The most capable of politicians have dedicated their lives for Palestine. But how many of them have come to Al Wahdat?
To start with, I rarely heard of Al Wahdat. And when I did, it sounded like a place you don’t go to. Why do I go to Al Wahdat today? Because Morad tells me not to go there.
Do you know Morad? Most likely not. Morad, who fills my cup with bitter lemonade, is a Jordanian with money. He drives a new BMW, he has many houses, he “imported” a wife from Chicago, and he doesn’t like Jews. “The Jews,” he tells his guests while having dinner at his place, “buy all the properties in Jordan and Dubai. Drives me crazy!” Morad shoots straight, and when Morad speaks people listen. And then Morad, without any warning sign, drops the bomb: “You,” he says, pointing at my face, “are a Jew.” All stop eating and take a closer look at me, a pig in their midst. Nobody here knows me by my real name. Did Morad discover my little secret? Everybody’s eyes are fixed on me, waiting for my reaction.
“You,” I say, staring him in the face, “are a gay Jew. From Chelsea. Look at your nose, Jewish; look at your lips, homo. Go back to New York, fake Arab!”
Morad is impressed with my response. He looks at me with appreciation and says, “You are a German. But you have something else in you, what is it?” Al-Hamdulillah, I passed the test. I double-offended Morad, so I must be of good stock.
“Father German, mother Polish,” I reply. “Exactly,” he says; “I can see that.” Settled. I got me a Lutheran German for a father and a Polish Catholic for a mother; I come from the good folks of Europe who really gave it to the Jews. Can’t ask for a better blood. As the evening progresses, Morad and I become good friends. He invites me to stay the night. Or for as long as I want. He takes me around in his car. He even invites me to join him for a little vacation outside of Amman. But I decline, I prefer to stay in the capital. He understands and takes the time to recommend the best places to see and those that I should avoid. Al Wahdat tops the list of “never go there, unless you want to get slaughtered.”
Naturally, I choose to go to Al Wahdat.
I love Jordan. When I first came to this country, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was offered for sale in the newsstands, due to the book’s enormous popularity. Today, five years later, the newsstands here sell an “Abridged Version” of Mein Kampf. The world has changed. Obviously. And I, flying to Jordan from the US of A, love Change. I put a Kefyiah on my head, buy a shawl with an imprint that reads “Jerusalem is ours,” and try to persuade some Jordanians I know to join me to Al Wahdat, one of the biggest Palestinian refugee camps here. To my surprise, no one is willing to come along. “There are better ways to die,” the rich of Amman tell me and drive away with their shiny new cars. I take off my costumes, hail a cab and drive to Al Wahdat. Just as I am, in the flesh: Tobias of Germany--my name and my nationality for the duration of my stay in Jordan.
“Shu ismak?” What’s your name? I’m welcomed by a throng of 30-40 kids trailing me as I make my first few steps in Al Wahdat. If I ever thought that I could walk here unnoticed, these kids break to pieces my naÃ¯ve illusions. Sadly for me, once the kids have spotted me, the grown-ups do as well. “Are you here for the wedding?,” asks a lady. I wish I were, but the problem is of course that I have no clue who’s getting married and what’s the exact nature of my relationship to either the bride or the groom. I look at my new surrounding: Times Square before show time looks like a desert compared to the crowds here. There’s no way out for me, I must come up with an answer: What’s my name? Is Tobias good enough for this crowd or should I be more original and call myself, let’s say, Adolf? Don’t ask me why, but the only thing I can think of at this defining moment is my conversation with Morad. Will these people buy my German-slash-Polish lineage? Doesn’t look so. There is no BMW in sight here, and the finer points of German Lutheran father and Catholic Polish mother are a bit too complex, I’m afraid, to stand a good chance of acceptance. I need something simple, a catch-all phrase that will immediately be understood, a sentence that will make the growing crowd roar in approval. I decide to forgo the name and go straight for the nationality: “I am German journalist,” I say. “Ahlan wa sahlan,” Welcome, they greet me. “What can we do for you?” I tell them that “I came to see how you live and report it to the world.” This calls for celebrity treatment. “German journalist is here!” they say, “Marhaba! Welcome! Would you like to see a man who can tell you the truth, the real truth?” Yes, of course. Who wouldn’t?
Ali Mohammad Ali, a man of 84 years, gets off the floor in a little room that constitutes his entire street-level apartment, and honors me by asking that I sit down on his chair, one that’s made entirely of plastic. “A few days ago,” he informs me, “Al-Jazeera was here. Who did they talk to? Me. And now you! Thank you for coming from Germany to see me!” A crowd soon gathers: Ali’s sons and daughters, their children, their children’s children, a few close friends, with their spouses, friends of friends, and a bunch of children in tow. There’s of course no room for them all in this room, but the street outside will do. Hijabs in all shades of black and white cover the multitudes of women’s faces here, and cigarettes of all sorts stick out of the men’s lips. “I,” says Ali, “was born in Palestine.” All listen. They know the story, have heard it a thousand times, but hearing it once more is a pleasure.
This is going to be a long day, I can see, since Ali starts his story in 1948. We have over sixty years to cover. Not to mention all these people present who, I assume, have their own stories. Delicately I explain to Ali that I’m not interested in the history of the Middle East conflict. What I’d like to know is about peoples’ lives in the present. Today, not ‘48. This is not going to be a repeat of his interview with Al-Jazeera. Will Ali go along with me, or will he show me the door?
Boiling tea arrives and Ali lets me know that, yes, he’s willing to talk about the Now and the Today.
“The Jews,” he starts, “are criminals. The Jews are dogs.”
But I’m not interested to hear about the Jews, I’m here to hear about the Palestinians. “What animal,” I try my luck, “do the Palestinians remind you of?”
All agree, everybody’s eyes approve.
I look at this room of Lions: Nobody can move in this small room, sized 4 by 4 meters, and there’s no furnishing whatsoever except for prayer rugs hanging on the wall and three plastic chairs.
Don’t ask me what came over me but my lips start moving in a direction I have no control over: “Could you tell me,” I hear myself asking, “what other animals in the zoo remind you of what people?” A roar of laughter ensues. The ladies love the question. The men take an extra puff from their cigarettes. Ali Mohammad Ali enjoys the question as well, a huge smile spreads on his face. This German is good; he brings laughter to Ali’s sad room. “The Jordanians,” he says, “are horses. The Americans are pigs. The British, who gave Holy Palestine to the Jews, are mice. The Germans, they are camels.”
Camels? Why camels?
“Germans,” Ali explains, “have the ability to bear many misfortunes and carry many disappointments inside their hearts, because they have patience. For years they suffered from the Jews, but when the opportunity came to pay the Jews back, the Germans killed them.” Did the Jews deserve it? “Germany killed one million Jews,” Ali informs me, “and they did good.” All in presence agree.
But Tobias of Germany, attempting to fully comprehend this last statement, gets a little curious. “If a stranger walked into your home carrying no passport, would you be able to tell if he’s a Jew or a German?” I ask him.
Most probably, this is the most stupid question I could have come up with. Ali is pretty disappointed in me as well. How could I offend his intelligence with such a tasteless question? Of course he would know who the stranger was! And then Ali stops talking for a few minutes. He measures me, my head and my eyes, and seems to conclude that I need some basic teachings. “If we are good Muslims,” he speaks again, “and keep the Word of Allah, Palestine will be ours again. Look at Nasrallah of Lebanon: He abides by Allah, and Allah helps him to kill the Jews. May all of us be like Nasrallah. The Jews falsified the Word of Allah in their Torah. The Christians falsified the Word of Allah in the New Testament. But there’s one man who possesses the First Book of Allah and he knows the Truth. Do you know who he is?” No, I don’t. “The Pope!” The German Pope? “Yes, that one.” Blessing on your head, Papa Benedict, the people of Al Wahdat love you. “What book, exactly, does the Pope have?” I ask. “The real Word of Allah, the original!, is hidden in the basement of the Vatican,” Ali proclaims. Has Ali Mohammad Ali seen that book? “I have a copy of it, it’s the Quran.” Ali proceeds to read the Quran for me. He opens the book and says: “The Jews will all be killed. Every tree and every stone will join in the killing of the Jews.” Ali’s son, sitting on my right, takes a piece of paper and writes down some anti-Jewish curses on it, “Holy Words.” He hands me the paper, kind of a talisman against evil. I thank them profusely for the gift and enquire if I may ask one more question: Does the Jordanian government treat the Palestinians well? “Yes, they do. Life in Jordan is very good. No complaints.” As Ali talks about the Jordanian government, those in attendance look away but keep quiet, no one here can challenge Ali in his own home. “Why, then,” I add another question, “fight to go back to Palestine if life in Jordan is so good?” Ali looks down on the floor and mumbles: “Yes, yes. Good, all’s good.” Could I report to the world that the Palestinians in Jordan are happy and have no problems? “Can report.”
A man sitting not far from me volunteers to take me around and show me the Good Life of Palestinians in Al Wahdat. Would I like to go for a walk?
Walk we go.
We enter the market square of Al Wahdat. Strangely enough, the word Auschwitz comes to my mind. In the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. there’s an exhibition that depicts countless of used shoes lying one on top of the other in no certain order. This part of the museum’s exhibition is arguably the most potent as it alludes to the shoes left by the Jews on their way to the gas chambers. I think of it as I pass a “store” in the camp, known here as “European Shoes.” Used shoes, one on top of the other, lie on the street in no explainable order. Pretty much like the shoes in Washington D.C. Only that here, these shoes are for sale. My guide, a man whose name I don’t know, looks at me and wonders if I want to buy shoes here. There are better things to buy in the market, he suggests: Palestinian sweets. Would I like to try? We walk towards the baker, and pass by the local sports club. At the entrance to the club, the flag of Israel adorns the floor. Are the Palestinians turning into Zionists in Al Wahdat? Not exactly. As my guide explains to me, everyone entering the sports club walks over the Israeli flag with his dirty shoes. Is there a sweeter way to take a little revenge of the Criminal Dogs? We share a laugh at the brilliance of this graphic design and keep on walking. Every few steps men stop my guide to ask who the Stranger is. After a while, my guide feels we had enough of this. “Would you like to talk?” he asks me. We leave the market and walk back to the residential areas of Al Wahdat: “Houses” that look exactly like Ali’s, 4 by 4 meters. Each family here has one of these, locally known as a “unit.” Which, by the way, is what Al Wahdat means: Units. When Al Wahdat was built, they tell me, each refugee family was allocated one Unit, and ever since then it became the Units Camp.
We arrive at a certain Unit, this one with no electricity. Candles all over. Would I prefer to sit outside? A new man approaches and suggests we sit on the street. But no photographs, please. “If the Jordanian government finds out what I’m about to tell you, that will be 20 years in jail. We are 70% of the population in Jordan, but not one Palestinian serves in the security services. We know them only through the jail system. Understand?” He offers no name, leaving me the option of calling him whatever I fancy. “How about Haled?” I ask. He accepts. Haled, who is an English teacher by trade, prefers to speak in English. It’s safer.
“The Secret Service is all over here. Our life is miserable. Most of us stand no chance of ever getting out of here. A Jordanian high-school student with a 50% grade average gets a place in the university before a Palestinian with 90% average. And most of the Palestinians who do get accepted in Jordanian universities become students only if they agree to study literature, history, or something like that. Medical school? Hardly ever, unless we pay for it. No grants, like the Jordanians get. I have a Jordanian passport, but every policeman can immediately tell that I’m a Palestinian: We have different I.D. numbers. The Jordanian government gets paid by the UN and by others for every Palestinian living here and puts the money into their pockets. We are a ‘treasure’ for the Jordanians: Cows who give out milk. We are property. We are not treated as human. Why do the camps still exist? Why this ‘property’ all over here? Why so many poor Palestinians? Because we are just like stocks in Wall Street. The Jordanian government stops us. Arrests us. Rules over us. Never trusting us. Nobody in the world cares. Millions of poor Palestinians will never get out of their misery. Why? Because of their Arab brothers. The Jews did us wrong, and they will pay the price: The day comes and the Arab nation will change and fight for us. All the Arab armies will congregate in Jordan and move into Palestine and wipe out the Jews. It says so in the Quran and I believe it. I believe. But until that day comes, we are suffering. At the hands of our brothers who despise us and get rich because of us. King Hussein once said that people are “investments.” Yes, for him we were. And for his son, King Abdallah, we still are. Look at this camp: Where else do people live under such dire conditions? And why is it that nobody in the world complains? If anybody cares about the Palestinians, why do they let the Jordanians treat us like cows? And this is good, let me tell you. The Palestinians in Lebanon have a much harder life. Not only they are not allowed to buy houses, they are also not allowed to own a car. May Allah take his revenge from the cursed Jews.”
As Haled speaks, men stand around us to guard against any possible intruder. I’m protected by nameless bodyguards, the poor people of Al Wahdat. As far as I can tell, none of them carries a gun. Instead, Haled’s friend offers me a variety of Palestinian sweets. Life might be bitter in this Allah-forsaken corner of the earth, but the bakers of Al Wahdat make the best sweets Tobias of Germany has ever tasted.
***This article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit.