The other night, a man in a soiled white gown exhaled smoke and muttered darkly into his cell phone. Others scowled and shook their heads at TV close-ups of a mother weeping over her broken child.
One fierce-faced Arab narrowly eyed an American sitting next to him, a rare foreigner in a Red Sea resort normally alive with European tourists. Finally, he asked his question: Are you American?
"I live in Paris," came the truthful, if incomplete, reply. The Arab relaxed to a smile. He lifted a thumb skyward and said: "Quayyes." Good.
France, against the war, is in good odor in the Arab world these days. America is another matter.
A glance at history's foreign footprints in the desert, from Trajan's to Lawrence of Arabia's, suggests what a challenge modern America faces in attempting to remake the Middle East.
Trajan, the Roman emperor, built his road to Aqaba but found it led him nowhere. Lawrence blew bridges near here to chase out Turks so that Britain could take its turn at imperial failure — Palestine, Suez, Iraq.
If it could point to a single success story, it might be Jordan, a sensible little kingdom in the middle of the Middle East, with an army and royal family steeped in British influence.
Now it will be the United States' turn to try to shape the region. Yet even here, in this most staunchly pro-Western of Arab countries, the prognosis is gloomy.
"It's just not going to work out, no matter how many people you kill or cow," said Hala Fattah.
Fattah is an Iraq historian with Jordan's Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies. She is a Palestinian who admires America. Her doctorate is from UCLA, and she worked for years in Washington.
"If you win, then what? You might install an Iraqi from outside. Then what?"
Her forecast: "Low-grade insurgency, civil unrest, power struggles."
Caught between powerful forces — Israel to the west, Iraq to the east — Jordanians are more likely than most to fault both sides: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for starting the whole mess by invading Kuwait, and President Bush for believing an invasion of Iraq can put things right.
"All this because of two crazy people, one from the East and one from the West," said Mahmoud Helalat, director of tourism for Aqaba and the ancient city of Petra to the north.
Aqaba was once a Red Sea backwater of mud huts made famous by Lawrence of Arabia's World War I exploits. Today it is prime beachfront, and feeling the pinch of war — first from the 30-month-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict next door, and now the Iraq crisis.
Its coral reefs normally attract 1,000 tourists daily, but Helalat had seen no one for a week. At Petra, barely 10 people a day arrive in full season when there should be thousands.
"We are dying here," Helalat said. "And for what?"
Mohammed Sabri, a gentle-mannered accountant in an immaculate white robe, has a brother in Florida. He likes America. But he believes that statesmen in Washington have missed a crucial point.
"For visiting, outsiders are most welcome," he said. "For conquering, they are hated."
Many Jordanians draw a clear line between American people and their government. Some hate both. Some invoke Islam, others the United Nations.
In the spectacular southern Jordanian desert at Wadi Rum, where civilizations have risen and fallen for thousands of years, a desert-born Bedouin named Difallah Ateej smoked a cigarette and surveyed the shuttered fronts of tumbledown shops in Rum village.
It was here, in 1917, that Lawrence of Arabia fomented an Arab revolt against the dying Turkish empire and opened the way for the British army. Here the English accents are still tinged with British inflections and idioms. Travel a couple of miles north, cross the line that British and French surveyors drew to divvy up the Middle East after World War I, and the tones and name spellings take on a Gallic hue.
In the handsome stone house that Ateej built on the profits from his restaurant and guided tours of the desert, three of his kids played at a computer. Al-Jazeera, the satellite TV station that is the Arab world's prime source of Iraq war news, blared in the background.
Now, with tourism revenues drying up, Ateej cannot pay his electric bill. Soon he will take his family of 12, with his camels and goats, to live in his traditional black tent deep in Wadi Rum.
"I am at home in both worlds," he said "I take an airplane and stay in a big hotel, then I come to the desert and talk to my camels. It does not matter."
On the wall hangs a photo of Ateej's father, looking fierce in the crossed bandoliers and bemedaled turban of the king's desert corps. His grandfather, who rode with Lawrence, died recently at 105.
"The Americans believe they will just come in, and people will cheer them if they are victorious," he said. "They will learn."
Mafleh Salem, who lives in a black tent by Lawrence Spring in Wadi Rum, stirred embers to heat the inevitable cup of tea. He has a Toyota pickup but prefers his camels.
"I don't know Saddam, I don't know Bush, and it is not my place to say," he said. "I only want peace for Iraqi people. War is wrong. America is not like a policeman to stop each person in the street.
He introduced a young son, named Jihad. "Yes," he said, "that means holy war, but non-Muslims don't understand. Real jihad is peaceful propagation of the faith. Killing is only in self-defense."
Across the Middle East, and in Jordan especially, the issue of Palestine looms large. Many see Iraq as a sideshow, a chance to vent anger at a U.S. administration they believe is too close to Israel.
Near Amman, the squalor of Baqaa refugee camp is studded with fine three-story homes. Palestinians, now more than 100,000, have bided time there since 1948 awaiting a political solution.
U.N. aid has dwindled, and Arab states are reluctant to help. In one home, an old woman spewed invective, calling on Allah to burn all Americans and Jews for eternity. She would be thrilled, she said, to see her grandsons die in the holy cause of victory.
A group of kids, about 9 and 10 years old, stopped their pickup soccer game to offer their view of events: Saddam is a superstar.
By Mort Rosenblum