It’s a bit surreal standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd of 1000s, many of whom are chanting in a language you don’t totally understand. Such was my experience when I decided to buck most everyone’s advice and check out the protest in the balad (old city) on Friday January 9th. The embassy had sent out an ominous sounding note that there was a heightened risk of American interests being targeted. Call me jaded by years of “elevated risk” at the nations airports or maybe just convinced that I’m not much of an American interest. I asked a few Jordanians I trusted and was advised where might be risky (near the Israeli embassy – “duh”, and in Wahidat a very Palestinian neighborhood). To my surprise the Jordanians said I should have no trouble in the balad. My Western friends thought otherwise – but who are you going to believe the locals or the foreigners? (Warning: Blondies with blue eyes, embassy workers, those who have to speak out loud in English and anyone nervous about crowds should probably not attend. Plus I have the trump card that I used to live in Gaza. Just because I went to the protest doesn’t mean I recommend it to everyone or will necessarily go again.)
(Note: If you’re looking for pics, there is a large gallery at the end of the post. Click on the thumbnails for the bigger image. Click on the 2nd pic for an even bigger one. Pics in the post do not enlarge but they should be repeated in the gallery.)
It had been labeled the “Day of Rage” with protests planned all over the city. Police outfitted in riot gear seemed ready for it to be an anger filled afternoon in the balad. However the atmosphere on the street seemed fairly relaxed. I could hear the chanting of the oncoming crowd echoing off buildings as I looked for a ground-level vantage point with a good “escape” route in case things got dicey. Spectators were gathering and no one paid me any special attention as I stood waiting on the sidewalk near the alley with a red checkered keffiyeh wrapped around my neck. It not only served to stave off an ever so slight chill in the shadow of the building, but also identified me as Jordan-friendly. To truly blend I would have needed to sport the black and white Palestinian version that many have been wearing lately.
I was struck by three things as the marchers reached my section of street:
- How quickly the street filled up and the atmosphere of the placed changed. There was definitely a psychological shift from “I am standing here with a few people minding my own business” to “I am part of a crowd and anything could happen.”
- The number of youth, including very young children who were participating.
- The handicap of knowing only a little Arabic
In the crowd
As the parade of flag waving protesters passed me in the street, the masses of people following along on the sidewalk swarmed around my location. To keep my view of the street I had to step to the curb and within a minute there was nothing but a sea of people all around me. Some were moving, others like myself were planted in one spot. There was no jostling and people seemed to respect each other, allowing people to stay put or move as desired. However, claustro- and agoraphobics beware! Some people in the middle of the street were chanting slogans, but people near me were just watching and listening. Many were holding up camera phones or cameras to record the moment. A father with his children stood next to me.
Although everything remained peaceful, I sensed that my ability to move 100% as I pleased had now changed. Group dynamics and psychology were in play.
Shortly a truck outfitted with a PA system halted near us. I’m pretty sure it was a huge Saddam poster on one side. Things got loud. The men on the truck took turns rallying the crowd with various chants. The 50 or so people immediately behind the truck raised their hands to punctuate their chant with fists or “V for victory” signs. I was relieved that the people around me were not participating as I had hoped to speak as little as possible while at the protest. My silence didn’t feel conspicuous.
However, there were two parts where the entire crowd got involved. One was when a couple of shebaab (young guys) lit an Israeli flag replica on fire up on a roof. It was kinda funny as it took several attempts to get the flag going. Apparently flag burning is not as easy as one might think. People around me were laughing and offering all sorts of advice such as, “You need more gas!” After a few minutes it was ablaze and the whole crowd cheered. At another point every man, woman, and child on the street lifted aloft the victory sign. My hand shot up too. It seemed the prudent thing to do.
I realized pretty early on that my movement was at the whim of the crowd. It’s a slightly unnerving feeling. Later as the crowd was allowed to progress towards the municipality building and beyond, there were a handful of “Fast-breaks” that got the heart pumping as well. By fast break I mean a number of people turned around and began running in the opposite direction yelling about tear gas. I’m fairly certain the first four of these were just shebaab being shebaab as they were followed with laughter, and the older men in the crowd simply held their ground with skeptical eyebrows raised.
The handicap of not understanding
I understood the Israeli flag on fire and the pictures of Saddam Hussein (understand is a loose term) but couldn’t understand most of the banners or chanting. I figured that the crowd with the hammer and sickle flags and the pictures of Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez were part of some sort of communist party. And I got that the people with the banner displaying a big red heart and the word Gaza probably love Gaza. Beyond that it was all a bit fuzzy. The chant/rant-wagon was catchy though, and after about 10 or 15 minutes of listening I think I might have been able to chime in. I’m pretty sure 1/2 of the chanting was saying very good things about Gaza and Palestine (and maybe Venezuela), but the other 1/2 was putting down Israel, America, Egypt, and France. Pretty much in that order of frequency. Needless to say I quietly snapped pics and took videos.
People seemed angry, but not out of control. No one directed any anger towards me. Why would they? I was just another soul quietly showing my support. Friends who looked at my pics have commented, “Wow that looks scary.” Was it? Not really. I saw a few locals that I knew and they smiled from afar or greeted me warmly. Overall, I am sure it would have been better to understand more of what was being said but I got the message very clearly that people are upset with innocents being killed and at the political machines unwilling or unable to do more to stop it.
Would you bring your kids?
The day before (Thursday) there had been a children’s demonstration for families. Mothers, fathers and kids marched to the Unicef headquarters to ask for stronger actions against Israel due to the number of kids that have been killed. Before leaving for Friday’s protest I had joked with my wife and a couple of friends that I should bring the kids along. To my surprise they would not have been out of place. There were a number of youth out on Friday. The youngest (maybe 5 or 6 years old – I even saw some babies) seemed to be accompanied by parents or older siblings. Many were decked out in patriotic gear, sporting keffiyeh’s or Palestine scarves. One held a “blood stained” doll aloft. A couple of youngsters wore black masks. On the one hand kinda freaky. But on the other hand think about how often we dress our kids in camouflage or drape them in patriotic clothing on the Fourth of July. To Americans dressing in the Stars and Stripes and camo are symbols of hope, freedom, and courage. I wonder if that kind of gear would play differently in other parts of the world. And maybe kids wearing keffiyehs and Palestinian flags isn’t as ominous as we might think. I have a bad feeling that Western pundits might spin children marching like this as teaching them to hate. From where I stood it seemed more like teaching them to speak out. We haven’t told our 6-year old son what’s going on in Gaza yet so as not to needlessly worry him, but the vast majority of kids here have heard loud and clear that children are dying in a war just a few hundred miles away.
A less than perfect ending
I’m not sure how many were in the crowd. Thousands I am sure, but how many exactly I have no idea. The police released the crowd to march and we progressed towards the Amman municipality building and beyond. The crowd stretched across four lanes of traffic. There were cars trying to pass, but they were completely stopped. Near the chant/rant-wagon and the flag carriers the crowd was noisy, but for the most part people walked quietly or in conversation with their friends. It wasn’t until we reached the big intersection at the end of Ras-al-Ain where the road splits off towards Jabal Amman and 3rd Circle on the right and Abdoun on the left that the police finally stopped the crowd again. We had walked about a mile. The crowd had been thinning for awhile and once it was stopped many more turned around and walked away. When the Communist Party flagbearers started backtracking I figured things were pretty much over and wondered if I should leave to. However, a vocal crowd of hundreds remained at the police line so I joined a dozen or so people gathered on the terrace of a large office building a safe distance away.
We were about 20 feet above street level and on the other side of a walled off parking lot full of red trucks. Chanting protesters still choked off one of Amman’s busiest thoroughfares connecting the Old City with affluent western Amman. The crowd mostly consisted of shebaab now. There was a small street that intersected the main thoroughfare near the police line. It ran up the hill to the left and was beginning to fill with spectators. Traffic began to back up on the other side of the riot police.
I was wondering what would happen. Were the police waiting to let the protesters continue marching as they had before? Would they send the protesters around to the other side of Ras-al-Ain to march back towards the balad? How long would they let them stand there chanting? My answer came about 10-minutes later in the form of a fast-break of 25 or so shebaab yelling about tear gas. I saw none, but it was obvious that police were trying to disperse the crowd and meeting with some resistance. To my surprise rocks began to hail down from the side street on the hill and even from the crowd.
It was then that the the first can of tear gas was shot. The crowd scattered pretty quickly. Lots of bark, but fortunately little bite. Another canister was shot towards the retreating crowd for good measure. As it skittered down the street past our safe vantage point many yards away I got a small whiff – not pleasant to say the least. My left eye watered and stung for a good 15 minutes afterward.
Moral of the story: always head home when you see the Commies packing up their flags.
My taxi driver and I talked about the protests this morning on the way to take my son to school. He told me that most of the protests in the city were peaceful. He hadn’t heard that tear gas had been used in the balad, but knew that it had been used near the Israeli embassy where apparently protesters were the most aggressive. He told me that he and his brother had taken their children to the march to UNICEF headquarters the day before. Then he said something that really caught my attention.
He said that even though people march here in Jordan and across the Middle East people are still dying every day in Gaza. Almost 800, maybe more now.
He then told me about 4 children that had been trapped in a house with their dead mother for days with no food or water. Later I read the report that the International Red Cross is accusing Israel of breaking international law over this specific incident. Apparently the Israeli army blocked aid workers from entering the area to look for casualties. Once the volunteers did get to the house they found the 4 children and 12 corpses in the house. While the children were being rescued the Army continued to order volunteers out of the area.
Honestly, to me the “Day of Rage” in Gaza seemed to be a little more like the “Day of Being Really Upset.” But as long as stories like these keep coming out of Gaza the protests will continue and the anger will grow. Unfortunately rage is like a fire that smolders quietly for a long time only to burst into flames once it’s too late to put out.