Studying Abroad (Or Finding the Iraq War in Jordan)

Each morning on my way to class at the University of Jordan, I pass by children with dirt on their faces and in their hair. They sell three-piece sets of chewy red, yellow, and green traffic-light square Chiclets. The dirt, I’m told, has been strategically placed on their faces by a man waiting to collect their earnings in a parked car a few blocks away.

Beyond the yellow gates, which separate the campus from the morning rush at the cafes lining University Street, young women in glimmering headscarves enter bathrooms with no makeup only to emerge layered with imported mascara, blush, and lipstick of various shades. Men in traditional robes sit drinking coffee with two inches of beard dangling from their chins, sunglasses perched on their noses, and rosaries running between their fingertips. Younger teenagers in tight pants lean against the walls near the entrance gates, blasting everything from Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t Nuthin but a G Thang” to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Lebanese pop superstar Nancy Ajram’s huge smile gleans in a Coca-Cola advertisement in front of the university’s main gate.

A woman in a niqab, a headdress which covers her entire face save two heavily mascaraed eyes, chats with a woman in a U2 t-shirt and ripped jeans. As we walk to class, a classmate of mine remarks, in complete seriousness, “Man, you can really see the Clash of Civilizations here.” He plans on working for the State Department.

With two years of Arabic study and funding through a United States government program, I found myself at the University of Jordan, the country’s largest university, with a policy analyst’s vocabulary. I could barely order a sandwich but I had the ability to parade the complex terms that sounded like they came from a Greatest Hits of State Department briefing headings: “United Nations resolution,” “Islamic Terrorism,” and “Two-State Solution.” A penny for a thought now had political consequences.

This is a story, an anecdote, about the Iraq War set in Jordan and the postscript of a foreign policy we fail to conceive in the present tense.

 

***

 

The alley in front of La Isla glowed green from the reflections of the lights emanating from the minarets lining the sides of the road. One of our language tutors, Mahmoud al-Masri, had invited us to this bar in dusty downtown Amman.

As we entered the bar, I couldn’t tell if La Isla was supposed to transport me to Havana or back to early high school. The decor seemed to be inspired by some Che-obsessed student’s bedroom. Images of the chic revolutionary were plastered all over the red-and-black walls, and strange, European trance music videos played on the flat screen televisions in each room. Sombreros hung from the ceiling, and while there were numerous posters in Spanish, none were in Arabic. One poster featured Che dressed up as Uncle Sam and read “Patria o Muerte!”

We turned the corner and found our host Mahmoud al-Masri, who had already begun to test his charm on our American friends. Mahmoud insisted that we call him Double M.

“Hey guys!” he exclaimed. He stood up to shake all of our hands. Double M seemed like the kind of guy who would star on “Real World: Jordan” if such a thing existed. He was tall with a linebacker’s build. He kept his hair spiked with gel, resembling any member of a ‘90s boy band, and enjoyed ordering shots for the table. Later I would ask Double M about his last name and whether he was part Egyptian as his name suggested. “It’s just a name, dude!” he said.

Although Double M’s bottomless wallet kept me from remembering the night in its entirety, I do remember the look on all our faces when Double M and his friend Tariq, who was sitting across from me, told us their favorite genre of music was metal, by which they meant the flashy clothing and heavy makeup of American rock bands like Twisted Sister, Poison, and Mötley Crüe. I thought about the “Clash of Civilizations” and whether liking hair metal placed one in the East, West, or some other exilic realm solely inhabited by fans of this strange era in American music.

Some time later, when the women had left and Double M had no reason to continue buying us drinks anymore, I began to chat with with Tariq.

“So you’re from Amman?” I asked.

“No, I moved here three years ago to come to university”, he said in English, “We’re all from Iraq actually. Well, except Double M. He’s from Jordan. Can’t you tell by how he drinks?” I looked over at Double M. His face was bubblegum pink. He stared into an empty glass. Without the company of women, Double M had gotten bored.

“Why didn’t you go to university in Iraq?” I asked.

“No more campus. Kaboom!” he said, motioning an explosion with his hands. He laughed hysterically, slapping the table with his hand. I smiled back, not knowing the proper reaction to these darker shades of humor.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Nothing, man,” said Tariq disdainfully, as if the bombers were at the table. “Just some idiots blew themselves up a few years ago. The university was shut down.”

Double M glanced at us, lit a cigarette, and excused himself from the table. An incredible sense of reality had entered the smoky red and black bar in the heart of the Jordan. After casually narrating his brush with death, Tariq took a long swig from his drink. The bearded revolutionary smiled at us from the walls.

I asked him if he had plans to return to Iraq after he graduated from the University of Jordan.

“No way!” he slapped the table with his hand again. “There is no future there. Most of my friends have left for Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. I’m thinking of going to Canada, maybe. I have a friend from university who lives there now.”

Iraq was gone. There was no “there” there.

 

***

 

One of the underreported stories of the Iraq War is the migration of Iraq’s middle class to neighboring Arab countries. In 2005, the Ministry of Education issued almost 80,000 letters, double that of 2004, allowing parents to take their children’s academic records abroad. In 2006, 1.85 million Iraqis had been issued new passports: seven percent of the population and a quarter of the nation’s middle class. It is estimated that about a million Iraqis now reside in Jordan out of a total of two to four million who have moved from Iraq to other countries in the Middle East since 2003.

“But some of my friends are still there, in Iraq, you know?” Tariq said, “We’ve been scattered.”

He explained that the current government of Iraq is not only corrupt, but also incredibly inefficient. “Nothing works! The police, the streetlights, electricity. Nothing, not even with a bribe!”

My encounter with this stranger-turned-war correspondent had made the whole war very real and very near, very fast.

I remember partaking in a debate in a sixth grade social studies class whether or not the United States should invade Iraq. The source we used was a two-page spread in Time for Kids magazine. Our teacher, a lovely middle-aged woman from Massachusetts who adored President Kennedy and hung his portrait in the classroom, ended the class by reminding us that Saddam Hussein was building “big, nasty weapons of mass destruction.” We all made fun of Saddam’s silly moustache. I didn’t tell Tariq this. By the start of the war in 2003, seventy percent of Americans had come to believe incorrectly that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 attacks.

I remember asking Tariq what he thought of Saddam Hussein.

“Saddam was a bad man, a devil, and we were happy when his government fell,” he said, “but at least things were working back then. People from other Arab countries would come to visit and study in Baghdad. Things were okay then, much better than now, I mean.” He half-smiled and finished his drink.

His words were almost nostalgic, longing for the warped normalcy of Saddam’s Iraq, however fleeting or violent.

After the toppling of Hussein’s government, Iraq was riddled with sectarian violence in the form of suicide bombings, assassinations, and gun-battles held in broad daylight. For centuries, Baghdad was called Dar as-Salam, “The Abode of Peace.” Now, peace was only a relative term.

Perhaps I am reading too much into Tariq’s story, but what is clear is this: students like me get funding to go to places like Jordan because our government needs to understand Jordan – because our government needs to understand Jordan in order to formulate a better foreign policy and enhance our strategic interests.

And then there are those Iraqis sent to Jordan on the more sinister flight path of U.S. foreign policy. As a result of the American invasion, Iraqis of all socioeconomic backgrounds, students, oil executives, construction workers, and professors, who have fled their country since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 can be found in Jordan.

Even Tariq had attempted to distance himself from the war, at first watching it like a spectacle.

“In the beginning, we used to go up to my cousin’s roof and watch the bombs fall in the distance,” he laughed, “It was like fireworks. God knows best.”

I thought about the Fourth of July celebrations that I attend annually with my family in Washington D.C. As a child, the loud explosions of color dancing in the sky left me mesmerized. Imagining bombs colorfully bursting behind the Washington Monument wasn’t too difficult if you didn’t think too hard about it – if you weren’t too close to the action. Perhaps the falling bombs gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.  Does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave over Iraq?

Many Americans, finding themselves fatigued by Bush-era wars and a receding economy, have readily forgotten about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its unintended, yet predictable, outcomes. As the war officially draws to a close, perhaps we ought to confront this amnesia and consider the war’s unplanned immortality, blowing its hot breath into unlikely spirits who find themselves arbitrarily warred upon. What will textbooks write about the war that caused Tariq’s emigration?

 

***

 

Studying abroad isn’t about learning a language or encountering another culture. If anything, it seems to be about perspective – even if this is learned in that familiar setting for Americans traversing the profundities of the wider world: the bar.

I don’t mean to reiterate that the viewpoints of people in other countries is important; this is a given. But the strangers we encounter force us to rethink the original meaning of “perspective.” In art, the word refers to the sense created when an object is drawn so as to give the appearance of distance. Understanding perspective means realizing that sometimes distance is an illusion.

Foreign policy decisions enacted 6,000 miles away from Washington brought me together with Tariq in that smoky Jordanian bar. It was through a study abroad program in a foreign country, but Tariq’s story didn’t seem that foreign to me. There was no distance. Everything was right there.

I looked at the limestone minaret outside the window, its green glow emanating into the bar.

Distance seemed to veil how a war that has officially ended continues to affect, if not haunt, everyday lives in and outside of Iraq.

My government brought me to Jordan to learn Arabic, but it shipwrecks others, epilogues erased from a war already slipping from our memories.

Waleed Shahid ’13 is a Religion and Comparative Literature major. He spent the summer of 2011 studying at the University of Jordan. 

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