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In Jordan, Scud trinkets mean profit for merchant War in the Gulf

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AMMAN, Jordan -- Here on the glass top counter of Feisal Afghani's curiosity shop, there are at least 100 Scud missiles, freshly painted and made only this morning. Mr. Afghani is gently blow-drying the final coat of varnish.

Each Scud is three inches long, stamped and cut from a sheet of zinc. Within an hour they will become key chains and brooches, and by late afternoon not a single one will be left.

At 2.50 dinars ($3.75) apiece, they are the hottest-selling items in Amman.

Such are the oddities of life during wartime in the neutral zone of Jordan, an oasis of unsettled peace between Israel and Iraq.

It is a place where you'll find a restaurant called Uncle Sam's displaying a portrait of Saddam Hussein; where wild rumors of assassinations and Iraqi triumphs bolt through the streets like desert lightning; where thousands each night stay glued to the radio for the latest war news from the BBC, Radio Monte Carlo and Baghdad Radio; and where children scamper through playgrounds with arms outstretched, spitting out sounds of gunfire as they "shoot down" allied bombers from the imaginary cockpits of Iraqi jets.

It is in this environment that Mr. Afghani found the perfect way to boost sales at the family's downtown business, by turning the Scud into a trinket.

Sales have already topped 2,000. "Everything we produce we sell," he said. "Yesterday I was wearing one I was going to give my wife and I had to sell it because we had run out."

Why so popular? Because Scuds have shipped death and fear to Israel, just as Mr. Hussein promised. "I did not expect they would hit Tel Aviv," Mr. Afghani said, "because I am used to Arab leaders just talking and blubbering with no action. But President Saddam, whatever he says he does. He is very different."

*

One can easily identify the major combatants in the gulf war by strolling the streets of Amman. The countries doing the fighting have Jordanian jeeps parked in front of their embassies, each mounted with a machine gun. Embassies of non-combatants get only a foot patrolman with an automatic weapon slung across his shoulder.

Until recently, the American and Iraqi embassies had additional embellishments. Iraq's was a sign posted out front telling journalists that visas were no longer available "due to the Zionist attack." Now some visas have been issued.

The American Embassy had its own private anti-war vigil out front. Ellen Rosser, an American from California, sat across the street from the embassy entrance each day after Jan. 17, vowing fast until President Bush called home the troops. The other day she flew back to the United States, promising to continue her fast across the street from the White House.

* At the Iraqi border the closeness of war is quickly apparent, both the frequent military checkpoints one must contend with and in the tales of gore and horror told by refugees emerging from Iraq.

Occasionally the wounded pass through. Last week a car pulled into the customs station with its windows blown out. A man lay bleeding on the back seat, his hands and chest cut by flying glass during a bombing raid, his companion said.

Three days ago government authorities carted into the country the charred remains of four drivers of Jordanian oil tanker trucks whose rigs had been burned up in an allied attack.

And sometimes, if one is patient, the distant deep thuds of explosions can be heard, blowing in from the east on a desert breeze.

Another vivid spillover from the war is the recurring scene of chaos with the arrival of each new batch of refugees: Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, people from many of the poorer countries of the world.

For some of these refugees, leaving the war only means entering even greater uncertainty. Some arriving Somalians, unable to return to their war-wracked country, have been taken to Libya. Others stayed behind in the tent camps, waiting to see how things go in Libya for their countrymen.

George Simplicio, 22, a college student from Sudan, doesn't have such options. While many of his fellow countrymen head for the Jordanian port of Aqaba and a boat ride home, he waits for something else.

Mr. Simplicio is from southern Sudan, home to the rebel forces that have been fighting the Khartoum government's army since 1983, at an estimated cost of 259,000 lives.

"My father went into hiding in 1989," he said. "He took a position of going into the bush and fighting against the government."

At worst, Mr. Simplicio figures he will be killed if he returns. At best, he said, he will be stuck there the rest of his life, unable to return to Baghdad to earn the degree in medical analysis that was only a few months away.

But he will not be allowed to stay in Jordan unless he stays in the damp, chilly tents of the refugee camps.

* Once reaching Amman, a sense of controlled frenzy prevails. Besides the ever-present posters of Saddam Hussein, there are the crisscrossed taped windows, the families making gas masks out of surgical masks and charcoal, and the "safe rooms" set up in homes and hotels.

The best indicator of which way the political winds are blowing may be found in the city's maternity wards, where more than 400 newborns have been named Saddam since August, including 22 in the five days after the first air attack on Baghdad. Beforehand, Jordanian officials say, the name was practically unheard of here.

As for the older children, just ask Rami Khouri about his sons, ages 8 and 10.

Mr. Khouri, a local writer and television show host, describes himself as a "colonial Arab" thoroughly indoctrinated in Western ways. He went to Syracuse University, and still reads baseball publications to keep up with the New York Yankees.

Saddam Hussein is not his cup of tea, he said, but he wholeheartedly opposes the U.S.-led alliance, seeing it as another attempt at outside domination of the Arabs, in the long tradition of the Crusades, the Ottomans and the British Empire.

His children may not share his historical context, but they've soaked up the overall tilt of local sentiment.

The other day they pooled their savings of a few dinars and asked their mother to send it "to the children of Iraq."

On another day, Mr. Khouri came home to find them tossing a Lego-block "Scud missile" at a Lego-built city of Tel Aviv.

* ZTC Given the prevailing atmosphere of Jordan, there's little wonder the place has become Rumor Central since the war began.

According to reports racing through the streets, fueled largely by wishful thinking, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak has now been assassinated twice. The leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia are also said to have been bumped off.

Saddam Hussein is said to be secure however, because the word on the street says that he has recruited five exact doubles to roam the country, drawing an allied fire while the real Saddam Hussein keeps his whereabouts a secret.

And not only does Mr. Hussein have nuclear weapons, the stories go, but he has developed a top-secret delivery system that will astound the world with its range and accuracy.

But if that isn't enough to knock out Israel, then there are always the 5,000 crack, well-armed Palestinian troops now in hiding on the West Bank, just waiting for the word from Mr. Hussein to spring up and attack Israel.

Other tales making the rounds concern the Kuwaitis, who have been getting a bad name among the country's extremists.

Sheik Tamimi, something of a local character except among his few adherents, disdainfully claimed that the Kuwaitis "marry their cats," and said he knew personally of payments made to arrange such unholy alliances.

Mansour Murad, leader of the Jordanian Youth Union, also has little good to say about the Kuwaitis.

He told a reporter for London's Daily Telegraph, "These were bad people. They were greedy, they drank whiskey and slept with European women while tens of millions of their Arab brothers live in poverty."

Fueling these sorts of stories is the rabidly anti-American media in Jordan, which vents its spleen daily in large headlines.

Members of Parliament and a few government officials occasionally have joined in, to the chagrin of Western diplomats who hope to maintain friendly ties with Jordan after the war.

But the same sources also acknowledge that the free-flowing rhetoric allowed by King Hussein's government seems to be acting as a safety valve on the anti-Western pressure building in the country.

One result so far has been relatively few low-grade attempts at terrorism. On Wednesday afternoon a man speeding by in a white Mercedes lobbed a hand grenade at a British bank, blowing out a chunk of the wall and smashing the windows of a few parked cars, but injuring no one.

Arsonists who broke into the French cultural center last week burned up a few thousand books, and two weeks ago someone fired an errant shot or two at a branch of an American bank.

The government also has managed to tone down the cry in some quarters for entering the war on the side of Iraq, though that could change if Israel retaliates against missile attacks by crossing Jordanian air space.

For now, though, Information Minister Ibrahim Izzadin figures his country will be able to ride out the fighting on the sidelines.

"We are not a party to the conflict and we would like to keep this position," he said. "Of course, the pressure is mounting, but we would like to avoid it if we can."

A longtime Palestinian journalist, expelled years ago from the West Bank, said he's amazed that King Hussein has been able to control the population as long as he has. "Otherwise," he said, "everything American, French and British would have been attacked and burned by now, and they would have opened the frontier to Iraq."

But the peace won't last, the old editor said, and eventually Jordan's neutral zone will become another theater of the war.

"The popular trend is running the country," he said. "The king is trying to put brakes on it. It is just not possible."

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