Journalists descend on small desert town

This dusty and disheveled string of low mud and cinderblock buildings in the middle of a harsh desert can only be described - with all due respect to its Bedouin inhabitants - as a dump.

A back-of-beyond dump at that, four hours' drive into Jordan's eastern reaches from the capital Amman; another seven hours on to Baghdad.

So how come the International Herald Tribune, Le Monde and the London Daily Mail are all on sale at the town's single flea-bitten hotel, alongside pencils, notepads, Hi-liters, and more Pringles than I have ever seen in my life?

Because several hundred journalists have descended on this dilapidated little settlement, hoping to use the place as a jumping-off point for Baghdad and to cover the expected flood of war refugees.

Except that the border is closed, the road to the Iraqi capital is manifestly unsafe, and no refugees have arrived, save for a trickle of immigrant Somali and Sudanese workers and students. So the crowd of reporters, TV crews, translators, and drivers have absolutely nothing to do.

Ruwayshid was established a few decades ago as a government outpost, sitting beside the Trans-Arabian oil pipeline from Iraq to Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. Haifa is now in Israel, the pipeline is abandoned, and in normal times Ruwayshid is just a waystation on the Baghdad-to-Amman highway, a place to fill up with gas, have a tire repaired, and get a bite to eat.

With the outbreak of war, the town has become a home away from home for crowds of heavily equipped international journalists who spend their days milling around the pot-holed car park in front of the Arab Beach Hotel, spreading rumors among themselves and occasionally dropping by the government press office which has set up shop in a bare little room furnished with one desk, one chair, and a fax machine.

The other day, a wave of excitement rippled through the bored knots of newsgatherers: the press office was chartering a bus to take them on a trip to the border post, 45 miles up the road, to which access is usually barred by army checkpoints. There was nothing to see there, but at least it was 45 miles away from Ruwayshid, and the bus filled up fast.

Finding several hundred foreigners on their doorsteps with nothing to do but spend money, local residents have been quick to oblige. The hotel rates have soared to $80 a bed per night in a twin room (not far short of what I am paying for a room of my own in the best hotel in Amman, with two pools, three cinemas, five restaurants, and broadband Internet access at my disposal), and a number of inhabitants have vacated their simple homes in order to rent them out for upward of $1,500 a month, which is 15 times the normal going rate.

Abu Seif's restaurant is doing a roaring trade serving up shwarma and fries, and an enterprising Amman-based travel agency has moved in to compete, setting up the "Baghdad Café" on the ground floor of the hotel, where you can help yourself to a salad bar and a burger for just $13.50.

Dubbing their Ruwayshid operation "Location Dynamics," the agency offers journalists a range of other services, ranging from housekeeping ("our experienced dust-busters are only a phone call away") to daily home delivery of foreign newspapers.

The company has also pitched a Bedouin tent in the hotel car park, providing visitors with the opportunity to try a hubbly bubbly water pipe when they emerge from the Jordan Telecoms bus parked next door, a vehicle fitted with 20 computers linked to the Internet.

The surreal scene is all the more frustrating for those condemned to suffer it because there is a real war under way just the other side of the border. Though the Jordanian government denies it, it is an open secret that US and British special forces have launched raids across the frontier to scout for Iraqi Scud launchers and capture desert airfields.

But those operations are hush-hush, and noone is offering to "embed" reporters with the commandos. So, feeling futile and fed up, our intrepid band of war correspondents traipse back to Ruwayshid's Baghdad Café and wonder how much longer they will have to wait before they see the real thing.

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