days, Kauffman and Tabeek made connections with local officials and nonprofit organizations with the help of their translator, a university student studying English. The goal of the source gathering, they said, was to find Syrian families who had become refugees in Jordan after fleeing the harsh, oppressive regime and the near-constant threat of violence.
With the help of locals and refugee advocates, Kauffman and Tabeek built close relationships with refugees, many of whom were initially fearful to speak of their experiences even on the condition of anonymity.
“We were able to look at these issues through the eyes of the families affected, not just through stories that might quote one refugee and cite statistics from a government or the United Nations High Commission for Refugees,” Tabeek said. “Because we became someone who could be trusted, they were able to talk to us about their lives.”
Stories by the student-reporters were posted daily to the classroom blog, and The Boston Globe published a story co-authored by Tabeek and Kaufman, which included a corresponding video that ran online. The video, filmed in a small neighborhood with nearly 400 refugee families crammed into their homes, was an especially challenging assignment: The journalists had to press their subjects to tell personal stories while remaining respectful of the trauma they induced.
“I think it was the first time I really felt like I was a journalist, like I was doing something important,” Kauffman said. “When I left I didn’t feel like I was finished there. I want to go back.”
Kaufmann and Tabeek will complete their graduate program in journalism this August. To read work from all the students who reported from Jordan, visit http://northeasternuniversityjournalism2012.wordpress.com/.
Journey to Jordan: By the thousands, Syrians are risking their lives to find refuge across the border
Here’s Melissa Tabeek’s and my article about Syrians fleeing to Jordan. It was an amazing, and emotional experience. What is happening in Syria is horrendous. Yet for some reason, the world looks on idle, as spectators to a gruesome show. I’m not saying I have the solution, but I know it’s not this.
Sorry I’ve been off the grid since monday (some of this is due to the nature of our little jaunt to south Jordan and a large part of it was my own conscious decision to open my computer as little as possible). The last five days have been exhilarating, mentally relaxing, physically taxing and plain exhausting.
Our trek included visits to Karak, Dana Biosphere Reserve, Petra(!), Wadi Rum(!!!) and Aqaba on the Red Sea, Jordan’s only seaport. So much of the trip is worth writing about and I fully intend to, but for now check out some of the pictures I snapped while away (I’ll apologize now for the almost complete absence of Wadi Rum photos. I initially kept my camera in our tent for fear of getting it mucked up with dust and sand, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that the last thing I wanted to do was hide behind the lens in one of the most naturally beautiful places I’ve ever seen.)
Our last stop was Aqaba, a tourist beach spot where you can see Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel from the water. In all honesty, I would have traded it for another day in the desert sipping tea and scaling sand dunes. However, I did have lots of fun take photos of fellow Huskies jumping of our boat. I have tons of these, but nobody was more adept/more of a goof than Gina, who dreamed up and executed several creative ‘jumps’:
That’s all for now. Ma’a Salama!
Yesterday was a big day for sports in Jordan, namely because the final group stage for World Cup 2014 qualifying started. Jordan hasn’t made it this far in years, so the fact that they are even remotely close to the world’s biggest sporting event is an achievement in itself for a country of some 6-7 million people.
‘Urdunn was matched up against Iraq in the first round of group play. Anthony and I would have been totally oblivious to it, but thankfully our teenage host brother, Amir, lives and breathes football (a man after my own heart). He told us about the game on Saturday and was nice enough to buy us our tickets yesterday morning.
Hellloooo Mid East soccer culture!
Needless to say, I was excited to experience the world’s sport in Jordan, a place where — after religion and tribe — allegiances are drawn on whether you support Lionel Messi and the Blaugrana or those star-studded Galácticos, Real Madrid.
Now, for those of you who don’t know me (and I’m sure you are few and far between. I’ve no delusions about the meager reach of this blog), I’m a bit of a soccer hooligan… the good kind though. Not the football riot wackjob, just the dude that drinks too much beer, yells obnoxiously and hugs random people when my team scores (Go Timbers).
What can I say? I just love every facet of it. The non-stop play, the fluidity, the improvisation, the collective intake of breath when a shot soars toward goal and the shared, cathartic explosion of noise when it rips into the back of the net. Okay, the flopping is lame yada yadayada, but so is stepping out of the fookin’ batter’s box after every pitch in baseball. Spare me your pseudo-macho Americanisms if you have them.
I grew up playing it, I made friends from it, it’s kept me in great shape and I’d like to think it’s made me a bit smarter too.
And futball has a culture that may be bigger than the game itself. Soccer stars — Pele, Maradona, Cantona and, my current favorite, Mario Balotelli — becomes heros, villians, legends and unwitting comedians.
I also love how soccer, more than any other sport, is so intrinsically tied to the identity of a place, be it country, town or region. When a team plays, it’s not just representing its fans, or its owners or its sponsors. It is the city, the town (in London, it’s the neighborhood). It’s often imbued with the hopes and dreams of the people there.
So it was no surprise, that the game was sooo Jordan. Pushcart vendors served turkish coffee, a variety of nuts and local sweets. Jordanian men hung out pre-kickoff in front of their cars, decked out in a red and white keffiyeh or national flag. Getting into the game was the human equivalent of Ammani street traffic: queues, much like car lanes, were completely ignored as huge crowds of men (football games here are not for women that’s for sure) pushed and shoved moving toward a single-person turnstile. Seating was wherever you found a spot to suit your fancy. Cigarette smoke was as suffocating as it is everywhere else in the city. The chants were organic, not coming from a single person, but rising and falling by the count of some hidden metronome.
In the end Jordan didn’t win, but they didn’t lose either; Iraq struck first, but “The Brave” (as the national team is nicknamed) pounced on a bungled save by the Iraqi goalie and punched in the equalizer.
A fitting result. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve learned (and probably mentioned too many times) of the strange duality that seems to pervade the culture here. I guess football is no different.