Dreams of Yuppiedom in Jordan

Poor see rich youth as models. In an election today, candidates exploit the disparity of wealth.

AT the gleaming new Hard Rock Cafe in Amman, the Harley Davidson Low Rider is set in a high wall alcove like a trophy, with all the American promise of rock and roll and the open road.

Encased in glass are other icons of rock memorabilia: silver trousers once worn by Gary Glitter, myriad gold records, guitars, and a Hawaiian shirt worn by Elvis Presley.

Nevermind that Jordan's economy has been flagging, or that removing subsidies on wheat last year that tripled the price of bread - caused riots that showed the latent desperation of many of those living below the poverty line. Or even that the Hard Rock shares the same voting district with the poor Al-Hussein refugee camp for Palestinians in tomorrow's legislative elections.

Here are scenes of two different worlds which, in Amman's third District, form a microcosm of the wealth and culture gap that divides Jordan's usually deeply conservative society.

Young, upwardly mobile Jordanians form a steady stream of customers to the swank Hard Rock, but for the poor Palestinians of the Al-Hussein camp, the Hard Rock represents both elusive dreams of wealth and station, and untasted, forbidden fruit.

Most of refugee families in this camp arrived in 1948, when Israel was created and they were forced from their land.

Long used to peddling in dreams, Palestinians here have named one grimy main street Awdah, which means "return." Many shops are called "Jerusalem" this, or "Palestine" that.

"It is forbidden to go to Abdoun, because it costs so much to do anything," says Mahmoud, who sells diapers and other daily requirements on Return Street. Though in the same voting district, he says, "It's like two different worlds. If people get wealth and move into the other world, that's it. They don't create a link or ever come back."

But instead of resentment at Jordan's rich and wealthy - who are both native Jordanian "East Bankers" and Palestinians from the West Bank of the Jordan River - many poor see in them a model.

"It's a big dream to make it and move there," he says. "It's what everybody hopes for."

Voter apathy in the Palestinian camps is as widespread as it is in Abdoun, however, and the grievances seem to be the same: "What's the point of voting?" asks one Return Street barber. "It won't change anything."

Candidates have come often to Return Street, handing out cash and food, and making promises about unemployment and lifting United Nations sanctions against Iraq, a popular issue.

Banners strung across the street promise that "Jerusalem is ours," and that Candidate X will ensure that Palestinians "return to our land."

Such promises are so pie-in-the-sky, voters say, that Jordan TV this week ran a parody in which a candidate promised to repair the ozone layer.

"People are getting poorer, but maybe the government wants that," Mahmoud says. He notes that when Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, there was rioting in Jordan.

But when King Hussein signed a similar peace in 1994, "there was not even a whisper," he says. "People don't feel strong enough to reject it. Things were different 20 years ago. Now people are concerned with the food they eat."

On that menu these days, if they are fortunate, may be the Hard Rock's $7 bacon cheeseburger, dripping with cheese and garlic mushrooms and turkey bacon.

But Mahmoud and other refugees rarely see that world. Closer to home for him - and a more affordable dose of Western culture - is a local Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Takeaway has become almost as traditional as traditional food," Mahmoud says. Then he asks his three-year-old son about his favorite meal: "Kin-tuhk-kee" he answers.

"My generation took a year learning to say 'hamburger,' " Mahmoud explains. "But these little ones are born saying it."

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