Bipolar - or tripolar - disorder
With about 700,000 Iraqis having already fled to Jordan, and the multitudes of Palestinians and Lebanese also there, the 'hosts' are beginning to worry about losing their national identity. Meanwhile, the shell-shocked newcomers have their own problems.
AMMAN - Everyone knows where the Iraqis live. "You'll find them in the upscale neighborhoods of Khalda and Abdoun, or in the Rabia neighborhood or in Hashemite Square. It depends how much money they brought from there. But go to Rabia, there you'll find 'Little Baghdad,'" explains Ali. Ali is a Jordanian teacher who moonlights in a real estate agency in the Shmeisani quarter of the city. "We like the Iraqis. Good people. They suffered a lot there. Poor guys, they've lost their country," he adds.
But the eyes of the other employee in Ali's office seem to be saying something else. After a small, bitter cup of coffee, he is ready to explain his feelings. "The rich among them don't see us at all. They enter the office with the conviction that they've bought Amman. It makes no difference how nice we try to be to them, to entertain them, to be welcoming - we don't exist. I swear that if [the authorities] open the gates to them, there won't be any Jordanian citizens left in the country. We'll all leave, and not because of the attitude of Iraq's wealthy toward us; there will be so many immigrants that this will become an Iraqi country."
But the gates have already opened. The estimate is that during the war's first three years, and especially during the last year, more than 700,000 Iraqi citizens fled to Jordan, which still doesn't know how to categorize them: tourists or refugees. Now the only ones who can enter are those defined as humanitarian cases, or those who have good connections or who can invest money to open a business here that will employ Jordanian citizens. Jordan has even enacted a strict regulation: An Iraqi citizen who wants a license to open a business in the country now has to promise that at least one-third of its employees will be locals.
This rule apparently doesn't scare the Iraqis. A short ride through the Rabia neighborhood or along Gardens Street with a Jordanian colleague testifies to the extent of the "Iraqi invasion." "On your right you'll see a fish restaurant," he says, pointing to an Iraqi restaurant whose large sign proclaims: "Fish prepared here like in Baghdad." The colleague explains that the Iraqis grill the fish that they bring from Aqaba over charcoal, as opposed to the Jordanians, who bake it in the oven.
A few hundred meters further along is Hamdan's candy store, which sells "lady fingers," a typical Iraqi sweet that is similar to knafeh (a sweet pastry made with cheese), "but much less tasty than our knafeh," says my colleague. "In general, Iraqi food is not great, it doesn't suit the Jordanian palate. It's a different nation with different tastes."
As we drive, he continually points out the homes, many of them luxurious, purchased by the Iraqis. They're not only in the wealthy neighborhoods. Thousands of Iraqis also live in the middle-class neighborhood of Al-Hashemi al-Shamali, in the Haddada quarter or near the Al-Mahata refugee camp. "Urban Iraqis moved to the city, rural Iraqis moved to rural areas in Jordan. Everyone found a location according to his income and his profession. The rich open businesses and the poor, both Iraqis and Jordanians, work in them."
Firas is a Jordanian who works in an Iraqi business: He is the maitre d' at a restaurant. The establishment's owner became a wealthy man in the wake of the war; he is not in Amman at the moment, but in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where he is busy opening a new branch. "Wherever there are Iraqis, he opens a restaurant," explains Firas, who wears a formal black suit. He points to the small van that is used by the restaurant, which is labeled "Azamiya Restaurant," after the original establishment, in a Baghdad neighborhood that is now torn by war.
The food served here is a perfect imitation of the dishes available in Iraqi restaurants. The manner of service is also identical: Skewers of kebab and lamb are placed on a bed of thin pita and herbs, and covered with another thin pita, and diners receive a choice of salads on the side. The restaurant serves as a central meeting place for middle- and upper-middle-class Iraqis. The very wealthy eat in the hotels or in the Lebanese restaurants. For the foreign tourist, the prices are very cheap, about $8 for a full Iraqi meal. But this is a lot of money for Firas, and for the Egyptian workers who clean tables and wash the floor here. They make do with a sandwich that they prepare for themselves under the watchful eye of a representative of the owner.
Firas is a resident of Zarqa in northern Jordan, but he doesn't go home much to see his family, because "the salary I get from the Iraqi, about 180 dinars a month for 12 hours of work [daily], doesn't allow me to travel home every day." He sends 100 dinars each month to his family; the rest covers his personal expenses. This is a relatively high salary, compared to that of an Iraqi worker in the restaurant, who earns only 150 dinars a month. "But the Iraqi saves more, because he sleeps and eats here," explains Firas, who invites me for a longer conversation after he finishes his shift at 3 A.M.
Because of the Iraqi invasion, Firas can no longer rent an apartment or even a room close to work. "Once I could rent for 50 dinars a month; now they tell me that they're waiting for Iraqis, who will pay 100 or 120 dinars a month. Everything has become more expensive because of them. I used to pay two dinars for a canister of gas, now I pay five. The Iraqis who come with money are not satisfied like us with heating a bucket of water over gas; they install boilers that work on gas. Demand has increased a lot and so have prices. They buy everything indiscriminately, and we have to pay the price in the end. The salaries have increased somewhat, but expenses have multiplied."
Firas was married to an Israeli Arab from Shfaram. He submitted all the papers required for family reunification in Israel, but his request was denied by Israeli authorities. "Maybe," he explains, "because my father was born in Syria and I was born in Kuwait, and maybe because I married an Israeli Arab and in Israel they're afraid of more Arabs." The couple divorced, because Firas was unable to earn enough to provide for his wife, "who is used to going out a lot to eat in restaurants and to having a good time."
Now he lives in an apartment he rented with several friends in Amman. Every day he sleeps in a different bed: "It depends who isn't in the apartment that day." What about marrying an Iraqi woman, he is asked. "No, no. The Iraqi women are disrespectful. They're tough and they demand a lot from their husbands. It's the bad education of Saddam Hussein, who granted Iraqi women a high status. Here the women are still polite. Let's hope that the Iraqi women won't ruin them for us."
'Against our will'
"We've turned into a host country against our will," says a Jordanian who owns a mobile phone company. "Last summer many Lebanese came here, fleeing from the Israeli attack. Now we're hosting the Iraqis. I don't know what will happen in the end - Iraqi Jordanians, Jordanian Iraqis, Jordanian Palestinians. A new generation of Jordanian children is growing up here, playing with Iraqis, and they speak a common language. These are Iraqi children who are losing their cultural identity, who don't learn Iraqi history here as they did in Iraq, who have to salute the Jordanian flag. It's also a problem for Jordanians, who are perhaps beginning to understand that this country is not only theirs."
Fear for the identity of the Jordanian state is heard from all sides.
At supper with Jordanian friends who live in a penthouse in an upscale neighborhood, one of the guests, a professor at Yarmouk University, explains that Jordan is liable to turn into a bipolar, and even a tripolar, country.
"We still have not fully integrated the Jordanian Palestinians. And now we're facing this wave of Iraqi immigration," he explains. "At our university there is friction between Iraqi and Jordanian students already. There has even been violence. The Jordanian students see their studies as part of Jordan's national future. The Iraqis have no such interest; they want to finish quickly and easily. My daughter, who studies at the university, told me that one Iraqi tried to hit on her and she was immediately surrounded by several Jordanian friends, who didn't let him approach her. It wasn't a matter of romantic jealousy, in my opinion. It's a feeling of nationalism."
Bilal, a young engineer - whose father, a Jordanian businessman whom I consider to be a liberal, has often visited Israel - has another fear: "I have a problem with the Shi'ites. In my opinion they aren't Muslims, they're real heretics. I really hope that there are very few Shi'ites among the Iraqis who have come. You know, they hide their identity. The problem with them is not only that they're heretics: They are also Persians, and the Persians caused more harm to the Arabs than the Christians or the Jews. They're frightening everyone now with the atom bomb. I really don't understand why our government is allowing them to enter."
But on the other hand, Bilal is pleased with the construction activity in the city, and has no problem working even for Shi'ite investors if they come.
No work permit, no status
"The Jordanians are really good people," says Abu Muhammad, an Iraqi who lives in Jordan. "They gave us a warm welcome. But I feel that I won't be able to remain here much longer. My money is running out, I have no legal status in Jordan, and only two days ago, after three years, did I receive a letter from the refugee agency that confirms that I submitted a request for refugee status." Without that letter, his two older children, aged 11 and 12, would have been expelled from school this week, he adds. "I don't even have a work permit, because the Jordanian government doesn't give Iraqis work permits if they aren't investors."
Abu Muhammad is not an investor. In Iraq he had two factories and a large silversmith's shop, and he was "a rich man in Iraqi terms." He was among the first to flee after the war broke out. "By 2004, I saw what was coming. When they restored our telephone lines that had been cut off, I heard one of the young men installing the lines in Baghdad behaving rudely to one of my neighbors. Suddenly I understood that this new generation of people with power - Shi'ites who were followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, soldiers in the Mahdi Army - were assuming authority in the street.
"I'm a Christian, and my problem began immediately. The members of the Mahdi Army threatened that if I didn't convert to Islam they would slaughter me or kidnap my children. One day they broke into my store and burglarized it. I knew them; they were neighbors of mine in Baghdad. I went to file a complaint against them with the police, and they considered that a lot of nerve. They informed me that they would harass me if I didn't cancel the complaint. A few days later there was an attempt to kidnap my wife; the claim was that she doesn't wear a veil. That's a lie, they wanted to harm me.
"Afterward I also saw how the U.S. Army behaved. The soldiers would shoot in all directions. If you were driving on the highway against the direction of traffic, and everyone drove that way at the time, you could have been run over indiscriminately by an American tank. That was when I decided to take my family and move to Syria. Syria is a convenient and cheap country, and I had also heard that Jordan was a closed and cold place, and that there was snow there. In Syria I opened a fiberglass factory, and afterward I was a driver, and I also opened another business. Everything was fine in Syria until I listened to my wife's relatives in Jordan."
The Iraqi relatives in Jordan had arrived a short time before Abu Muhammad, and they invited him and his family to come over, in order to submit a request to immigrate to Australia together. A Jordanian lawyer filled in all the information for them, and Abu Muhammad believed that within a short time "I would be far enough away from the vengeful hands of the Iraqi Shi'ites." But the reply was negative, and now he is in a country to which he had no desire to go.
What about returning to Syria? "Now it's much more difficult. Just moving my things will cost me about $2,000, a huge sum for me. But more important, when my children moved from Iraq to Syria and entered school, they were forced to learn the Syrian dialect and the Syrian way of thinking. Afterward we moved to Jordan and here they underwent another crisis of language and way of thinking. To move them again to Syria so that they will go back to the Syrian way of education would be torture. But the fact is that they're suffering terribly here, too. You know, a few days ago, my older son called the lawyer directly and told her that he couldn't go to school any more because the children already know that he's not a Muslim and they keep calling him 'Heretic, heretic.' I don't know what to do anymore. Believe me, I go to work every morning only to work. No money is left from it."
Many Iraqis will soon have no money left, and the jobs are also running out in Jordan. But some Iraqis have no such worries. They can be found in the luxurious Mecca mall on the outskirts of Amman, where the prices are almost like those in Europe. It's impossible to mistake the Iranian dialect of several small families sitting in the Starbucks cafe there. It's afternoon, "and only Iraqis who don't have to work can permit themselves to walk among the shops at this hour," explains Rima, an Iraqi who was sitting in the cafe with her husband and their two young sons.
"I know very well what they think of us, not only the Jordanians but our fellow Iraqis too, but I don't need to account to anyone," Rima says. "Nobody here checks how many relatives of mine were killed, how many of the girls in our neighborhood were raped and why we fled. They see only the jewelry we buy or our new Mazda."
"You need to understand, and you Jews should understand it better than anyone: Anyone who undergoes a holocaust seeks compensation. I will no longer have a country to live in. Jordan can't provide me with a substitute for the flower garden I had there, for my friends who left or my nephew who disappeared. I am now planning to live well as long as I can afford it. I don't want anyone sitting on my conscience. In Iraq there were rich and poor, and in Jordan there are rich and poor, too. A million Iraqis are living in Jordan. What do they expect - that we'll all be miserable beggars? Can they even afford to support refugees who are beggars? The Jordanians should be happy that there are rich people among us who can help this unfortunate country."