As soon as we entered Amman Surgical Hospital, the depth of the tragedy engulfed us. To my right, a young man slouched in a chair, surrounded by friends. A veiled woman, who could have been his mother but had the air of a loving aunt, moved towards him. We were distracted by other scenes of anguish. A few moments later, I turned back to check on the young man, who could have been anywhere between 16 and 25, shock and despair masking all signs of youth. The veiled “aunt” was now sitting on the arm of his chair. An old man, dressed in traditional Arab clothes (a “hatta” and “e’gal” on the head, a dark dish-dash), stood over him on his other side. They whispered words in his ears, hands gently touching his shoulders.
The young man moved forward in his seat. A slight emotional convulsion gripped him. Slight tears welled-up the eyes. He hid his face in his forearms. The older man and woman streamed words of comfort that were inaudible to me. Or perhaps I didn’t want to hear what a young man is told of the violent death of a father or mother. His friends were speechless, their age making it impossible to comprehend or take any comfort against the insanities of our age. I moved on.
At around the same time, in another area on the ground floor, relatives and hospital staff were comforting an old man who was seemingly waiting for news of his stricken wife or daughter. As they tried to soothe him with improvised and meaningless words (what can you say in the face of such sacrilege), he refused to listen. He simply said: “I came with her, and I will not leave without her.”
Fate brought me and two other friends to this hospital. We were there to provide any assistance to a visitor, who had just flown into Amman in a desperate search for his wife. We took the lift to the third floor. Relatives, worried friends and acquaintances of the wounded and dead gathered outside the Intensive Care Unit. In the crowds, one of my friends recognized the person we were looking for. Like many others, he was trying to find out whether his loved one was alive or dead. A hospital employee, who kept the door to the ICU locked, was trying to keep the peace. The hospital employee had a list of those being treated in the ICU. If you were one of the lucky ones, your loved one would have been on that list. If he or she wasn’t, then they are dead, or at least that was the morbid assumption sweeping the crowd when we arrived. Through it all, the man who was waiting to see whether he has lost his life’s companion maintained a stoic composure. Misty eyes would betray him at times, but his sense of calm and quiet grief overwhelmed us.
On the stairs sat a middle-aged woman. She did not join the thronging crowd before the ICU unit. She sat motionless, staring. It was impossible to know whether she had just heard of a death or simply anticipated one.
The husband continued to argue with the ICU staffer. “If she’s not on your list, then where is she?” He then turned to those around him and said he’s sure she had passed away. He just wanted to see her. At that point, a young man came forward and volunteered his confirmation. He said: “If she’s the one whose photo you showed me, then she’s dead.” Friends of the husband were fuming. “Who the hell are you?” someone said. The young man responded that he is only trying to help. We all asked him to step aside and let the hospital staffers only relay news of the injured. But we all knew she was gone.
The lift opened. It was Marwan Mu’asher, the Deputy Prime Minister. One of his entourage banged the door of the ICU with too much force. He was reprimanded by the crowd, and by Mr. Mu’asher. The Minister emerged a few minutes later. As he walked towards the lift, a veiled old woman approached him. She was in tears, screaming. “How could they do this to him? He is 23 years old. He had worked all his life ….” I couldn’t hear the rest of her sentence. But she was imploring Mr. Mu’asher to do all that is possible to avenge the death or severe injury of her loved one, and catch the culprits. I thought I heard her say something about killing them all. Or perhaps that was the sound of my own thoughts.
I heard a woman talking of the wedding and the horror of it all. A young man dressed in casual leather was trying to spread hope in the room. He was saying that even if a person is not on the ICU list, there was still a chance. He said that some people might be in the ICU but their identities are still unknown.
I found myself shivering. Literally. I felt an extreme cold. My friend was going around the hospital trying to find someone who will give answers to the visitor we were helping My other friend and I went up to the fourth floor. It was empty. We sat on the first available chairs, taking refuge from the anguish crashing all around us. But there was no escaping the sense that we were extremely and improbably lucky. Any one of us could have been in the shoes of the dead woman or her devastated husband. Our families and closest friends were somehow spared. One different twist of fate, one planned meeting at the Hyatt lobby, and our lives could have been irreparably damaged like those on the floor beneath us.
We went back downstairs. A member of the hospital staff approached the victim’s husband. They agreed to take him upstairs to identify his wife amongst the dead. They proceeded. As the lift doors closed on them, you could feel a painful sigh sweeping the room. A few minutes later, they returned. No progress. The door of the hospital’s morgue was locked and the key was with another staffer. A few more terrible moments of waiting. The staffer with the key was found, and they went up again.
They returned. It was all over. He identified the lifeless body of his young wife and the mother of his enfant children. She had planned to be in Jordan for a few days only. But within a few brief hours, their whole lives were shattered. His eyes let go of some tears, but not in abundance. It seems even tears shy away from the sight of sudden and senseless death. I noticed that he was clutching a yellow duty free bag, the only thing he had on him as he rushed to Amman in desperate search for his wife.
A few moments later, the lift doors opened. Princess Alia Al-Faisal came to offer her condolences to one of the bereaved. She was dressed all in black. Her quiet grace and effortless sympathy made me proud to be a Jordanian.
We all went down. My friend was helping the bereaved visitor with all the arrangements. There is nothing more morbid than the logistics following death. The hospital’s principal doctor came down and spoke to the him. He assured him that his wife had not suffered. Her death was instant. In the strange chaos and madness of the evening, we all found solace in that fact.
People spoke of the news that Moustapha Akkad was in critical condition in another hospital. Not enough can be said of the sad irony that Moustapha Akkad and his daughter were blown to death by Islamic terrorism. Akkad’s 1976 film The Message (“Al-Risala”), which portrays the life of the prophet Mohammad, is arguably the most important work in Islamic culture in the last century. It portrayed Islam as it truly was: A religion of compassion and justice. It told of how the prophet and his companions implored Muslims never to conduct war without honour, never to kill anyone except in direct combat, and never to uproot a tree or harm an animal. Almost all Muslims identify the period of the prophet with the imagery of the “The Message.” But there they were. The great director and his daughter, massacred by the forces that they could not change. Killed by Zarqawi and his legions of devils – the sad proof that, within certain groups of Muslims, it was Abu Jahel (the corrupt contemporary of the prophet who tried everything in his power to kill him and his message) who conquered Islam in the end, and not the other way round.
We left the hospital. On the streets outside, an impromptu demonstration was taking shape. Cars and trucks hoarded with angry Jordanians roamed the streets. They were shouting slogans of support to King Abdullah II, and messages of scorn and vengeance to Zarqawi. The cars blocked the Third Circle. In the hours and days to come, tens of thousands of Jordanians would walk in protest and defiance.
Outside Amman Surgical Hospital, the world of news analysis and discussion continued. I was horrified, upon returning to watch the news, that a major Arabic TV channel was continuously referring to the Radisson Hotel as a hotel “frequented by Israeli tourists.” The fact that a Palestinian wedding was the actual target of the bombings did not seem to sway that channel’s editors from their Fox-like news-reporting approach. On the same night, before the blood of the victims even dried, Abdul Bari Atwan, the editor of Al-Quds newspaper, was on TV analyzing these acts and explaining the “strategic choice” made by Al-Qa’eda. Even more troubling for me was the reaction of Robert Fisk, a writer I have long admired as a rare beacon of truth in this world. But it seems that even Fisk does not realize that there are certain days and events that bear no cynical analysis. Fisk’s article questioned “Why Jordan? Why now?” He offered some answers, trying to pour logic unto the illogical soup of the terrorist mindset. Apparently, Fisk opined, this may have been “partly because Jordan has … become a rear echelon air base for US fighter-bombers, which are attacking cities in Iraq.” One word in response to this analysis: nonsense.
I wish Robert Fisk, Abdel Bari Atwan, and other great analysts were with us on the night of November 9, 2005, at Amman Surgical Hospital. For if there were, they would have been forced to confront the inescapable truth. Zarqawi and all his followers and like-minded radicals have declared war. This is not a war against American foreign policy. This is not war against Israel or Iraqi occupation. This is a war against us. The innocent Jordanian families who paced the corridors of that hospital on that night are the target. Muslim and Christian Arabs are not the collateral victims of these acts; they are the fodder that excites these devils. Anyone who is foolish enough to dispute this should spend time reading and analyzing the latest filth to come out of Zarqawi and Ayman Zawahiri. The objective is clear in their texts. They are setting out to establish an Islamic caliphate in that horrific Taliban vein. Anyone and anything that stands in the way of that goal will be blown into smithereens.
Our collective response must be loud and clear. We must do all within our power to clean mainstream Islam of all words and deeds that provide a supporting culture for the insanities of November 9. And we must all raise our voices without fear and echo the cries of Amman: ZARQAWI, WE ARE NOT AFRAID.