THE HASHEMITE KINGDOM OF JORDAN
By Vincent Lyn
Jordan, an Arab country on the east bank of the Jordan River, is home to the famed archaeological site of Petra, the Nabatean capital dating around 300 B.C. Set in a narrow valley with tombs, temples and monuments carved into the surrounding pink sandstone cliffs, Petra earns its nickname, the “Rose City,” and in my estimation the most impressive of the Seven Wonders of the World.
I had traveled to Jordan with my femme fatale partner action film star Cynthia Rothrock. Cynthia and I have been friends for more than 30 years and I had the great honor of co-starring in one of her great Hong Kong films, “Blonde Fury”. We’ve attend countless events around the world but she had asked me if I would like to go to Jordan with her. All her friends had been telling her she shouldn’t travel to the Middle East, especially alone. Of course I retorted and said that was ridiculous and that Jordan is very safe. I agreed to go as I hadn’t been before and was a country certainly on my Top Ten List. Our tour guide Hazim was very cheerful and helpful and certainly knew the country like the back of his hands. Together with Sargent Nader Masarweh who provided security we were certainly in very capable and secure hands. So while Cynthia donned her white cape and got re-baptized in the Jordan River, I had other plans.
I told Hazim I wanted to go to Azraq Refugee Camp. He said, “well that’s a good 2½ hour drive from where we were staying at the Dead Sea Marriot Resort and Spa.” I said no problem and that I would hire a car to take me. Hazim had researched the camp and told me that I wouldn’t be able to go inside the camp without authorization from the Jordanian Government. I said I still wanted to go and at least take a look from the outside. So Hazim ordered me a car and driver that cost me $200 for the round trip.
The driver was a young and friendly 26-year-old Palestinian man. I threw on my Kevlar vest, grabbed my passport and jumped in the seat next to the driver and off we went. If nothing else I would get to see a different part of the country. As we ventured out of the city limits and then small towns and villages, it became eerily silent. The highway stretch of road that lead north and to the west and east of us was desert as far as the eye could see with tires from both trucks and cars littered alongside the highway.
Seeing signs for Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia all within an hour drive from where we were I was excited and could feel the adrenaline rush. With both Syria and Iraq Civil Wars in full swing and with each passing minute getting closer and closer to each border, I figured there wasn’t going to be any problems as we’re staying inside the boundaries of Jordan. What possibly could wrong?
As we got about 30 minutes away from our destination we were pulled over by a military police vehicle and asked to show ID. The officer also checked the inside of the car and trunk. As we got closer to the camp we pulled over to take a photo with a posted sign Az Zarqa, 65km.
Finally we could see Azraq refugee camp on the opposite side of the highway. We slowed down so I could take a photo and I told the driver to pull around on the same side as the camp. This particular camp has close to 30,000 refugees with nearby Zaatari refugee camp with 80,000. Jordan is the country with the highest number of refugees close to 2.7 million. 680,000 from Syria alone since the crisis began in 2011. Jordan remains the second largest refugee host per capita worldwide with roughly 750,000 refugees, of 57 different nationalities, according to a UNHCR report released in June 2018. As of June, the demographics of refugees in Jordan consisted of 680,000 Syrian refugees, close to 70,000 Iraqi refugees, 15,000 Yemeni refugees, 6,000 Sudanese refugees, 800 Somalian refugees and roughly 2,000 refugees of other nationalities, according to the UNHCR report. Preceded by Lebanon, where one in six individuals is a refugee, in Jordan, one out of every 14 individuals is a refugee, followed by Turkey where one out of every 22 people is a refugee.
I told the driver to head to the security entrance. There were three Jordanian soldiers at a gated security checkpoint. Two soldiers were seated in a military humvee, one in the drivers seat and the other manned the M60 machine gun. As we reached the checkpoint the officer asked us for ID so I showed him my passport and he told us we couldn’t enter without government authorization just as Hazim had mentioned. We gave Hazim a call and told him we had arrived and let him know everything was fine.
At that point I asked the army officer if it was possible to use the toilet. He motioned to a small make shift building in the back, so we pulled the car over and the driver waited. What was supposed to be a bathroom was more like a pig sty. I looked through a small window and could see the myriad of white tents off in the distance so I took my phone out and quickly took a couple of photos. As I walked back to the car the soldier hollered at me saying, “you took a photo.” I didn’t deny it and he said not allowed and then all hell broke loose. He told me he wanted to see my phone and the photos I took and started threatening me. My driver in Arabic started trying to calm the situation down but it was no avail. The officer then asked for my passport and said he’s calling the military police and so we had to wait and sit inside the car. My driver started getting nervous and started smoking. An hour passed and then two and so we waited. Every now and again the officer would come up to the car and question me in a very intimidating way and also telling me maybe I’d get to leave Jordan tomorrow and then later in a week or so.
As I looked through the side mirror the soldier manning the M60 had now put his sights on the car. After a few hours had gone by with the sun beating down upon us another military humvee and two other military vehicles came from the opposite direction, the direction of the refugee camp. Out steps a very straight-faced distinguished gentleman in a spic and span sharp looking uniform, also wearing a red beret with all the shiny medals in place. He walks to my side of the car and introduces himself as Major….
The other soldiers all step aside and quickly kowtow to him. He asks me a battery of questions whether I’ve ever been to Iraq or Afghanistan? Was I carrying a weapon? I wasn’t and he repeated are you sure? I told him that he could search me and he said that’s not necessary. He said it’s forbidden to take photos of the camp. I said I understood but that there was no sign saying not to. He replied, that I’m correct and we need to rectify that. He then told me to follow him in the car.
It was at that moment I resigned myself to not leaving the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for quite some time. The driver was now white as a sheet and been chain-smoking the entire time. We drove following the humvee led Major and another humvee behind us. The front of the camp was no more than 600 yards ahead with an enormous wired gated checkpoint. Military personnel standing on each side with guard towers at each corner. As we pulled up to the front entrance of the camp I now had a full frontal view of Azraq refugee camp. To the right of the fence were all the flags of the countries that were part of the coalition involved in taking care of the camps. The U.S. flag was the largest right at the top then below was U.K., France, Germany, Norway, Japan and others.
Out walks a man in plain clothes and introduces himself showing me his ID as Jordanian Secret Service. So now a whole new battery of questioning begins that lasted 30 minutes. Finally he asks to see my iPhone and to show him the two photos I had taken. He then tells me to delete the photos in front of him. What he overlooked, as most of you know even though they are deleted they immediately are backed up for 30 days. He then gives me my passport back and surprisingly was very apologetic. The drivers face had a huge sigh of relief and you could tell he just wanted to get the hell out of there.
A few hours later we got on the outskirts of the town I wanted to buy a few scarves at a local shop. The owner came up to me and upon seeing that I was wearing a Kevlar vest he asked me what my job was. We chatted for a while and told me he fought in Iraq after the U.S. led invasion and was given some military equipment by the U.S. soldiers. Such as an M16, vest, boots and helmet, which he was supposed to return to U.S. personnel but he still had in storage. He said he hoped he never needed to use it again but knowing this region of the world things can change in a New York minute. My motto is better to have the equipment and never need it than to need it and not have it, as I would find out on a later trip. To be continued….
It all ended without a hitch I got safely back to the hotel and told Hazim about my ordeal and as a gift for putting my driver through that hellish day I gave him my Burberry Sunglasses.
P.S — So glad Cynthia opted for the baptism:-)
CEO/Founder at We Can save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organizations
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts