Jordan, the Day After

First comes dazed silence, then denial, then resistance.

AMMAN, Jordan—Any resident of Baghdad or Tel Aviv knows it well: the grim symphony of sound that signals a terrorist bombing. First comes the familiar kind of muffled boom, accompanied by the clamor of wailing car alarms. Then the echo effect: waves of passing sirens and the chorus of a city’s worth of ringing cell phones. When terror arrived in Amman Wednesday night, that noise came too. But the initial impression was of a city stunned silent—most residents seemed dazed at first, as if collectively catching their breath after an unexpected psychic gut check. The city that had prided itself on being an island of calm sanity in a violence-plagued region seemed transfixed by the televised images that played in an endless loop here: close-up pans of the mélange of blood, twisted debris, and shards of broken glass that filled the bombing sites; of sobbing victims in local hospital wards; of the gutted chasm that used to be the Radisson’s ballroom. The shots were at once painfully new and eerily familiar. And following the by-now familiar pattern, Jersey barriers and security guards seemed to double overnight; rings of armed men outside hotels and government offices stopped visitors repeatedly to ask for identification and request bag searches. (The new reality wasn’t yet routine; each request was accompanied by a regretful smile, and an apology.)

After spending her high-school years in the shadow of 9/11, Brooklyn-reared Besan Lulu thought a summer move back to Jordan finally meant the end of her terror fears. Now they’re back. “My friend asked me last night, ‘Where can we go to be safe now?’ ” the college freshman said quietly. It was, for Besan, a question that no longer had an answer. “Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq … [people there] all deal with so much. But not here. Here has always been safe. Now this happens. It doesn’t feel real.”

That sentiment is a mantra I heard dozens of times yesterday as I made my way through the city. But while Jordanians may have been surprised by Wednesday’s attacks, experts weren’t. It was never a question of whether terror would reach Amman, they told me. The only mystery had been how many people would die when it arrived. Iraq spillover has been the latest threat to the country’s vaunted calm, with homegrown militants slipping across the border and heading toward Baghdad since fighting began. But even before the war began, the country faced its own Islamist crisis; in November 2002, simmering tensions in the Jordanian city of Maan, 135 miles south of Amman, once again erupted into violence that left several dead and the town in an uproar. Some Jordanians told themselves the town was an isolated trouble spot. After Wednesday, Maan no longer seems so far away from the capital.

I knew that history, and I’d heard the experts’ warnings long before I arrived here. But after a few weeks on the road in a tense region, I still thought of Amman as a chance to let down my guard a bit. The city’s long been a notoriously quiet stop, blessedly boring—sort of like spending the weekend in the Middle East equivalent of Cincinnati. Sure, the nation’s neighbors may be unruly, but Jordanians seem genuinely shocked to find themselves squarely in the bull’s-eye.

The evening after the bombings, I had dinner with the Lulu family in a house on Tabaryah Street in Amman. As the sun set, exuberant youngsters wandered the road outside, carrying armfuls of Jordanian flags and handing them out to passers-by. Two young men cruised the block in an open-topped convertible; one held a large flag aloft in the breeze, as high as his arm could reach. By then, the shock seemed to be wearing off, replaced by a visceral rage. Protesters wound their way through the city, calling for the death of Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had just claimed to have directed the plot from inside Iraq. Amman’s nervous Iraqi population braced itself for reprisals. “They come here, they cause problems,” muttered one gaunt flag-bearing man who said his name was Marwan. “There are too many. So, maybe more people will die.”

The Jordanian rage against Zarqawi is unlikely to fade anytime soon. But neither is an underlying resentment of his intended target, Jordan’s current leadership. Besan’s friends all chafe under the country’s current system and dream of leaving after graduation. Last night, her aunt Suheir Abu Haya joined us for after-dinner tea, adjusting her black headscarf as she breathlessly apologized for running late; she had just bid farewell to her husband and 19-year-old son, who are off to Saudi Arabia “maybe for a month. Maybe for good. What can we do? There is no work for them here.” More than half of Jordan’s young people are jobless or underemployed, and a college-educated professional can expect to earn $200 a month or less. It’s not just the lack of opportunity that frustrates, it’s the sense, shared by many of their counterparts in neighboring nations, that theirs is a government more concerned with retaining power than improving life for ordinary citizens. If the brain drain is a headache for Jordan’s leaders, economic conditions among the country’s poorest may present an even greater threat. Analysts say the violence in Maan can be traced to poverty as much as religious tension, with militant recruiters tapping into dissatisfaction and despair among the unemployed young.

But yesterday, unity was the spirit of the day, as many Jordanians vowed they’d never let Amman turn into another Beirut—although in a way, it already has. As with the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a single day of terrorism has brought an entire populace together in anger and grim determination. “We don’t want this to become Iraq, where there’s a bombing every day, every day people dying in the street,” insisted Abu Haya, as a chorus of car horns sounded outside in an impromptu patriotic rally. “This will have to end here. One is enough. One is more than enough.”