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Letter from Amman
U.S. is perceived to be playing the old imperial game

December 14, 1999
The Iranian

It was 5 am. The chant of the muezzin woke me up: "Ashhadu an la illaha illalah! I witness that there is no God but God. I witness that Muhammad is His Prophet. Rise to prayer. Rise to do good deeds..."

The melodious voice brought back sweet childhood memories. I didn't mind the early hours and my own jet lag. I had to meet my driver in an hour for the journey to Petra, the City of the Dead, better known here as the Rose City. Makhled was a stocky and smiling man with four children. We soon called each other "brother." My faltering Arabic was bonding us in our journey through the desert.

The road to Petra is well paved as Jordan's main highway from north to south. From Jericho, where agriculture began some 10,000 years ago, to Aqaba, Jordan's only seaport to the world. We went through Wadi Mousa, the desert through which Moses had passed taking his flock from Egypt to the Promised Land. The journey evoked awesome historical memories.

We reached Petra about noontime. Hassan, my tour guide, was a lean young man with a university degree in geography. He bit on a red apple as we started. "This is my lunch," he said.

We walked for about 2.5 hours through a narrow corridor carved by nature in a stunning and mystical canyon. We could have rented a carriage or a horse, but the walking brought us closer to the past.

The first glimpse of Petra took me by surprise. Through the cracks of the Canyon formations, al-Khazaneh (the treasury) emerged with its Classic Greek-Roman look. This is Petra's signature: three dark and hollow tombs carved into the mountain with an ornate façade on the outside. On the top, a huge bowl symbolizes the treasure that was supposed to have been hidden somewhere in the city. It was never found. But those who have searched for it must have realized that the search itself has led them to another kind of treasure: a spiritual awareness of life's finitude and fragility as well as its value. The hundreds of tombs of kings and prices told the tale.

Jordan can boast to be heir to the Nabatteans, the earliest Arab civilization that stood at the crossroads of the Arabian Desert, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Their kingdom came under the influence of the Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman civilizations. But it successfully resisted invasions, even that of Alexander's in 339 B. C. Once trade routes shifted from land to sea by the construction of seaworthy vessels, the Nabattean capital, Petra, lost its prosperity and went into oblivion. It was rediscovered only in the 19th century.

Today, Jordan is a kingdom of no more than 4.5 million, of whom 2 million live in modern Amman, the Philadelphia of the ancient world. Two-thirds of this population is of Palestinian origin. The rest consists of Bedouin Arabs who migrated from the Arabian Peninsula. Known originally as Trans-Jordan, the new country was carved out of the Ottoman territories to be granted to King Abdullah (the grandfather of the present King Abdullah) by the British in gratitude to the Sharif family's services.

Druing World War I, with the assistance of the legendary T. E. Lawrence, the Sharifs had carried out a successful military expedition against the Ottomans in Syria. "Since the Gulf War, we have had an influx of another 350,000 Palestinians driven out of Iraq and Kuwait," my hostess at the Jordanian Institute of Diplomacy told me.

"We feel no discrimination," the two young Palestinian students confessed to me, "except that we are not trusted in high places as in political or military posts."

"Jordan seems to have no serious problems of poverty," I opined in my naivete. "No beggars roaming around Amman," I added.

"Thirty-five percent of the population is suffering from hunger," one Iraqi businessman who lives in Amman corrected me.

Following the Gulf War, the country has suffered from enormous economic hardship. In an impoverished Iraq, it has lost its major source of trade and revenues. It has also lost the immigrants' remittances from Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states.

"Saddam has damaged his own country as well as the neighbors," I told my new Iraqi friend. "He seems to be his own worst enemy. Is he insane?"

"Absolutely not," my Iraqi friend corrected me again. "He is actually a very clever man. But he is a creature of his Western masters. They wanted him to invade Iran and Kuwait. They also want him to stay in power. He serves their purposes. He keeps Iraq too weak to present a threat to Israel or Western interests."

That point of view was expressed several times in my conversations. In a region replete with conspiracy theories, the United States is perceived to be playing the old imperial game of divide and rule that the British used to play in the region. That perception disconnects the Middle East from the Western views of the region as a powder keg of homegrown tyrants. As often, the terrible truth is that both sides have their reasons.

Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the University of Hawaii and director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.

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