Four Hours at Amman Airport

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Riot police keep guard during a demonstration demanding political reforms, in Amman on 5 October 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Muhammad Hamed)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Wednesday, October 10, 2012

At around 7pm last Tuesday, my Royal Jordanian flight landed at the Queen Alia Airport in Amman, coming from Beirut. It was my seventh visit.

The first visa I ever received was for Jordan. I then visited intermittently for work and was never questioned about my job, family, or reason for travel.

Then something changed in September of last year that was a sign of what was to come.The security officer’s eyes had flashed when he typed my name into the computer in front of him.

He looked at me and asked, “You are a journalist?” I said, “Yes.” He then asked me, “What are the names of your brothers?” I replied, “Samir and Abdullah.”

He told me to wait and left for five minutes. He came back with my passport and asked, “What is the reason of your visit to Amman?”

He then asked if I carried a journalist card. I said, “Yes.” He handed back my passport politely and did not ask to see the card.

Last Tuesday, I travelled to Jordan again to attend a conference on water and climate change. In the queue for passport control, I stood facing the security officer and his new iris recognition cameras.

His frown implied that several lines had been added next to my name and number on the screen.

He repeated the same question I had been asked the last time. “You are a journalist?” I said, “Yes,” again. “What are the names of your brothers?” I replied, “Samir and Abdullah, but I think your question is about my older brother [former detainee in Israeli prisons] Samir Kantar.”

After a few seconds of silence he said, “Last time you had to wait a bit.” I said that was correct, so he pointed me to the seats telling me wait once more.

A whole hour passed before anyone paid attention to any of us waiting. Unsuccessfully, I kept asking the security officers about my passport. They kept replying, “Wait at your seat please.”

Into the second hour of waiting, I kept trying to read the book on global warming and population explosion I had with with me. Giving up, I wanted to mingle with my fellow travellers in this wait at the airport in Amman.

They were mostly Syrians arriving via Beirut airport. All of them, including those who had lived in Amman for years, were sent to the cursed waiting seats until the General Intelligence Department gave its orders.

The second hour passed slowly. Every 10 minutes, a security officer would return with a stack of passports and call people by their first names. He handed them the passports one by one repeating, “Goodbye.”

Omar, the man with the shaved head, was tired of waiting. Like me, his name had not yet been called. His hands were shaking. He tried to tell his story to the security officer, but the latter continued handing the passports like a robot, then walked away.

I asked Omar about his country. “I am from Deir el-Zour,” he said. “I am not a dissident. I have relatives in Amman. Syrian security will not allow young men to leave the country by land, unless they had entered Jordan in 2011.”

He wondered if he would be sent back to Lebanon. “They might do it. But I do not have enough money to eat in Beirut,” he said to himself.

I was fed up with the giant portrait in the hall of King Abdullah II with his son al-Hussein on his right and his father al-Hussein on his left.

The picture of the confident and elegant king looked nothing like the photos of him on his motorbike in northern California, on his way to the casinos in Lake Tahoe, surrounded by dozens of US secret service men.

The third hour was even slower. The seats were almost empty save for 10 young Syrian women who had been waiting since 5pm to enter Amman.

“Bashar al-Assad is my fate and my destiny. What will I do if I return?” one of them asked. They were tired of calling people in Amman asking for help.

The decision was already made. The officer came up and said, “There is no entry into Jordan. Wait in the transit area and tomorrow morning you will return to Beirut.”

They began wailing and lamenting their bad luck and mourning the jobs waiting for them in Jordan. “What am I going to do? How will I repay my plane ticket debt?” another one asked.

I went back to ask about my own fate. “Wait until they call your name,” they kept saying.

So I made up my mind to return to Beirut. The next Royal Jordanian flight to Beirut was at 8 in the morning. The mere thought of spending another eight hours in the hall with the portraits was a nightmare in itself.

I thought about saying something on Twitter, but decided to wait until getting back to Beirut.

At 10:45 the officer came back carrying a passport. He screamed, “Bassam,” from across the hall. But a Jordanian engineer in Dubai beat me to him. He had been waiting for an hour and a half.

Before handing him his passport, the officer ordered him to “go to General Intelligence at 8am on Thursday. Leave.”

What about me? “What’s your name?” he asked in a Bedouin accent and left, promising to ask the duty officer about my four hour delay.

But he finished his shift and the officers were replaced by another team. I was back to square one in the search for my passport, probably forgotten on some intelligence officer’s desk.

At 11:30pm, the security officer handed me my passport without uttering a word.

I entered Amman and walked around. I saw the sahija (royal cheering troupes) behind their tinted car windows with portraits of the king and the slogan, “Jordan First,” blasting songs of praise from loudspeakers.

I spent an evening with some communist comrades on Rainbow street. They told me many stories about a country that boils with anger and young people eager for change in Amman that never sleeps.

They mentioned some of the slogans used in their demonstrations: “The prices are soaring while the king is gambling” and “O Abdullah son of Hussein, listen to our words and remember what happened to Mubarak.”

Before leaving, I heard the young men of Amman’s Muslim Brotherhood repeating their own chant, “Freedom is a gift from Allah, despite what you do Abdullah.” This is the kind of freedom that even four hours in Amman airport cannot rob you of.

Bassam Kantar is and editor and journalist at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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