BAQAA REFUGEE CAMP, JORDANIt is the first day of Eid al-Adha, the most important Muslim festival, and the refugee camp is like a war zone. Little Palestinian boys scramble over mud-brick walls and crouch behind cement trucks, aiming shiny rifles at each other and yelling slogans of jihad. Though these are only toys, for some the only toys they own, their sentiments are very real. Abdullah Mohammed al-Wardi, a 9-year-old wearing a "Rugby Classic" shirt, clutches his new plastic Kalashnikov, an Eid present from his father. He smiles shyly but answers questions without hesitation. "Do you know about America?" "Yes, they are Jews." "Do you like them?" "No." "Why?" "They kill Palestinians."
Around a corner, down a potholed street slick with mud, another group of boys plays a game, waving their guns in the air jubilantly. They are fighting with Saddam Hussein, against America. When a visitor takes their picture, they flash the V-for-victory sign with their fingers and yell, "Palestine lives!"
These young Jordanians of Palestinian descent are indeed stuck between Iraq and a hard place. This is one of the most westernized countries of the Arab world, run by a king whose English, many complain, is better than his Arabic. Yet sympathy to the Palestinian cause and its anti-American corollary runs deep, especially among those under 30, who make up 70 percent of the country (a demographic similar to that of other Arab countries). For them, American aggression against their neighbor Iraq is just the latest evidence that Americaand Israelwant to exert control over the region, country by country. The administration of King Abdullah realizes just how important this population is, and how much is at risk because of its rising frustration. To this end, the "Jordan First" campaign, begun last fall, aims at ensuring young Jordanians, especially, that their government will look out for their interests first. "We have to win over the young people," says Bassem Awadallah, the minister of planning, "because they can easily be lost."
It does not look as if the campaign has been succeeding. The young residents of Baqaa camp are, granted, some of the most disenfranchised people in the country. Most have lived there all their lives, their parents and grandparents having fled there in two waves, after the creation of Israel in 1948 and after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. They have long felt frustrated by the plight of their people and the inability of Arab leaders to protect them. But now, they say, it is different. "America has been hated for a long time, but in the past year, as its intentions to control the Arab world became clear, the hatred has increased," says Mu'tasem Dabour, a 23-year-old construction worker with a mild gaze.
But it is not just the disenfranchised refugees, or the other Palestinians who make up almost half the country, who feel this way. Across town, young Jordanians from affluent western Amman sit in a cafeť with brightly stenciled flowers on the wall and pizza on the menu, and express many of the same opinions. Elias Tarawneh, a 24-year-old lawyer, watches a Jennifer Love Hewitt video on MTV and talks earnestly about how he came back to Islam. "It happened over the past year, as I saw America throwing around its power, and what it was doing with Palestine and Iraq," he says, lighting up a cigarette. "Almost all my friends are the same way. We are more conscious of an identity problem. Living the American lifestyle doesn't make us happy anymore. So we searched for happiness, and we found it in Islam, in my country. We believe we should go back to our religion, our culture. That will empower us."
He and many of his upper-middle-class friends, many of whom have no ethnic connection to Palestine, have felt increasingly closer ties with Islam and the Palestinian cause. They were brought up to feel solidarity with Palestinians, but it is only now, as young adults, that they have begun to channel it into political views. Much of this sentiment has sprung up in reaction to America and Israel's perceived aggression in the region. Tarawneh's friend, a Jordanian doctor, recalls a poem they learned in the second grade, and they recite it together. "Palestine is my home, my road to victory, and a noble tune on my lips. A lot of strange faces in my land, that sell my land and occupy my home. My people will go back to where I was born."