25 June 2004
Heading east out of Amman along Highway 10, one encounters a desert that is quite unique. Unlike the Hollywood depiction of pristine, windblown sand dunes, the desert of the eastern Jordanian panhandle is flat and blanketed with black volcanic rock. These rocks come in a variety of sizes—from match book to television set—but the majority are between the size of a man’s shoe and a bowling ball. They are irregularly shaped and black as coal and the distance between each ranges from six to twelve inches. This field of stone stretches to every horizon, north, east, and south.
Belched out by some ancient, unseen volcano, all of this is spread out underneath a completely cloudless, brilliant blue sky. Off in the distance, power lines stretching to the Iraqi border are held aloft at fixed intervals by giant, headless Vitruvian men of steel. The highway, running in parallel, rolls out to the horizon where it meets the intense, rising white sun.
By the time we got within sight of the border—four hours out from the Jordanian capital--that sun was almost directly overhead. There was not a single tree anywhere to offer mercy. We could see in the distance over a hundred tractor trailers, stopped and backed up for nearly a mile, waiting to clear Jordanian and Iraqi customs. As we were to learn later that day, clearing customs on the Iraqi side meant paying a small offering to a representative of the local tribal strongman and paying a small “incentive fee” to the underpaid customs inspector who could make things easy or hard on the long hauler.
As we got closer to the parked line of vehicles, we noticed that one of them—the one at the very back--wasn’t like the others. Left behind a hundred yards from the rest, this one had its wheels sticking straight up in the air. Somehow, the truck had rolled completely over and was resting in a very shallow gully. It was an old fuel tanker, ironically bringing refined petrol from oil-poor Jordan to oil-rich-but-refinery-lacking Iraq.
As we inched forward we could see that the front windshield had busted out. About ten yards from the cab, I could see an old, bearded, weather-beaten Bedouin shepherd in a black dishdasha (robe) and a white-and-black checkered ghutra (headscarf) crouching down. He was cradling a young man, hardly visible save for his blue-jean-covered legs and white sneakers sticking out from under the older man’s flowing robe. My heart stopped as I fully comprehended the tragedy of the situation. The old stranger was smoothing the dying man’s hair and shielding his eyes from the sun. His body rocked ever so gently back and forth and his lips moved as if he were either offering a soft prayer or soothing words of encouragement.
Ahead about 100 yards, most of the drivers in the long queue had dismounted, resigned to a long wait that probably would last the rest of the day. None seemed that interested in the accident down the road. They didn’t seem that interested in much of anything, other than smoking their cigarettes and waiting out the heat. A few joked around with each other, but most had noticeably vacant stares. Some had set up folding chairs in the shade of their cabs. Some tried to sleep, their bare feet visible between the sets of tires.
It was an immense convoy of unrelated truckers taking their goods into Iraq. The trucks were old. They were painted either a dull green or a flat orange. They had worn tires and were held together by sixth or seventh iteration spare parts. These were not the shining super cabs seen on American interstates. No defiant shiny bulldogs. No naked girl mudflaps (or even veiled naked girl mudflaps) here. They were instead big sad jalopies that ran on hope as much as they did on diesel.
Most of the loads were construction materials. Pipes, cables, I-beams, and the like. If they made it into Baghdad, these items would eventually find their way into new schools and hospitals and police stations.
But that was definitely a big “if”. The roughly 350-mile stretch of road between the border town of Trebil and the Iraqi capital is, at present, one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Ambushes are frequent. Recently a Canadian friend of mine was robbed at gun-point by three men along that route. Their faces covered by their red and white ghutras, they sped up alongside they unlucky Canuck waving AK-47s and firing shots over the bow. His nervous driver pulled over to the side and the three bandits proceeded to take from my friend his cash, his flak vest, and his Thuraya satellite phone. While severely shaken, he felt very lucky not to have been kidnapped and beheaded.
The truck drivers moving construction material into Iraq face this danger everyday. Highway bandits and roadside bombs make this a terrifying gauntlet. A few of the drivers refuse to go these days. But most have no choice. These are poor guys—both Jordanian and Iraqi. While the insurance companies and big city middlemen are charging their customers increasingly higher prices to move goods into Iraq, this windfall hasn’t really trickled down to the drivers. They keep on driving for what the owners are willing to pay them. No real arguments. These guys need the money too much to negotiate.
At last we reached the crossing point. The crisp, professional Jordanian guards gave way to the disheveled Iraqis. The representative from the tribal strongman approached our car, but seeing our weapons and identification, moved on. Against the blue sky, a small, dirty Iraqi flag had been twisted by the wind around its aluminum pole, obscuring the words “Allah Hu Akbar.” God is great.