If you haven’t done so yet, you can read Part I here.
The officer led us across a small courtyard, all the while a huge portrait of the King kept watch over us, something which is commonplace in Jordan. Every public building is adorned with portraits of King Abdullah, and he’s often flanked by both his late father King Hussein, and his son, also Hussein, the Crown Prince.
We wandered through a series of corridors until we arrived at a large office. In one corner, behind a desk sat a balding man in a suit. He drew heavily on a cigarette, as the smoke hugged him in a cloud of discontent. He looked as tired and as fed up as we were with the whole escapade.
On a sofa opposite sat my friend who had volunteered his Arabic skills earlier. Several army officers also shared a large leather armchair in the corner of the room. We were told to sit down, and immediately the questioning resumed.
Like a broken record, we were asked; “Who were we? What were we doing in Jordan? Why were we trying to cross the border?” All the while, the man behind the desk was again copying out our passport information.
A short while passed, but there was no let-up in the questioning. The privates continued trying to make small talk, asking about football, England and how they might be able to get a visa (that’s a common question out here). Suddenly, I heard what sounded like a scuffle breaking out in the corridor, a couple of the soldiers rushed out. I leant back on the sofa and peeked out through the gap in the door.
There I saw the two Syrians who had been in the back of the truck with us. Both were still blindfolded, panting heavily. A well-built man in a leather jacket, a tell-tale sign of Jordan’s plain-clothed police service, nailed one with a punch to the gut. He fell forward in response, and gasped for air. Then, halfway through his first breath, the jacketed man hammered him with another punch in the back of the neck.
Now subdued, he was dragged away with an arm around his throat and the other Syrian followed close by. It was brutal to watch, several people have since told me to take it with a pinch of salt. It could have been staged. But what I saw looked real. It looked vicious and harsh, and it shook me.
One of the soldiers saw me peeking through the door, he yelled at me in Arabic and immediately slammed it shut. Then the questioning continued, as if nothing had happened. We’d all heard what was going on, most of us had seen it. But there was not a murmur of dissent, it passed completely without comment.
After a few moments of calm, whilst we tried to digest what had just gone on, the jacketed man who I had seen throwing the punches came in. Out of breath, he leant against the radiator and tried to light a cigarette. His hands were shaking and his knuckles swollen. After a few clicks he managed to light the cigarette, which he took a deep drag on, and then, on making eye contact with me, introduced himself. “My name is Saddam,” he said, I still struggle to think of a more fitting name. This brute, this Mukhabarat enforcer, of course shared a name with one of history’s most brutal dictators.
Several more hours passed, again we had questions thrown at us. Another soldier came into the room with the brown paper bags that held our confiscated items. And once more they looked through my holiday photos, and again the football questions were being kicked around. We’d all laugh half-heartedly as one of the soldiers tried to pronounce “Tottenham”, it was all very superficial.
The door creaked open, there was a sense that our release was close, I couldn’t wait to get out of that room. The tension combined with cigarette fumes, created a suffocating atmosphere. An environment where you daren’t move out of fear.
We were returned to the front of the building, like schoolchildren, where there sat a minibus. Again, the portrait of King Abdullah watching over us, we climbed aboard the bus, its engine already running with impatience. I sat at the front, a mistake I realised the moment Saddam got in the driver’s seat. The man wouldn’t go away, nor shut up. It was now more than 7 hours since our initial arrest, and he continually asked me why I was so grumpy. As I was starting to feel that the night couldn’t possibly throw up anything else he then invited me to visit his house in Petra. I muttered a vaguely positive response and tried to ignore him for the rest of the drive.
He took us through the town, along the same roads we had walked when we first got out of our taxi and pulled up outside a police station. Several policeman were there to greet us, and again we were taken to another office. By this time we were long on frustration and short on patience.
In the office, a man who introduced himself only as the deputy commissioner again told us that there was going to be an investigation. We asked for our belongings back, something that had been promised to us at the previous office, but he only laughed at our insistence.
His arrogance extinguished any optimism we had about being released. Again our passport details were copied out, though this time into a computer.
We spent another several hours locked in a room with some fresh recruits, and again the football talk was bounded around. We had begged the commissioner to let us go, but he refused saying that we would have to make statements, and as there were no translators available, we would have to spend the night in the cell and tidy up all the admin in the morning.
After an hour of discussing our options, ‘Should we call our embassy? Or our parents?’ one of my friends again offered his Arabic skills and volunteered to give a statement in Arabic, he was taken into the rather dicey sounding, “intelligence office”. We passed another hour chatting to police recruits and trying to avoid their repeated attempts to add us on Facebook, a routine of soul-destroying monotony had developed by now.
It was 3.30am when finally he strolled back in and the deputy commissioner announced that we were free to go. And just like that, one of the most terrifying nights of my life came to an end.
Of course we were foolhardy, we had taken a gamble, a gamble which had paid out only a ten and a half hour stint in custody and an impressive dinner party story. But I like to remind myself, and indeed anyone who might read this, that it is scant compared to what those two Syrian men went through, and indeed what goes on just a few kilometres over that border.