Bright September

In the Spring of 1970, I was attending Al-Kindi middle school in Zarqa, Jordan, a large town northeast of Amman. One Sunday, the first day of the school week in most Muslim majority countries, the principal interrupted our math lesson by asking the teacher to usher the whole class out to an unannounced “festival”. Excitement filled all of us as we shoved tattered textbooks into our sacks and scrambled out of the classroom. We, and the rest of the student body, were then all marched to a dusty field a few blocks away where a large crowd of other students and adults had assembled. Flags of Palestine and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) with banners proclaiming “Revolution Until Victory” were draped all around. Martial music played on tinny loudspeakers. We milled about in the bright sun for what seemed several hours while, in the far corner of the field, awards were being granted to teenagers in army green fatigues. Then we went home.
The very following week, the same thing happened, except that this time we were taken to the Rex movie theatre nearby and watched several men give speeches in the un-air-conditioned space for over two hours under DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and Chinese flags.
This was not part of the regular curriculum, of course. In each case a few armed men from those organizations had walked into the principal’s office and asked him to volunteer his school for participation in these events. He complied, because he had no choice. The Jordanian state apparatus had by then essentially disappeared from the municipality as a result of months of concerted and systematic provocations, threats, and attacks from the PLO’s numerous factions.
Armed men, sometimes local but often not, ruled entire districts and neighborhoods. They collected “donations” of money, food, and appliances, such as radios and binoculars. They enforced whimsical curfews and organized “spontaneous” demonstrations. They settled accounts with old rivals. And they fired in the air whenever they got excited, which was often.
On several occasions, I stood witness as two or more armed men would enter the little shop of Abu Shibli, our neighborhood’s saintly grocer, and take packets of sugar, tea, and a case of Marlboros, and then ask him to add it to their “account.” Once gone, he would lean against the 25 kg sacks of rice, sigh loudly and say: there went the day’s earnings. Men with Kalashnikovs didn’t usually pay their debts.
Scenes like this, and far worse (of beatings and assassinations, of occupation and destruction of public and private buildings) took place all over the country throughout that Summer, the last part of which I spent with my family on vacation in Damascus. When we returned to Jordan in late August, the tension on the ground was palpable, and everyone was expecting an explosion. It came, literally, one evening in the middle of an early September night as we were awakened by the PFLP’s detonation of three hijacked airplanes. Before another week was over, King Hussein had taken action to reclaim his kingdom from the edge of anarchy.
I could write pages and pages detailing the days of nearly constant gunfire that followed, sleeping under tables and beds. What I want to share with you here, however, is the fear and confusion of a captive population whose emotions swung from terror to hope, from nervous excitement to cowering silence, and from one fighting side to the other in a single day. Within hours of the entry of Jordanian troops into our neighborhood, those residents who had stridently sided with the PLO just the day before, were smiling with genuine relief that its armed men were now gone. As a child, I was repeatedly shocked by the spectacle of neighbors who, only weeks before had boisterously denounced the king, but were now ostentatiously kissing his portrait. King Hussein had won, pulling the country back from the edge of a precipice.
Those who lost, called that September “black.” They then went on to kill and maim in Lebanon, Munich, and elsewhere in the world, before being invited back from Tunis by a hopeful Yitzhak Rabin to lord, from Ramallah, over another captive population. For most of the people living in Jordan at the time, September was the month of liberation from the cascading terrors of anarchy and brigandage. It ushered a bright new chapter for the little kingdom which, after withstanding the repeated assaults of Arab radicalism and Islamist violence, stands alone today among the Arab countries as a safe and stable haven for Arab refugees and Arab capital.