Jordan: Night Manoevers in Amman, 1977
Photos by Ken and Peg Herring
The time was well after midnight when I decided to walk back to the house. Although I calculated the distance at five kilometers, the streets of Amman were easy to navigate. All I had to do was identify and follow five of the seven traffic circles. My new residence was located on the main road between the fourth and fifth circle.
1) The city of Amman, originally built on seven hills
I had come downtown by public bus before dinner and had stayed far later than planned in my favorite little restaurant, an establishment whose owner was fond of waving his gun in the air and whose clientele included a lot of cops. I’d lost track of time playing backgammon, or sheshbesh as the game was called in the Middle East. Now I would have to pay the price and walk home. Public buses had long since stopped for the night.
2) The streets all more or less looked the same
About a mile into my walk through the ill-lit city I came to some kind of detour. I recalled from passing this way in the daytime that the bus always turned left here and then back to the right, in effect traveling one block more than strictly was necessary. I guessed that roadwork of some kind was in progress and decided to continue straight ahead. This would save a few minutes walk. I lowered my head against the cold. To keep warm I had wrapped my kafiyah around my face in local fashion. I didn’t want to attract any unwanted attention by looking like a tourist wandering lost in the wee hours, and I suppose I could have passed for a Jordanian, with the headdress, shabby brown jacket, and blue jeans completing my attire.
Then I walked by a crude wooden guard house variety perched on the side of the street and noted the sleeping sentry inside the structure. Nothing about its presence disturbed my weary pace.
In a fraction of a second I was surrounded by soldiers, guns pointed and ready. I became hyper-alert immediately.
“What are you doing here?” one of them demanded in Arabic.
“Oh, sorry, excuse me, sir,” I answered. “I was only walking home,” I went on, switching to English as my knowledge of Arabic wasn’t up to the task of holding a conversation. “Have I done something wrong?”
“This is restricted property!” a different guard barked. “The Queen Mother lives here.”
Queen Mother! What the hell did that mean? I apologized profusely but the armed men showed little interest in believing my excuses. “What about the roadblock and the sentry? Why didn’t the sentry stop you?”
I swallowed. I hadn’t realized the man inside the guardhouse was actually guarding anything since he’d been asleep. “Ma shuftesh,” I pleaded. I didn’t see.
I now understood I might be in trouble. I was dressed like a Palastinian and didn’t even have any ID on me, having left my passport at home.
The soldiers now decided that perhaps I was drunk. One of them grabbed my African walking stick that I carried for protection and made to break it over his knee. A sign of scorn for sure.
As if on cue an officer in a Jeep drove up to the scene. He had been alerted to the “intruder” caught on the palace grounds of King Hussein’s mother, as I found out later. The bars of his epaulettes glinted in the street light and his uniform was crisp and well-tailored. He immediately stopped the soldier who had wanted to break my walking stick, a treasure from Zimbabwe that had been given to me in India. Then, in excellent English he quickly demanded that I explain what the hell I was doing wandering around so late at night in a restricted area. I told him the same story I had given to the soldiers, now with more detail. I explained that if he called the American Embassy that they would vouch for me as I was staying in a house with embassy personnel.
The officer ascertained my bona fides with a few more questions and grew even more curious. What was my relationship to American embassy staff, please? I said that I was friends with them, nothing more. He relaxed; any friend of the Americans was a friend of the Jordanian military.
He went off to check my story by phone but before he did he spoke to the soldiers, telling them I was a lost tourist who should be treated with respect. I passed out cigarettes to the men. Now all they wanted to know was, how easy did I think American women were! Finally the guy in charge returned. And offered me a ride in his Jeep to wherever I wanted to go.
The officer dropped me at the front door of the embassy house and waited until someone let me inside. I didn’t know whether or not he was aware of its existence – for security reasons the address was supposed to be confidential.
A marine let me in with wide eyes. I gave yet another explanation and headed upstairs to bed, thanking Allah once again for my good fortune.
3) View over the Dead Sea into Jordan – a whole different way of thinking