Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Amman

I arrived at the Queen Alia airport at Amman around 8 PM Monday. Believe it or not, I was at the Baghdad airport before 1 PM, even though the flight was scheduled at 4. Most of the time was spent navigating security checkpoints and getting clearance to enter the airport.

There were 2 or 3 Iraqi army checkpoints which checked IDs, passports and tickets, followed by another with dogs sniffing the vehicle, a Sonar test for the vehicle, then a small facility where Iraqi security guards frisked me and meticulously went through my suitcase. I noticed while I was being checked that the vehicle was being searched again. After that, we set out on the highway around the runways, flanked by Saddam's former Radhwaniya and Abu Ghraib palaces, and what I assume to be the US airport detention camp. We just went through a final tiny, dog-sniffing, frisking, suitcase-searching checkpoint before we entered the passengers terminal.

I had already spent about an hour going through security, and I discovered that I had to wait at the terminal for the earlier Iraqi Airlines flight to leave before checking in at the desk and weighing my luggage.

The scene at the airport terminal vaguely resembled an experience at the Allawi Al-Hilla bus station. Passengers shouting and complaining that they had booked a flight but their names were not on the list. An Iraqi Airlines desk clerk was trying to solve their problem in between wiping his forehead every 10 seconds. Every now and then, he would give a vacant stare in the midst of passengers huddled around him, reassuring them that there would be a seat for everyone because not all who booked a flight would arrive in time. It appeared that Iraqi Airline agents usually sell an extra dozen tickets or so for each flight, in what it terms 'reserve' seats, in order to compensate for people who don't turn up for their flights. Most of the time it works, but sometimes people have to spend a night at the airport to be added to another flight that has empty seats on it.

Thankfully, my name was on the list. I worked really hard to get that ticket in time this week, since IA flights were all booked until mid July.

There are only 2 IA flights to Amman each day, and another for the Royal Jordanian Airlines. IA tickets are at $622, while RJ's are at $960.

Ran into a couple of interesting characters at the airport terminal. Head of the Sunni Religious Endowments Board, Abdul Ghafour Al-Samarra'i, and the head of the Iraqi Accord Front, the aging Dr. Adnan Al-Dulaimi. I recognised Dulaimi's figure and headcap dozens of meters away. He slowly limped to the gateway, surrounded by bodyguards in beige suits. I was standing alone in the middle of the terminal, and while he walked by he nodded at me and greeted me with a 'Salamu Alaikum'. Nice, I was thinking, he's going to stand in line like everyone else. But he was ushered into the gateway by Iraqi policemen and airport security.

We weighed our luggage, stamped our passports and headed into the waiting terminal. Interestingly, foreigners, mostly American, were all sitting on one side of the terminal, while Iraqi passengers were on the other. We waited for another hour here and went through just one teensy search before the flight left at 6 PM, 2 hours after its scheduled time.

The plane did the obligatory spiral ascent above the airport to reach the right altitude before leaving the area. A precautionary measure to avoid insurgent anti-aircraft missiles from the nearby Radhwaniya, Abu Ghraib and Yousifiya areas. A few first-time Iraqi passengers were not familiar with the procedure, and I tried hard to ignore the curious middle-aged bald man next to me who kept leaning against me to peer out of my window. I sat in the back to keep away from families, but the man's wife and kids saw to it that I wouldn't enjoy a half-hour nap.

Jordanian customs officers were a bit more rigorous in their questions at the Amman airport this time. After learning about the purpose of my visit, they asked for my college acceptance letter and other visa-related documents. Then they strangely asked about my tribe and residence location in Baghdad. He seemed happy to know I was from a Sunni tribe. I can only assume, though I may be mistaken, that Jordanian authorities are trying to limit potential Iraqi Shi'ite immigration to Jordan.

Jordan rarely grants permanent resideny to Iraqis nowadays. But most Iraqis go around it by paying fines, leaving the country for a few days then returning to renew their temporary residency, or by settling illegally. I have dozens of relatives and friends living here for the last 2 years or so.

I was given 2 weeks. The officer insisted that it was enough for the visa application procedure.

I checked in at the US embassy this afternoon. I was only asked for the visa fee cheque and they gave me the application forms and an interview appointment on July 3.

I met an old college friend at the embassy. He was also accepted in an American college, but he mentioned that he was applying for the second time at the embassy, having been refused a visa the first time.

I guess I'm just going to have to bide my time in Amman for now. My family is planning to leave to Syria in about 2 weeks to spend the summer. I'll try to hook up with them later after I get the result of the visa application.

Amman is the same as I left it last time. An ever expanding bustling city that gives the false impression of modernity and a progressive, enlightened society. Yet, every Jordanian I spoke to thinks that Zarqawi is a martyr. One taxi driver frankly told me that one should not rejoice over Zarqawi's death, for one simple reason: Americans and Iraqis are happy about it.

That about sums it up.