So, here is the story of my 26-hour semi-voluntary detention at the Queen Alia International Airport.
I touched down in Amman, Jordan at 11 am on January 2nd, coming off a lovely two and half week vacation in Egypt. I get to the first counter in the customs and immigration area and hand over my passport. It’s scanned, a one-month visa postage-like stamp is pasted in, and I start moving to the next counter to get the ink stamp on top. At this point, out of the woodwork appears an airport security official who waves to me and tells me that they’re trying to speed things up and there’s a counter open in another area. So I start following the gentleman away from the main body of travelers, and a moment later I’m in a hallway, and then an office with a uniformed officer at the desk. At that point I knew I was in a bit of a pickle.
The security officer starts casually asking me questions, like ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘How long have you been in Jordan?’ The questions are all in Arabic and I answer in Arabic. Then he asks me ‘What is your problem with Jordan?’ I tell him I love Jordan, and that the country is very dear to me and has been my home for over three years.
At this point I’m tired of this stalling, and I ask him directly, ‘Am I going to be allowed into Jordan or not?’
He pauses, looks at me and asks, ‘Do you know what the mukhabarat is?’
I reply that of course I know what the mukhabarat is. The mukhabarat is a country’s intelligence service. In the case of Jordan, it is the General Intelligence Directorate, or GID.
Then he says something along the lines of, ‘Well, the mukhabarat says that you are not allowed into Jordan.’
I ask why.
He makes a phone call.
After a couple of words on the phone, he hangs up and says, ‘They say you know why you’re not allowed in.’
That could only mean one thing; somebody at the mukhabarat didn’t like my coverage of the opposition movement. You see, I’d lived nearly three and half years in Jordan without a single legal incident occurring this entire period. I wasn’t trafficking in drugs, I wasn’t personally involved in the opposition movement, and I had even gone through the legal channels to obtain press credentials through the government’s Press and Publications Office. I applied for a press card a month before leaving and never heard back from them, despite the promise of a phone call after two weeks.
The content I’d produced on the Jordanian opposition movement after attending a couple of protests in September was hardly much to speak of: an article in the Carnagie Endowment’s Mid-East publication Sada, a CNN iReport, and a blog post with an English translation of an opposition group’s protest statement.
In any event, having been formally denied entry, I was led out of this office and into a smaller office that is located adjacent to a detention room. I was told by another officer that I would be escorted to the ticketing area and was required to buy a ticket to any country of my choosing. The initial shock had worn off by now and I was ready to get belligerent. I announced angrily that I had done nothing wrong in Jordan, that I had merely been covering events as a journalist, that my time and money had been wasted, and that I refused to buy my own ticket. As a matter of principle, I stated clearly in Arabic, I would not pay out of my own pocket to self-deport.
They asked me if I did not have the available funds to purchase my own ticket, and I pompously stated that I could afford 10 trips back to the US. In fact, I could really only afford about five trips back home . . . using my credit card, but still, the principle was my main concern.
Anyway, minds started exploding at this point because they really had no protocol for someone with money refusing to buy their plane ticket out of the country upon denial of entry. An American, no less. I stress “American” because Jordan happens to be one of America’s client states, receiving nearly a billion dollars in aid from the United States in 2012. In my three plus years in Jordan, I had never heard of an American being denied entry. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first time these gentleman had seen it happen as well.
At that point (and I laugh recalling this) I spontaneously declared a hunger and fluids strike until I was purchased a ticket back to Cairo.
Finally the officer in charge found some courage and put his foot down, ordering me, the uncooperative, petulant American, into the detention room until I found the sense to buy my own plane ticket. So I sat in the detention room with the usual suspects you’d find in an Arab country’s airport detention room (a Gazan, an Egyptian, a Syrian, and a Tunisian) and about every two hours I’d be called into the security office and be asked if I was ready to buy my ticket. They got the same unequivocal “No!” every time.
I would walk back into the detention room after these meetings (which often involved raised voices) and my four Arab roommates would just be smiling, absolutely amazed at my gall. I mean, they were hardly surprised that they themselves were there, but to share the room with an American was something rather bizarre for them. All four had tragic stories. As Arabs from countries with no diplomatic clout in Jordan, they didn’t have the leverage to play the belligerent card like I was able to.
The Tunisian was supposed to escort his French wife and kids overland to Jerusalem where she had a new post at the UN, but due to a drug charge (which had been dropped) over ten years earlier, he was denied entry. His wife was forced to take their two small children to Jerusalem herself, while he was forced to purchase a $400 dollar one-way ticket to Tel Aviv. The elderly Gazan (who appeared to be on death’s door) was scheduled for a medical procedure in Amman but was denied entry because he was missing a key document, while the Egyptian (clearly well-educated and speaking excellent English) was not told why he would not be allowed in to take a job as an assistant manager at a department store.
The case of the Syrian was the most heart-wrenching; he was married to a Jordanian woman, and since Jordan does not allow women to pass citizenship to their husbands (men are allowed to pass it to their wives) he was being denied entry on a technicality. His wife was 8-months pregnant. I let him use my phone to call her. I would hear her tearful voice a number of times after leaving the airport, as she continued to call my phone and ask to speak with her husband (she could not, or would not, comprehend that she could no longer talk with him).
Finally around 6 pm I was getting really hungry and thirsty (please recall I’d been hunger-striking for seven whole hours at that point) and I asked the guy in charge what was going to happen. He nonchalantly told me I’d be going back to Egypt on an 8 pm flight. ‘Great,’ I thought to myself, ‘they finally caved in and bought me a ticket. Time to eat some KFC!’ So I broke my hunger strike with some delicious airport KFC and prepared myself to leave.
At 7 pm an Egypt Air employee comes around and the security officers tell me I’m to go with him to buy a ticket. I was like, ‘Seriously, where was I unclear before. I’m not buying a ticket.’ They continued to try to convince me otherwise for another couple of minutes and then finally gave up. At that point I was informed that there were no more flights to Egypt that day and I’d be staying overnight. ‘Fine,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to make it look like I love this detention room and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.’ I changed into my pajamas, gave myself a baby wipe bath, and even cleaned up my beard in the bathroom. I then proceeded to sprawl out over the benches and started reading my book.
Was it comfortable? Hell no it wasn’t, but I sure wasn’t going to let on as much. I also wasn’t going to let on that I had mentally planned to fold and buy my own ticket after three days, as I had a corporate webpage editing deadline within the week and I do NOT like displeasing my corporate slavemasters. A couple of times a new security officer would come on duty and the relieving officer would stand dumbfounded as it was explained to him that they were holding a stubborn American who refused to deport himself. I would look up from my book, smile, and wave lackadaisically to complete the absurdity of the scene.
Both sides of this confrontation had now settled down for a long battle of wills after the initial sharp exchanges. The security officials became very friendly and I was quick to respond in kind. After having a second meal of KFC (escorted by a security official, of course), I bedded down for the night as best I could and slept fitfully.
At 9 am I was woken up and (still in my pajamas) let to the office of Colonel Azam, who I assume to be the head of airport security. This is when I had my first conversation in English since arriving at the airport. Colonel Azam was extremely cordial, asked me how I was doing, and went on for a bit about how we were friends, etc etc. Then he makes an attempt to sweet-talk me into buying my own ticket back to Egypt. I return his smile and just shake my head. He asks if I’ve called the U.S. embassy and I reply that yes, I spoke to embassy officials several times the day before (three times, to be precise), and they had advised me to buy my own ticket, leave, and have my friends ship me any of my remaining possessions in my apartment. He throws up his hands like the problem was solved, “Of course you should listen to your embassy then!”
I told him that the U.S. embassy might have hung me out to dry yesterday, but if I was still at the airport after a week they’d have to act. I told him I’d contacted a friend who writes for the New York Times (true) and that the longer I was at the airport, the bigger the story would become (partially true). I told him that I had no problem staying at the airport for a month and was quite content (100% bullshit).
At this point I ask him, “Do you love your country?”
“Do you love your king?”
Again, he nods.
“Well,” I tell him, “if you love your country, and you love your king, then you will personally buy me a plane ticket back to Egypt, because each day I’m here in this airport, it is bad for your country, and bad for your king.”
Colonel Azam shrugged his shoulders and explained that he would love to buy my ticket and then gave some excuse about having to get his monthly paycheck and not having enough money or something along these lines. I then asked if there was anything else to talk about, and Azam shakes his head.
“Ok,” I announce, “can I go back to my room now?” And with that, I stood up and left Colonel Azam with his jaw on the floor.
For the remainder of that morning I sat in the detention room with my laptop out, being as vocal as possible about the fact that I was writing an article about my experience in detention. Whenever a security official would come in the room, I’d be like, ‘Hey, what’s your name? You know, I need it for my article.’
Soon one particular officer started coming in every 15 or 20 minutes, asking me questions and writing my answers down. He asked me what articles I’d written that I thought might have offended the sensibilities of the mukhabarat. I told him. He asked about any relationships I had with members of the opposition movement. I made it clear that I only knew certain individuals as journalistic contacts. He asked how long I planned to stay in Jordan, and I made it clear that I just wanted three weeks to pack up my things and then I’d be off to Afghanistan for a new position.
Finally at 1 pm, after 26 hours at the airport, my three-time escort to KFC walks in, hands me my passport, and giving me a genuine smile tells me, ‘Welcome to Jordan. You are free to enter the country.’
To be honest, I was absolutely stunned, much more so than when I was initially denied entry. I was 100% sure that after another day or so (at the most), the airport’s security forces would figure out a way to budget a plane ticket for me back to Egypt. What I am speculating is that the airport’s security officials started building their own file on me after the second day, and then contacted the mukhabarat saying something like, ‘We have an insane American here making a giant fuss, and if there isn’t anything he did other than write an article or two, we should probably just let him in.’
And the reply from the mukhabarat (according to my theory), was ‘Meh, ok fine.’
And so that is the story of how I got back into Jordan and had three amazing weeks saying goodbye to friends and planning for adventures in Afghanistan (where I am now).
I hope you enjoyed it.