AQABA, Jordan April 5 —
At sundown, the gentlemen of Aqaba gather at outdoor tables under
a spreading acacia to suck on water pipes, sip mint tea and watch
the bombing, live from Baghdad.
The other night, a man in a soiled white gown exhaled smoke and
muttered darkly into his cell phone. Others scowled and shook their
heads at TV close-ups of a mother weeping over her broken child.
One fierce-faced Arab narrowly eyed an American sitting next to
him, a rare foreigner in a Red Sea resort normally alive with
European tourists. Finally, he asked his question: Are you
"I live in Paris," came the truthful, if incomplete, reply. The
Arab relaxed to a smile. He lifted a thumb skyward and said:
France, against the war, is in good odor in the Arab world these
days. America is another matter.
A glance at history's foreign footprints in the desert, from
Trajan's to Lawrence of Arabia's, suggests what a challenge modern
America faces in attempting to remake the Middle East.
Trajan, the Roman emperor, built his road to Aqaba but found it
led him nowhere. Lawrence blew bridges near here to chase out Turks
so that Britain could take its turn at imperial failure Palestine,
If it could point to a single success story, it might be Jordan,
a sensible little kingdom in the middle of the Middle East, with an
army and royal family steeped in British influence.
Now it will be the United States' turn to try to shape the
region, yet even here, in this most staunchly pro-Western of Arab
countries, the prognosis is gloomy.
"It's just not going to work out, no matter how many people you
kill or cow," said Hala Fattah.
Fattah is an Iraq historian with Jordan's Royal Institute of
Interfaith Studies. She is a Palestinian who admires America. Her
doctorate is from UCLA, and she worked for years in Washington.
"If you win, then what? You might install an Iraqi from outside.
Her forecast: "Low-grade insurgency, civil unrest, power
Caught between powerful forces Israel to the west, Iraq to the
east Jordanians are more likely than most to fault both sides
President Saddam Hussein for starting the whole mess by invading
Kuwait, and President Bush for believing an invasion of Iraq can put
"All this because of two crazy people, one from the East and one
from the West," said Mahmoud Helalat, director of tourism for Aqaba
and the ancient city of Petra to the north.
Aqaba was once a Red Sea backwater of mud huts made famous by
Lawrence of Arabia's World War I exploits. Today it is prime
beachfront, and feeling the pinch of war first from the 30-month-old
Palestinian-Israeli conflict next door, and now the Iraq crisis.
Its coral reefs normally attract 1,000 tourists daily, but
Helalat had seen no one for a week. At Petra, barely 10 people a day
arrive in full season when there should be thousands.
"We are dying here," Helalat said. "And for what?"
Mohammed Sabri, a gentle-mannered accountant in an immaculate
white robe, has a brother in Palm Beach, Fla. He likes America. But
he believes that statesmen in Washington have missed a crucial
"For visiting, outsiders are most welcome," he said. "For
conquering, they are hated."
Many Jordanians draw a clear line between American people and
their government. Some hate both. Some invoke Islam, others the
In the spectacular southern Jordanian desert at Wadi Rum, where
civilizations have risen and fallen for thousands of years, a
desert-born Bedouin named Difallah Ateej smoked a cigarette and
surveyed the shuttered fronts of tumbledown shops in Rum
It was here, in 1917, that Lawrence of Arabia fomented an Arab
revolt against the dying Turkish empire and opened the way for the
British army. Here the English accents are still tinged with British
inflections and idioms. Travel a couple of miles north, cross the
line that British and French surveyors drew to divvy up the Middle
East after World War I, and the tones and name spellings take on a
In the handsome stone house that Ateej built on the profits from
his restaurant and guided tours of the desert, three of his kids
played at a computer. Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV station that
is the Aab world's prime source of Iraq war news, blared in the
Now, with tourism revenues drying up, Ateej cannot pay his
electric bill. Soon he will take his family of 12, with his camels
and goats, to live in his traditional black tent deep in Wadi
"I am at home in both worlds," he said "I take an airplane and
stay in a big hotel, then I come to the desert and talk to my
camels. It does not matter."
On the wall hangs a photo of Ateej's father, looking fierce in
the crossed bandoliers and bemedaled turban of the king's desert
corps. His grandfather, who rode with Lawrence, died recently at
"The Americans believe they will just come in, and people will
cheer them if they are victorious," he said. "They will learn."
Mafleh Salem, who lives in a black tent by Lawrence Spring in
Wadi Rum, stirred embers to heat the inevitable cup of tea. He has a
Toyota pickup but prefers his camels.
"I don't know Saddam, I don't know Bush, and it is not my place
to say," he said. "I only want peace for Iraqi people. War is wrong.
America is not like a policeman to stop each person in the
He introduced a young son, named Jihad. "Yes," he said, "that
means holy war, but non-Muslims don't understand. Real jihad is
peaceful propagation of the faith. Killing is only in
Across the Middle East, and in Jordan especially, the issue of
Palestine looms large. Many see Iraq as a sideshow, a chance to vent
anger at a U.S. administration they believe is too close to
Near Amman, the squalor of Baqaa refugee camp is studded with
fine three-story homes. Palestinians, now more than 100,000, have
bided time there since 1948 awaiting a political solution.
U.N. aid has dwindled, and Arab states are reluctant to help. In
one home, an old woman spewed invective, calling on Allah to burn
all Americans and Jews for eternity. She would be thrilled, she
said, to see her grandsons die in the holy cause of victory.
A group of kids, about 9 and 10 years old, stopped their pickup
soccer game to offer their view of events: Saddam is a
|An armed Iraqi stands by a small
crater left by an explosion in Baghdad Saturday, April 5,
2003. American armored combat troops moved through "the heart
of Baghdad" on Saturday from the south and coalition troops
also took several objectives surrounding the capital in the
north and northwest, U.S. military officials said. (AP
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