Matt Kauffman in Jordan

Sorry this post is so long

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I’ve truly arrived in the Middle East.

I’ve said this in passing conversations many times, and each time I do, a new experience seems to come along and smack me upside the head, as if to say, “Boy, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

……………………

Friday morning, after an absolutely zeki (delicious) traditional Arab breakfast of Turkish coffee, hummus, falafel, pickeled vegetables, and pita warmed by the stovetop, Anthony and I dashed down our side street and hailed a cab on the main road towards the city center.

Destination: Al Hussein Masjid, Amman’s oldest mosque.

On Fridays around noon, the mosque is the epicenter for the city’s bustling markets, midday prayer (known as jumu’ah) and, most important to us, ground zero for anti-government rallies. Melissa was covering the story. I would be tasked with shooting photos.

I was excited. I was also nervous as hell. Apparently the previous Friday saw a heated and sizable protest lead by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, Jordan is Jordan — the most stable country in the region — but Jordan is also the Middle East, and I think it would have been foolish to head to the masjid with a false sense of safety.

The atmosphere ahead of noon prayer seemed relaxed though: vendors shouted the price of goods, kids handled birds and men performed wudu in preparation for prayer.

But a hint of tension was definitely in the air…to me at least. Jordanian police were bussed in and filed into the streets. Their red and black caps peeked out among the bustling crowd that shuffled along dirty sidewalks. Talal, a student volunteer at SIT helping with the story, pointed to a group of plainclothes men in sunglasses lingering under a store awning facing the Mosque.

“You see those men? They are Jordanian secret police. Take their picture, but do not let them see you,” he adivsed me.

Across the street, the square outside the mosque was hemmed in by pro-governement placards. “A Nation will not go on it’s knees if the leaders are lions,” proclaimed one.

But then the noon prayer commenced, and nearly all the activity I mentioned before stopped. Muslim men — kneeling on makeshift rugs of cardboard — spilled out of the mosque into the square and the street beyond. Police cordoned off the thoroughfare 50 yards in either direction and the available pavement was soon occupied by a man or boy laterally queuing up to pray.

Perched on a baluster, I was totally blown away by the scene. Pictures or videos of Muslims in prayer have always amazed me, but to witness it in person and see the sheer numbers is another thing entirely. Perhaps three thousand to four thousand males stood shoulder to shoulder taking part in the jumu’ah.

Transcendent.

After prayer wrapped up, people stood, stacked their cardboard carpets back onto carts and lingered outside the mosque.

It looked for a few minutes as if there would not be a protest today after all.

Then off to the right, a crowd quickly converged around a boisterous group of four or five men shouting in an impassioned call and respond.

“You thieves!” some shouted.

“Where is our money?!” Others answered.

Talal found me and told me to head towards the shouting, so I slung the camera over my shoulder and darted through the crowd. Following the wake of a photojournalist, I brushed past onlookers, inching closer to the source of commotion, outstretched hands holding cell phones and point-and-shoots gave way to journalists in Al-Jezeera vests, grasping expensive DSLRs and voice recorders.

As the protester’s calls against government corruption grew louder, a speaker on the other side of the police barricade blasted discordant music in an effort to drown out the protestations of the dissidents. I held the camera up above my head and wildly snapped photos, having no idea what was happening or what I was capturing. Phantom hands tossed mini flyers into the air. Suddenly, a scuffle broke out to my right and the crowd swayed towards the action. Talal — camera in hand — materialized between two protestors, grabbed the Oakley sunglasses out of my front pocket and disappeared as quickly as had came.

As the cops dragged away a man whose face had been bloodied from the short tussle, a flatbed of government supporters behind the human barricade of police backed up towards the protesters, waving Jordanian flags and blasting a song championing King Abdullah II.

Strangely, amid all the chaos — the two groups, the police, the crowd and the din of all those sounds coalescing into a barely decipherable human static — I thought to myself, “This is it. This is real.”

I should have felt uncomfortable. Maybe I should have been a bit scared. But in my adrenaline-addled brain, all I thought was, “Fuck, this is fun.” A grin crossed my face for about half a second before snapping back to reality.

Though a too-cool-for-school freelancer would later tell me that the event was small potatoes compared to recent demonstrations, it was one of the rare moments when I felt like what I was doing might have some rare weight outside the confines of my world.

After about 20 or 25 minutes,, the protest was over as quickly as it had began. Like a long finished puzzle waiting to be broken apart, the crowd split into smaller and smaller pieces and the scene returned to normal.

Standing to the side of the road as street traffic began anew, a friendly Jordanian that had been standing on my right struck up a conversation with me.

“You are American?” he asked. I told him I lived in Boston and he lit up. MIT was wonderful he said, mentioning how much he loved the school’s great dome.

We shook hands and introduced ourselves to one another. His name was Abdul* and he was studying to be a veterinarian in Jerusalem. It was a light, friendly conversation. After awhile, I started asking him his thoughts about the protests. He smiled a sardonic smile and shook his head.

“The government is only so many days old,” he said. “No government in the world will get stuff done in a few weeks.”

As we continued to chat, I figured Abdul was as good a person as any to quote for Melissa’s story. Writing on a crinkled, folded up paper — the only piece with me — Abdul gave me his name (spelled it out for me) and even his phone number (“we can talk more about this later if you like,” he said).

Soon Anthony appeared and joined in on what had now become an impromptu interview, supplementing my questions with his own and my note-taking with a recorder. Eventually, I asked Abdul his thoughts about government corruption. Halfway through his answer, he stopped cold and stared for some seconds at a point on Anthony’s right shoulder. Abdul lifted his hand and poked a small pin on Anthony’s backpack strap; it was a badge bearing the water droplet insignia of Al-Jezeera, a gift he’d received from a friend who’d visited their broadcast headquarters.

“This…this…I want you to delete this recording,” said Abdul. “I want you to delete this recrording now.”

“What? Why?” we asked.

“Give me your notes. I don’t want you taking notes,” he said to me.

“What’s happened? Why do you want us to stop recording this?” we asked again.

“Because you tell me you are students, but you are not students. You are Al-Jeezera. Al-Jezeera are cheats and they do not tell the truth. Give me the recorder, I do not believe you have deleted what I said.”

As I desperately, but calmly, tried to reassure Abdul that we were not Al-Jeezera,  Anthony fidgeted with his recorder, attempting to remove the track. Abdul snatched the recorder out of his hands and proceeded to delete every interview on it. I tried to calm him down, asking him what his issues were with the Mideast television company – of which we were not affiliated.

He told me they blew things out of proportion, they lie, and their deceptions cause even more trouble because they are broadcast across the region. I told him again and again I was sorry we had made him upset. He told me, “it’s okay, don’t be sorry. Just be a man.”

“Do you have your residency card? Show me your residency cards!” he demanded. We didn’t have any. “Come with me, we are going to the police.”

We again told him again we were just student reporters living in Amman taking courses about the region and writing stories, but our lack of residency cards had convinced him otherwise.

“This is my country. This is my country! What happens here affects my people. You Americans, if something goes wrong, you just go to your embassy and fly to safety, but this is my country!”

With that he turned on his heel and left, leaving us standing at the mosque square, totally shamed.

We weren’t who he thought we were, but his last few words made me feel like an asshole anyways.

We came here to report, and many of us have chosen to pursue journalism because we enjoy the interactions it affords. But a lot of people must think we look at them as if we’re visitors to the zoo come to see the zebras in their cages.

The whole experience seemed like an introduction to a more volatile side of the Middle East. Of Jordan. Of the parts of Amman outside the safe confines and rank commercialism of Rainbow Street and Abdoun Circle.

……………………

I’ve truly arrived in the Middle East.

So, let me rephrase: maybe you don’t ever arrive here, maybe you just inch closer to a better picture of this place. You snap on a wider lens and crank the aperture to its narrowest opening, ensuring everything in the frame is focused…. sorry, my camera has been attached to my hand lately.

*While Abdul initially told me it was fine if I quote him, I’ve decided to change his name.

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Written by kauffmant

22/05/2012 at 5:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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