Saturday, 29 March 2003

Does the West understand how this hated war is altering the Arab world?

Al-Jazeera has changed everything - the agenda is no longer dominated by Western news outlets or state-controlled media

by Fergal Keane


This is the incoherent account of an incoherent week. It started in Ruwayshid, in Jordan, near the Iraqi border. It continued amid the hundreds of reporters imprisoned in the luxury hotels of Amman and ended up here in Cairo. I've just come from a huge demonstration against the war. It took place after Friday prayers at the Al-Azhar mosque.

So the voices of my week have a competing music: the anger of the Arab street and the whingeing of the correspondents forced to follow the war on cable television. If there is a pattern, it is one familiar to all who report on war and its consequences. Long, long periods of tedium and waiting, interspersed with short bursts of frantic activity. So regard the following as the snapshots of life on the war's edge.

We are close to it but we do not feel the bombs trembling the ground or the cries of the wounded. It is a strange feeling. I sense that all around me a new history is being written, wrenched from the hearts of people across this region. But try to capture it on film and you falter. Yes there are the crowds with their banners, the cries of "Death to America" and "Down with Bush and Blair". But the story we cannot reach is happening as a kind of internal, very personal revolution. I caught a glimpse of it at the Abu Sayef café in Ruwayshid. It was the first night of Donald Rumsfeld's "shock and awe". Baghdad was being bombed and Al-Jazeera was carrying the spectacle live. The bombing began in the time it took us to drive from our house on the outskirts of town to the café.

The Abu Sayef is usually a relentlessly cheerful spot. The owners are classic border traders. They know exactly who is in town and why. They listen a lot and – when the mood takes them – they reveal a little. So if you want to know who has just crossed from Iraq today, or who is heading back up the road, the Abu Sayef is the place to be. Drink tea or very sweet coffee and be patient. Some useful nugget of intelligence will usually come your way.

The taxi drivers who ply the main Amman-Baghdad use it as their last watering hole before the border. When we walked in last Wednesday night the place was packed. Locals, drivers and foreign journalists stood crowded around the big television set near the charcoal grill. The missiles were pounding official buildings five hours up the road. I don't know if Al-Jazeera pointed out what was being hit, but the locals weren't impressed. They saw flames and smoke and heard the powerful detonations. They were, literally, rendered speechless by the effect.

I looked around me and saw several of the Jordanian men with tears in their eyes. One of them, a man I'd been talking football with the day before, took me by the arm. He spoke quietly, without malice: "Why are your governments doing this to us? Why?" I did my journalistic best to occupy the middle ground. I tried to explain how the war was seen in official circles in London and Washington, but there wasn't any point. It was time to just listen, to let the man have his say.

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