A dear Iraqi friend traveled to Jordan this week with hard-earned savings from the past two years to buy a condominium in Jordan. His wife and children live in what was a rather well-to-do Baghdad neighborhood--what you'd euphemistically call in an American city "the nicer part of town."
But after one too many close calls in the shooting gallery Baghdad has become he doesn't let his kids go outside, except in a carefully proscribed trajectory: home, school, home. He does the grocery shopping, the clothes shopping, everything. (Incidentally, this short leash outside the home has created a weight problem in Iraq. No one's walking anywhere if they can avoid it.)
So the apartment in Jordan was supposed to be his family's safe haven, a place his kids could run and play without watching out for tanks, or Humvees, or kidnappers…or suicide bombers. Wednesday night's hotel bombings changed all that. What's worse, Al Qaeda of Iraq claimed that four Iraqis carried out the bombing, including a husband-and-wife team, a grim detail that boggles the mind, and spreads more fear.
There used to be a "bomber profile." Security teams could watch for a lone, nervous-looking man, sometimes wearing white, sometimes muttering final prayers under his breath, looking a bit dazed and confused, wearing an overly thick vest or jacket, or carrying a backpack, and trying to look inconspicuous, while sweating profusely. No more.
Now, we find, the bombers can be a happy couple--the man carrying a suitcase, the woman bundled in a bulky sweater, prattling about what to have for dinner, as they stroll past hotel security. Chilling.
So much for Jordan being a gateway to decompression for Iraqis--or journalists. The country always seemed a little surreal to me. After a short, hour-and-a-half flight, you arrive at Amman's main airport, replete with Starbucks and Cinnabon, and head for a town filled with five-star hotels, excellent restaurants with every possible cuisine, a humming nightlife, and shopping malls that could melt several platinum credit cards.
On one particular escape, I'd just stepped off the plane, checked into a gorgeous five-star hotel room (for what you'd pay at a Motel Six) and was just getting comfortable on the goose down-filled, Egyptian cotton sheets and thinking, 'Ah, no gunfire outside,' when World War Three broke out, just outside my window.
I rolled out of bed and hit the deck, then I crawled over to the window and pushed aside the curtains. And kicked myself. It was a wedding party across the street, replete with fireworks, which happened to be exploding at window-level.
The next morning, heading to breakfast, I ran into an American contractor, who asked if I'd heard the fireworks too. We both sheepishly confessed we'd ducked and covered, and felt foolish. We told ourselves we really needed to take more time off from bureau duty in Iraq. Again, no more.
From now on, it's suicide-bomber-rules for me in Jordan, the same ones I apply here in Baghdad, or in Jerusalem. I won't dawdle at hotel or shopping mall entrances. I won't sit near the front of a restaurant or a café, and I'll keep my back to plate-glass windows. I won't take a bus. I won't go strolling on my own in the streets anymore, lost in my thoughts and the afternoon sunshine. I won't use my broken Arabic to pick up a random taxi, because if Iraqi bombers are now in Amman, maybe militant kidnappers are too, looking for an unsuspecting target.
I'll do that, for a few months at least, until I see whether this is one-time thing for Jordan, or a new way of life. I'll hope that Jordan, a small country, with a large, well-trained security force and a respected, even somewhat feared, intelligence apparatus, will be able to rein this in. But I won't drop my guard.
As for my Iraqi colleague, he bought the Amman apartment. One night of violence in Amman doesn't make it Baghdad.