It was July 22, a very hot day in Jordan. Actually, it was just like any other day in Jordan. Staying in the sun for fifteen minutes made my skin crinkle with sunburns. My makeshift hijab kept constantly riding up the crown of my head, exposing hair that burned like steel in the corrosive heat.
I had been running down the length of Hashemi Street with my Canon Powershot, capturing footage of the demonstration. That Friday, after the noon prayer, protesters came together at Al-Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman and, with the help of signs, banners, Jordanian flags, and a swarm of journalists, vocalized the dissatisfaction with the current government. Not with King Abdullah, oh no – in Jordan, it is illegal to criticize the king. Yes, he may be the one who appoints and fires the government – but never mind that. Criticize him, insult him, and you’d win one free night in jail.
For the most part, Jordan isn’t rampant with human rights abuses like you might expect more from its surrounding countries. You won’t hear of a 13-year-old boy being mutilated and killed, you won’t see women getting virginity checks from the military any time soon, and civilians don’t get routinely killed by King Abdullah’s forces. On this day, protesters marched down holding up posters with caricatures of policemen who looked like evil brutes wielding clubs threateningly, barricaded the usual heavy traffic from going through, and chanted repeatedly to their hearts’ delights.
But then there were last week’s protests – the July 15 protests, as they will be remembered – a day where the police action against peaceful protesters became so violent that in the aftermath, four police officers were detained for an investigation. To an extent, one can understand why several friends of mine told me I shouldn’t have gone – “Young, American, and female – a triple threat,” a friend of mine said, “but only to yourself, when you’re in that part of the world, a part of the world which feels nothing but unheard, invisible, and victimized by its own government. People who’d want to find a scapegoat.” Too true: if you can’t criticize the man who makes the decisions in government, who else can you blame?
I asked myself that question after the procession came to a stop at the end of Hashemi Street and four men on top of a truck who had been leading the protesters with a megaphone burnt an American flag. Or, to be more exact, that’s when I thought when I was walking back up Hashemi Street, filming the dispersing crowd, and then suddenly came across the scraps of my nation’s flag scattered across the ground. I will admit – just before I initially saw the flag burning from afar, a police officer happened to be blocking my view, and so when I actually saw something aflame, I thought it was the Jordanian flag. And, I admit, I was excited. With the scraps of Arabic that I knew, I was unable to understand that in fact, they had been protesting the United States’ involvement in the Middle East – its support of Israel, to be specific. What had initially been a verbal strike against the prime ministers and politicians of Jordan became a rally around the desecration of America’s flag. It was an image that I had seen only a couple times before, mostly on Fox News: an American flag burning in the midst of a crowd touted by the news anchor as “citizens of the Middle East,” but it had seared itself into my memory.
Now the image was replicating itself – except the burners weren’t wearing tan-colored dish-dashas, hailing Osama bin Laden, or and after the storm calmed down, no one stomped on the flag viciously. When I picked the flag off the ground and sadly inspected it, no one threw me a dirty look, and when I wrapped it in my scarf and walked back home with it in my arms, no anti-American rhetoric came my way. What did happen was that a reporter in a hijab snapped a photo of me gazing at the flag in silent shock. She then told me, with a small smile, “We disagree with America as a political idea – not as a human.”
I smiled back and said, “I understand.” Then I walked back home.
The next day, the photo of me with the American flag in my hands surfaced on an Arabic website. A translation from a Jordanian friend informed me that the news source took quite a bit of leisure in describing me as “crying over the flag of her country,” after which it then said, “But she expressed her understanding for what the protesters had done, pointing out that she completely understood the mistakes the U.S. government has committed.”
I brushed that off as a harmless incident of yellow journalism because it didn’t name me, even though I could barely stand the fact that I had been made a poster child for anti-American propaganda as well as a sort of Benedict Arnold. What calmed me down was remembering the reporter’s words: “We disagree with America as a political idea – not a human.” We disagree with what your government has done, but we don’t discriminate against its people.
And, even though I fundamentally believed that the flag-burning deviated from the actual matter at hand –the lack of political reforms – and the protesters put themselves in danger of alienation from the very Americans who would support their cause, her words spoke a reality that went against everything the news sources loved to show when it came to the Middle East: flag-burning, Osama-loving, and terrorists and civilians alike becoming just another statistic. The protesters I’d seen were neither on the verge of bursting into terrorism nor mindless anti-American rebels without a cause, because their cause was real. Their voices hadn’t been heard, and the best they could do when their opinions towards the king were stifled was to grab the Western World’s attention by burning the American flag so yet more news sources could report the news and speculate whether the Arab Spring would finally erupt in Jordan this summer.
That American flag is resting in the comfort of my desk where I am writing, the memories of the Jordanian Summer of 2011 coiled up in its shriveled scraps. My opinion that it was an empty act of desecration remains – but I hope that this year, or the next, I will eat my words and can be able to safely say it did not burn in vain.
Aug 16 2011 - 12:04pm