You can always spot them a mile away-he was white, middle-aged, overweight, hair cut close to hide the pattern baldness, red face, wearing a Harley Davidson motorcycle t-shirt and shorts. All of the aforementioned is acceptable in the Middle East, of course, minus the shorts. Aside from a few places like Beirut, wearing shorts in the Middle East isn’t exactly being respectful of the native culture.
But when you are a mercenary, I suppose that’s damned low on your priority list.
Then there was the other one-I noticed him in Chicago before we board our Royal Jordanian flight to Amman. A 30-something white man, eyes wide open, looking over his shoulder constantly, chewing gum so hard his jaw muscles protruded. Blue-flames tattooed on his right arm above the wrist-running up under his sleeve I don’t know how far up his arm. His tan combat boots and tan backpack kind of gave him away too, despite his wearing civilian clothing.
During my flight I sat near a kind Palestinian man from the West Bank. The older gentleman works in Dallas, and is retiring from his electronics store which he is happy to tell me is being passed along to his kids. His wife remains in the West Bank, so that’s why he’s moving back home. I asked him what it’s like to go home.
“I spend the night in Amman then the next day it takes sometimes the full day to cross the bridge and get through the checkpoints. We have the Jordanian border, the Israeli checkpoint, and another to get into the West Bank,” he says, “Each time they take all our things out, search them and us, then if we’re lucky we’re waved through.”
I ask him how he deals with it, personally, without losing his mind. “Oh, all I can do is laugh, because if I lose my temper, if anyone loses their temper, the soldiers [occupation soldiers] just go away for 3-4 hours until they feel like returning. So we all just stay calm and behave gently and with dignity. They have all the power. We have none. So what else can we do?”
Behaving like a typical Arab, he invites me to his home anytime I’m in the area.
Landing in the heat of Amman, I left the plane and walk past a Jordanian man holding a small piece of paper up which read, “Blackwater.” Of course it’s for one (or both) of the men I described above…and soon I see him greeting the man who prefers to wear shorts in the Middle East.
Not too much has changed in the airport in Amman, aside from the new Starbucks. Of course, the Cinnabon had already been here for at least a couple of years.
Meanwhile, plenty has changed in the region since I was here one year ago. Wednesday, after having two of their soldiers captured by Hezbollah fighters, the government of Israel has sent ground troops, backed by aircraft and artillery, into Southern Lebanon. It’s the first ground operation by the Israelis in Lebanon since they withdrew from occupying Lebanon in 2000. Just what the Middle East needs-another country to be occupied; the move is akin to dumping jet fuel on a raging fire.
The prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, referring to how his country would respond to having two of their soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah, told a joint news conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, “The Lebanese government is responsible. Lebanon will pay the price.”
Adhering to his favorite policy of collective punishment, Olmert, added, “…those responsible for the attack will pay a high and painful price.” So attack a country because a rebel group in south Lebanon captured two soldiers. And so the madness continues, as an Israeli air strike on a house in Gaza on what they claimed was targeting a “Hamas top militant leader” killed nine Palestinians, including seven children from one family.
Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara stated recently that Israel’s occupation of Arab land lays at the root of the new crisis that found Israeli troops entering Lebanon. Let’s have some more jet fuel. Looks like I’ve picked an interesting time to visit Syria.
Meanwhile, Baghdad burns as over 100 people have been killed in sectarian violence since Sunday.
A short flight has me landing in Damascas, then racing through the streets as warm air flows through the open taxi windows. The pale green lights mark the tops of minarets around the city, the rest of the lights twinkling in the background as we found our way to my hotel.
After checking in, I dropped my bag and began to walk out for some food, only to find Abu Talat at the front desk. A long bear hug and the typical cheek kissing of Arab men, and we meet again after over one year since we last were together. I’d given him the name of my hotel, but was suspect as to whether he would have a successful trip out of Baghdad, with the extremes of violence over the last three days there. He tends to not go far from home when that occurs, but alas, he decided to go after obtaining a promise from his son not to leave his home under any circumstances.
Also typical of Arab men, we walk down the sidewalk holding hands, en route to a café, talking a mile a minute. He tells me how horrible it is in Baghdad. He lists his family members and relatives, one by one, who have left already for good. “Those who can afford to fly are purchasing one way tickets Dahr,” he says, “For they have no intention of coming back. Aside from my own children and wife, I am the only one of my relatives left in Iraq.”
The fighting is everywhere, he tells me. Now that the U.S. military/Rumsfeld (who was just in Baghdad) and Khalilzad have declared war on the Shia Mehdi Army, accusing them of terrorism, all bets are off. Of course, the timing of this with Israelis attacks against Hezbollah couldn’t be more perfect. Coincidence?
“The fighting is everywhere, and there is no way the Americans can control it now,” Abu Talat adds, “The Shia are fighting each other for control of Basra, while also fighting the Sunni.”
“It is civil war now in Iraq, no doubt,” he continues, “But no matter who you ask, no one will admit it. Because people are too afraid to admit this. People prefer to deny it.”
Even back at our hotel, there are at least two other Iraqis, who have come here for surgery, since all of the senior doctors have long since left Baghdad to save their own lives.
The next day, Thursday, we awoke with our eyes glued to al-Jazeera on the television. Israeli warplanes bombed Beirut’s Rafiq al-Hariri airport. At least two air strikes were reported while Lebanese anti-aircraft guns fired feebly at the jets, according to witnesses. Israeli jets also bombed bridges linking south Lebanon to the rest of the country, and 22 civilians were killed last night by Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon.
In response to the bombings, Hezbollah claims to have fired 60 rockets into northern Israel.
The Israeli justification for bombing the airport in Beirut and pushing into southern Lebanon is that two of their soldiers were captured. In classic newspeak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said of the incident, “It is an act of war by the state of Lebanon,” conveniently omitting the bombings in the occupied territories, including civilians on a beach, by Israeli forces over the last weeks.
“This is going to be a big war,” Abu Talat tells me while we watch plumes of smoke billowing from locations within Lebanon, “This is even more important for us to cover than Iraq, and you know how much I love Iraq.”