Sunday, June 25, 2006

Meet up with Jordanian bloggers

As a result of my last post and observation on Jordanian reactions to Zarqawi’s death, I had a pleasant and rewarding meet up with a few Jordanian bloggers last Wednesday.

The rendezvous was at an unpretentious café at Jabal Al-Luwaibda called the Paris Library, which seems to be often frequented by workers of the French embassy in Amman.

4 bloggers, out of 7, turned up, and sooner rather than later they were all deep in intense discussion like old friends.

The bloggers I met:

Lina, a radiant, energetic young woman, was actually the first to respond to my request to meet and had arranged the whole meeting. She has what I believe to be the characteristics of an activist and community leader.

Mariam, a friendly young lady of Palestinian background, back home at Amman, on a break from studying anthropology at London. From her remarks and her blog posts, she is a profound student of the human character.

Laith Zraikat, a 28-year old IT manager and co-founder of the Arabic web site Jeeran.com, also a non-practicing dentist. Their motto is to: empower people to enhance their lifestyle by providing community-based innovative web services. I was actually surprised to learn that they hosted several thousand Arabic language weblogs, in addition to a myriad of other services.

Roba, a young, reflective arts student, with an affable American accent, also of Palestinian background.

We briefly discussed the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the state of the Iraqi blogosphere after the initial small talk. They seemed a tad surprised that there were no attempts back in Baghdad to arrange an Iraqi bloggers get-together at any point, a fact that I have lamented in some earlier posts. Salam Pax did once suggest a small meeting back in 2003, which never took place, and I tried the same last year during my blog hiatus when I collaborated with about 30 other Iraqi bloggers to create an Iraqi group blog, a listserv, and a portal (the site is dormant now). We learned at the time that about a dozen of us lived in the very same neigbourhood, but other than small meetings with 2 or 3 bloggers, there was no group meet up.

Jordanian bloggers, on the other hand, regularly meet and collaborate on several projects. They have a successful blog portal at Jordan Planet, which is also a good introduction to the growing Jordanian blogosphere. Bloggers in Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain have also arranged several social gatherings, in addition to maintaining a strong blog conversation and interaction, despite political or ideological differences.

The Iraqi blogosphere, even though it was the first in the region, and probably still the largest, remains fractured and divided, with a few notable exceptions. All out attempts to establish a community or dialogue have miserably failed. Iraqi bloggers very rarely challenge or link to each other (I’m probably even guilty of this myself), and if they do they choose to link to bloggers who share their viewpoint. I don’t really think that is what blogging is about.

Back in 2003, when there were only 2 or 3 Iraqi blogs, and a lack of alternative news sources from the country, I started blogging in the hope of providing ordinary citizens with a voice and an outlet to the world. I was specially encouraged by Hoder’s experience with Iranian bloggers, but I was not just trying to copy his approach. I envisioned a legion of Iraqi citizen reporters all over the country, from Dohuk to Basrah, blogging about their daily lives at a time when the mainstream media concentrated on American casualties, suicide bombings or the irrelevant antics of imported Iraqi politicians.

Iraqi blogs have passed 200 in number today, but less than a dozen are well known. This is largely because most bloggers live in a void. They are like isolated islands.

I don’t want to turn this post into a critique of Iraqi blogs, so I guess I’ll leave it for another time.

The conversation with the Jordanian bloggers shifted to a diverse assortment of topics, from pan-Arabism to tribalism, defining a Jordanian national identity, the genealogy of Christians in the Arab world, local politics, student unions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, democracy and whether Arabs were ready for it, school curricula, the World Cup, and the horrors of visiting the dentist. All in all, a very interesting exchange.

They also invited me to their next meet up, which will involve a much larger group of bloggers. I’m looking forward to it.

Other than that, I’m still waiting for my visa interview on July 3. My 2 weeks residency will be over tomorrow, so I should apply at the Interior Ministry to extend it for another month.

I think I’m having withdrawal symptoms being away from home and family. The violence in Baghdad is at the same level, or worse, notwithstanding the new security operation in the capital. My family is reporting street battles almost every day in their area, and I can’t help but feel concerned for their safety all the time, which affects everything I try to do over here. Somehow, there seems to be no end at sight to this mess.

I’m also going to try to post a photo blog of interesting places in Amman during my stay soon.

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.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Death of a Salesman

My last post on Zarqawi at the Guardian's Comment is Free blog.

Suffering from internet problems again. I should leave Baghdad to Amman this week. Wish me luck.