No 1-2, 10.02.2000
OUT OF THE SOVIET UNION
Second of Three Installments
The gate opened and our car entered the hotel compound. When I exited the car, a middle-aged mustached man in a blue suit stepped towards me and said in a heavily accented English:
"Welcome to our hotel. I am the manager here." He shook my hand. "Your room will be on the sixth floor. If you need anything or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Just ask anyone for Mr. Akbal." He motioned to his assistant who stood nearby. "Please show him the room."
We walked toward the elevator and stepped inside. As we rode up, the assistant explained to me that the hotel is divided into 3 areas. The top floor was for single men, the second floor was for single women and the rest of the hotel was reserved for families. "Try to avoid the second floor" - he told me, "it is not appropriate for men to be there".
When we arrived to the sixth floor, he showed me a room located two doors away from the elevator. Inside, the room looked very simple: there were two beds, two little tables with fresh flowers and a telephone. On the wall there was a little painting of a Roman castle built on the territory of Jordan in ancient times. The window had no view except for a little courtyard with a metal pole on which a Jordanian flag fluttered.
In a few minutes an elegant looking young man in suit and tie entered the room. He walked towards me, shook my hand forcefully and said:
"My name is Fnehir Za’al Mhawish. The manager of the hotel asked me to stay in your room and help you to settle down." He looked at me with curiosity. "I’ve never seen a Russian defector in my life. I know about them only from books and movies."
"I am not really a defector", I said, "I’m just a refugee. I am an ordinary person, not some kind of a high-ranking military or political official."
He looked at me incredulously. "I don’t believe you," he said jokingly. "You are probably a KGB officer or a spy. Tell your superiors that If they pay me half a million dollars, I’ll work for them." We laughed. The ice was broken and now I felt more comfortable with this stranger.
Soon, there was a knock on the door. When Fnehir opened the door, there was a boy holding a tray with food on his shoulder. Fnehir and I put the two little tables together, put the tray on top and began eating. The food was unusual for my taste but delicious.
Fnehir was an engineer who came from another city to work temporarily for a construction firm in Amman. The whole floor was occupied by professionals who worked in Amman temporarily and who came from other towns. I expected that my stay in the hotel would last only a few days or weeks. As it turned out later, I was wrong.
The manager, Mr. Akbal, explained to me that the hotel was located in the diplomatic district of Amman. The security measures in the district were unusually tough: it would be impossible to walk outside the hotel without being stopped by police. Anyone without a passport or an ID would immediately be arrested. "You don’t have any identification with you. That’s why I’d like to ask you to stay inside the hotel all the time and never go outside the gate. Feel free to walk around the courtyard but stay inside the compound. You might also enjoy spending time on the roof. Most buildings in Amman have flat roofs that are used as playgrounds for children or for some other useful purpose. The view from the roof of our hotel is very beautiful."
Indeed, the view was absolutely breathtaking: the whole town was spread on the hills surrounding the hotel. Most buildings had only two or three stories. There were no more than half a dozen skyscrapers in the whole city.
The first night I was not able to fall asleep. The previous day was so stressful that it was impossible to relax. My thoughts took me back to Kazan. How did this whole adventure start? In the 1980’s I was employed as a commercial artist at the Helicopter Manufacturing Plant. Simultaneously I studied history at Kazan University. Little by little I started to realize that something was terribly wrong with the Soviet system. I listened to the Voice of America and BBC’s English-language programs and knew what was going on outside the country.
I remembered the face of a trade union official, a plump Russian woman with a double chin. I was sitting across the table in her office. "So, you would like to join a tourist group for a trip to a foreign country? This year we have several vouchers to Bulgaria and Hungary. There is also one voucher to the German Democratic Republic. Which one of them would you like to visit?" Previously I did some research and knew that some Western embassies were located on the street called Unten den Linden in Berlin. Would it be possible to defect in Berlin? Hmm...probably not. The embassies must be surrounded by the police.
"We also have Vietnam and India", continued the official. "One of the tourists who wanted to go to India is sick and will probably cancel his trip."
What? India? I couldn’t believe my ears. India is not a satelite of Moscow and it has Western embassies in its capital.
"I wouldn’t mind seeing India" I said without showing any enthusiasm that was boiling inside me. The official told me to get back to her in a couple of weeks, when she would know for sure whether the cancellation was final.
The next few days I spent in the library of Kazan University, where I studied the map of New Delhi that I found in the Soviet Encyclopedia. By the end of the week I knew the city so well that if someone put me in the middle of New Delhi with blindfolds over my eyes, I would have been able to find my way to the American embassy from almost any street.
But when I came to the trade union office a few weeks later, it turned out that the tourist who wanted to cancel the trip to India changed his mind. "Don’t worry," said the trade union woman. "We have several vouchers to Syria and Jordan. Five days in Syria and five days in Jordan for a total price of 800 rubles." I promptly agreed.
The next few weeks I had to appear before and be interviewed by three different panels of officials: in my local Young Communist League, in my local Communist Party office (Raikom) and in my local trade union office. Each time, the panel members would ask me questions, such as: "What would you say if someone in a foreign country asked you about the life in the Soviet Union?" Or: "How would you respond to the capitalist propaganda about the alleged absence of freedom in the Soviet Union?" Or: "As a Soviet citizen, it is your duty to spread the truth about our motherland. How do you see your civil obligations in this respect?"
I would respond by saying what they expected me to say: "In light of the decisions of the recent CPSU Central Committee Plenary Meeting and taking into account the resolutions of the 12th World Congress of Youth and Students in Moscow, it is my duty to decisively counter the capitalist propaganda spread by Western media and to explain to people in foreign countries, especially to my peers, that the USSR is the world’s first socialist country, where workers and peasants are free from any exploitation and oppression." I pinned my Young Communist League badge very prominently on the lapel of my suit and generally tried to look like a Komsomol activist.
My recollections were suddenly interrupted by a Muslim prayer broadcast over Amman by dozens of loudspeakers. The vivid realization that I was no longer in the Soviet Union, no longer in Kazan dawned on me. This was a foreign country, with its own customs, history, traditions... What was happening in this strange, exotic country?
Jordan’s long-time leader, King Hussein, was preoccupied with fighting against Muslim fundamentalists who were becoming more and more active in Jordan... In 1985 Zaid Rifai became the country’s new prime minister... Margaret Thatcher, during her visit to Amman on September 20 signed an arms agreement worth $350 mln.
Jordan’s relations with the US slightly deteriorated after King Hussein had criticized US policy in the Middle East in early 1984. They significantly improved, however, after the emergence of a potential joint Jordanian-Palestinian peace initiative in early 1985. In October 1985, the US Senate voted to delay the sale of fighter aircraft and other weapons to Jordan. The decision caused friction between the US and Jordanian governments. I didn’t know whether these frictions could affect my case but, nevertheless, followed the news reports about Jordanian-US relations very closely. I read articles in "The Jordan Times," which Fnehir brought to me every morning.
Within days, Fnehir introduced me to all his friends who occupied other rooms on the 6th floor. At first, they kept referring to me as a "Russian." But when I recited a Muslim prayer in Arabic to one of my new neighbors, the rumor that I was a Muslim spread all over the floor and their attitude towards me changed dramatically. My neighbors started treating me as one of their own. They brought a TV set into my room and frequently invited me to join them for dinner or conversations.