Monday, July 10, 2006

The Iraqi Invasion

You can notice it everywhere you go in Amman. At shopping malls and supermarkets; at restaurants and coffee shops; at hotels and net cafés; at discos and nightclubs; at bus stops and fruit stands: the signs and symptoms of an Iraqi invasion.

An unofficial estimation by Jordanian authorities, based on residency records, recently put the number of Iraqis inside Jordan at half a million, which in a country of 6 million is, understandably, an alarming trend. All other evidence, however, indicates that actual numbers are much higher. The majority of Iraqis here work around the restrictions of Jordanian immigration laws by paying fines or by staying illegally.

When an Iraqi normally enters Jordan, for whatever reasons, they are usually granted 2 weeks stay. When it’s over, they file an application at the Jordanian Interior Ministry and get another month of temporary residency from the Directorate of Residency and Borders. Temporary residency can then be extended to a maximum of 2 months for a 20 Dinar fee and a medical check requirement. It would be extremely rare to get another extension unless one has a status of investor or businessman, and a minimum of 50,000 Dinars ($70,000) in a Jordanian bank.

Very lately, Jordanian authorities, fearing a mass exodus of Iraqi refugees into Jordan, have imposed even stricter measures against the entry and residency of Iraqis. A regulation was introduced a few days ago banning young Iraqi males, born between 1970 and 1978, from entering Jordan. Exceptions are very rare.

I mentioned that my family was expected to arrive here a few days ago. They made it safely, but they experienced a 12-hour ordeal at the Karama border center on the Iraqi-Jordanian border. My brother, Nabil, was not allowed to pass. According to my mother, he was literally devastated to hear that. Hours later, following lengthy negotiations with Jordanian security and customs officers, several phone calls to relatives and officials at Amman, and a display of some old medical reports, he was finally permitted to go through. Other Iraqi youngsters were not so lucky. Sometimes female and elderly members of a family would be granted entry, but not the young men. Such scenes of families breaking apart, with some allowed to tread safe land and the rest forced to go back to hell, are not pretty to watch.

There was an unreported explosion at the Traibeel border center on the Iraqi side, just moments after my family crossed into Jordan. Hundreds of Iraqi travelers on the other side, where a mere few meters separate them from sheer danger, watched the plumes of smoke arising while they waited in their vehicles. American soldiers were giving toys and candy to Iraqi children leaving the border with their wary parents.

It took my family exactly 24 hours to get here through the land route from Baghdad. They literally collapsed on the floor from stress and exhaustion when they got to my apartment. The ride cost them $700. Now, it’s $800 and rising.

My family said that about 120 transport SUVs from Iraq, each carrying 7 passengers, were waiting in queue to enter Jordan that day. That’s close to a thousand people. Flights from Baghdad to Amman are all booked until early August. A good deal of those passengers will try not to return, and even if they do, it will be just to get their residencies renewed.

It’s a very distressing experience to hear the stories of Iraqis living in Amman. Concern for relatives back home, residency problems, and the quest for employment or a third country offering sanctuary to fleeing Iraqis, are principal conversation topics. Jordanians bitterly complain of inflation and an increase in real estate values as a result of the mass migration of Iraqi families, while Iraqis, on the other hand, never fail to point out, often with distaste, that Jordan is getting back much more in profit from the flow of hard currency out of Iraq. There’s an old and very common belief among many Iraqis that Jordan is always in the position to gain from Iraq’s problems, starting from the Iraq-Iran war to the gulf war, the sanction years, and the last war. Jordan was, and continues to be, Iraq’s main outlet to the rest of the world. It’s only normal that Jordan’s economy would prosper as a result, but not without its own problems.

Jordan has struggled with the issue of Palestinian refugees for several decades. There was a time when there were more Palestinians here than native Jordanians, especially before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which was part of the Jordanian kingdom, until the late King Hussein relinquished Jordan’s claim over the West Bank to the PLO. A large part of Jordan’s population today can be traced to Palestinian territories, west of the Jordan River. Most were eventually absorbed and granted Jordanian citizenship, unlike Lebanon, Syria and other Arab countries, were they are still restricted to their original refugee camps and do not enjoy civil rights.

Jordan, evidently, has no intention to go through the same dilemma with Iraqi refugees. It does not grant asylum or permanent residency to Iraqis. There is also evidence, Iraqis here say, that Jordanian authorities are being selective in their admission of Iraqis. All Iraqi visitors are screened at ports of entry and questioned meticulously about their tribal, regional, and sometimes sectarian, background back in Iraq. When tribe names are obscure, customs officers try to investigate deeper. I suspect, but I may be wrong, that Sunni Iraqis are given preference in their entry to Jordan. Some explain this in the light of Jordan’s fears of a growing Shi’ite community in their midst, given King Abdullah’s warning of a Shi’ite crescent from Iran to Lebanon in the region. Iraqis also claim that King Abdullah recently turned down a request by Iraqi Shi’ites in Jordan to build a husseiniya, and that Muqtada Al-Sadr’s visit to Jordan was mainly to convince the king to reconsider.

Still, Iraqis living in Jordan come from all backgrounds. Most are upper and middle class Baghdadis, both Sunni and Shia, and there is a considerable Iraqi Christian community as well. Most Iraqi politicians and MPs either own apartments or spend a good deal of their time here in Amman. There is a whole district in Amman called Dhahiet Al-Rashid in which Iraqis own more property than Jordanians. I’ve changed apartments three times over the last month, and my neighbours at each were Iraqis. It’s no wonder that real estate prices have soured. A 3-bedroom apartment can cost up to 1500 Dinars ($2,150) in rent per month, while a simple hotel suite for 2 people can cost between 500 to 900 Dinars. Rentals are usually lower at suburbs, but transportation is quite expensive.

You can find more people speaking the Iraqi dialect on the streets than Jordanians, followed by Saudi tourists. The number of relatives and old friends and acquaintances I have run into everywhere I go is just amazing.

Iraqi businesses have also started moving to Amman. Well-known Iraqi restaurants such as the Qasim shawarma restaurant and Al-Qaraghuli have opened branches in Amman. Other new restaurants catering for Iraqis have spawned, such as the Al-Mahhar, Qasr Al-Ballour, Al-Mileh Wa Al-Zad, and Sumer restaurants. The Al-Hamadani brand for Iraqi sweets, famous for its crusty filled rolls, called Znoud Al-Sitt, is open with a sign reading ‘from Baghdad to Amman.’ Even Jordanian restaurants now have notices announcing ‘Iraqi bread available,’ or ‘we offer Masgouf fish made the Baghdadi way.’

All signs here give the impression that Iraqis are not going away any time soon, as long as the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate rapidly.

There are less foreign tourists on the streets in Amman than the last time I visited, and security measures are tighter around hotels and public places including malls and cafés where tourists might be present, obviously as a result of the Amman hotel bombings. At the US embassy, security measures were almost at Baghdad’s standards but minus the concrete barriers. I was at the Four Seasons hotel last week to meet Le Figaro’s Baghdad correspondent, Delphine Minoui, and her husband, Borzou Daragahi, the LA Times Baghdad bureau chief (this was my first face-to-face interview with a foreign reporter), and I could see that no vehicles were allowed to go near the hotel without passing through a security checkpoint. Security guards also search visitors and their belongings before they enter the hotel’s main lobby. Undercover Mukhabarat agents often patrol Abdoun and other districts where embassies and international missions are located. I know this because they followed me last year when I was lost, trying to find my aunt’s apartment, and asked if I had any business loitering around the street.

Photos of Amman will follow soon.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

My visa interview at the US embassy in Amman went well. The consular officer told me my application was approved but that there would be a few weeks delay before I could be issued the visa. The reason is that my application requires 'additional administrative processing' under section 221(g) of the US Immigration and Nationality Act.

I'll be staying in Amman until I hear back from the embassy. My family should also arrive here tonight for a couple of weeks before they leave to Syria.