Osama satire pokes fun, gingerly

Majority of Jordanians still feel US policies are the real problem in region.

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In and around Afghanistan, US special forces and their allies are searching for the tall, thin man with the turban and assault rifle who claims to act in the name of Islam.

But look no further. Osama bin Laden is right here in Amman, starring in a dinner theater comedy about Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

In the new show "Bin Laden, Afghanistan, and More," Mr. bin Laden appears in one scene at the "Taliban Film Festival," a figment of the imagination of Hisham Yaness, one of Jordan's foremost impersonators and comedians, who plays the fugitive.

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"I'm prepared to surrender to the White House if I take [former Jordanian Information Minister] Salah Qalab with me and pilot the plane myself," bin Laden tells the audience. The scene fades out as he dances with his blonde girlfriend to the crash of US bombs.

Bin Laden is portrayed as a fake and even a fool, someone who got his start in terrorism by setting off a bomb in Amman's municipal garbage dump.

The Al Qaeda leader is shown as taking up the cause of Palestine only in the interest of his own struggle against the US. And another fundamentalist target of Yaness's parody, the wheel-chair-bound founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is asked when he will walk in the path of peace. "When I can walk," he replies.

Such skits may - or may not - be funny. But their themes are highly volatile. Jordanian analysts say that contrary to the messages of the show, the overwhelming majority of Jordanians view US policies, especially support for Israel against the Palestinians, as the real problem in the region - along with Washington's support, or at least acquiescence, in the repressive practices of pro-Western Arab regimes.

But Yaness's raucous parody contains only gentle criticism of the US, when it sums up history as a succession of empires: "Now, it's the turn of the Americans, the turn of the jeans, hamburger, and atomic bomb. The Americans do not take no for an answer, they bombed Qaddafi and Sudan, and all the while the Arab oil has vanished."

Actors said Jordanian security officials, anxious to avoid offending Washington, asked that the name of the show be changed. Originally, it had been "Bin Laden, Afghanistan, and America."

In the show, Pakistani Gen. Pervez Musharraf sides with the US because he knows it is "the winning horse." Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is worried that Iraq is the next target for the coalition. The US bombed Jalalabad, he tells a press conference "because it rhymes with Baghdad." Mullah Omar is depicted as a flasher, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tells bin Laden in a phone call: "Bush mentioned the word Palestine, but you have spoiled everything for me."

Jordan's King Abdallah, who has been the Arab leader most identified with the British and American campaign, goes unmentioned, just as his stance goes unquestioned in real life by Jordanian journalists. It is illegal to criticize the royal family in Jordan.

Yaness said he was impelled to parody bin Laden after he saw there was support for the Saudi fugitive. "I have a strong distaste for leaders using Islam for political goals. I am a humanist and I believe in democracy.... I don't want bin Laden or the Taliban to tell me not to send my daughter to school."

In response to US pressure to move against terrorism suspects, Arab regimes have become even more repressive, making many arrests while not according due process. After Sept. 11, Jordan postponed legislative elections originally slated for last month, parliament has not met, and a new law gives even broader powers to the security services. "There is not much that can be published critical of what is going on," says Mr. Nemat.

"The Americans are not saying anything about this," he adds. "They apparently feel it serves their own purpose of not having people declare opposition to their policies.... They can say there is no opposition to US actions."

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