The day my wife left Amman was quite an emotional one, on the one hand I was sad to see her go (a few minutes sat on the steps of the hotel fighting back the tears, even though I’d see her again after only 2 weeks) and on the other hand that exhilerating sense of being alone in an unknown foreign country where all that there was was possibility.
Of course the possibility part is great but, it’s the alone part that doesn’t always suit (I’m a pretty social guy) so I wasted no time in inviting myself to sit with the table of westerners enjoying the warm evening in the front garden of The Canary Hotel later that day.
That one small act of pushy friendliness led to friendships that lasted the rest of my time in Jordan (and hopefully for long to come) and to some pretty crazy situations.
The first of which was the Australia vs. Jordan World Cup qualifying match attended by 16,000 people at the King Abdullah International Stadium in Al Qwaismeh, Amman.
The table I had forced myself on turned out to be full of Australian volunteers on the A.V.I. programme who were mostly only in Amman for a few days before heading off to their placements in other places in Jordan and beyond.
A very friendly bunch who after a few beers invited me to join them at the Australia vs. Jordan football match that was occuring the next night and for which they had free tickets courtesy of the Australian embassy.
Having never been to a football match and always in search of a new experience and some new friends, I quickly agreed. Though if I’d known what was going to transpire I may have said I was ‘washing my hair’ that night.
So it was that the next evening the 8 of us (3 men and 5 women) arrived at the stadium in 2 taxi’s after a 20 minute drive. We arranged a spot for the taxi’s to meet us after the game (oh, the wishful thinking!) and headed off in search of the Australian fans entrance amidst a sea of excited and boisterous Jordanian supporters decked out in Jordanian flags and face paint. The presence of the 8 westerners quickly drew attention and we were followed to the gate by hundreds of locals.
It felt overwhelming but not threatening but I guess I should have known from the huge Police presence that even if I wasn’t scared of the crowds the Police knew something I didn’t.
The game itself was quite exciting and it was fun to watch the 90 % Jordanian supporters in the crowd erupt into singing, dancing and flag waving as their team fairly comfortably but a little unexpectedly ended up the 2-1 victors.
It was clear from the noise and fireworks and the huge numbers of people who had scaled the floodlight towers and fences to watch that the figure later given of 16,000 attendance was at least matched by people outside the stadium who hadn’t been able to get in.
The atmosphere had been great and during the game as I headed over to the fence dividing the Australian and Jordanian fans, I passed many Jordanians on the Australian side wearing “I love Jordan” T-shirts yet waving Australia flags and once I reached the fence the Jordanian fans were eager to have their pictures taken and nothing but smiles.
The real story for us however began as we left the stadium after the final whistle.
Even from the small gate of the Australian enclosure to the actual exit gate of the stadium it became clear that the atmosphere was a little different outside. The thousands of supporters who hadn’t been able to get into the stadium were a lot more rowdy and as everyone poured out of the stadium the crowds quickly became huge and the group mentality that I had previously only experienced at large stadium rock gigs began to be felt by all of us as we looked at each other a little nervously and struggled to stay together in a group amidst the chanting and singing.
Once we exited the stadium things quickly became less friendly as the women began to complain of being groped by the mass of people that surrounded and followed us as we tried to make our way back to the place we had agreed to meet the taxis. I was very happy I had stashed my camera away in my bag and tightened the strap before we exited as suddenly I too felt hands grabbing at me and trying to take my wallet from my pocket, pulling on my bag trying to remove it from my possession. The crowd seemed to go from mildly threatening due to it size to hostile in a matter of seconds as I found myself pushing guys away as they grabbed at me and the women. We made a b-line for a police car we could see parked 50 or 60 meters away as the grabbing turned into kicks and angry shouts in Arabic. By grace, good luck and the help of a few Jordanian people in the crowd who valiantly tried to protect us we made it to the police car where we and the car were immediately surrounded by hundreds of chanting Jordanian fans.
One of the Australian guys who was much more dark skinned and less conspicuous darted off before we could stop him saying he was going to find the taxi drivers and get them to come closer to the stadium. The 2 policemen, thankfully doing their jobs well bundled all of the women but one (a slightly butch Arab/Australian woman who I hadn’t spoken too much but looked like she could look after herself and spoke fluent Arabic) into the car and pulled off through the crowds taking the women to safety.
Unfortunately that left me, P****** and S**** (the woman) stood in the middle of a crowd of several hundred less than friendly fans about 50m from the nearest entrance back into the stadium.
Before I had time to think several large Jordanian guys surrounded us and tried to deflect the grabbing arms and kicks that began to rain down and shouted what I later discovered to be “RUN” at us in Arabic and pointed to the gate. I didn’t need telling twice. With their help, without which I dread to think what would have happened we made it to the safety of the gate with only a few kicks and punches to remember the short trip by. Inside were thousands more fans streaming out of the stadium but also about 30 policemen and Jordanian army who quickly pushed us off to one side, protecting us, gave us water and cigarettes and apologized repeatedly for their countrymen. An unnecessary but warmly received gesture.
For 45 minutes as the crowds dispersed a little we spoke to the women by mobile phone, relieved that they were ok, smoked nervous cigarettes, listened to the continuing rukus from outside the stadium walls, bonded over what had just happened and waited anxiously for A***, the Australian guy who’d left to get the taxi driver to return.
Finally (and Thankfully) A*** arrived with the taxi driver, both of them looking a little shaken.
Due to the crowds the taxi driver had been unable to get his car anywhere near the prearranged meeting point and had been waiting 5 minutes away realizing that there was little chance of us making it to him unmolested.
As we were all ok and the crowds seemed to have thinned out a little, though I did hear several gunshots and moments before the taxi driver had arrived some disturbance had caused 20 or so police and army men to run out of the gate looking like they were on a mission, the police suggested that we leave with the taxi driver and walk straight to the taxi without stopping and go home.
Once again, I didn’t need telling twice.
The four of us were barely 20 meters from the gate when the first rock flew past narrowly missing my head, I stopped and turned to see where it had come from only to watch the 15 year old, 5 meters away who had thrown it release another one that struck me on the chin. Instictively I yelled out words to the effect of “you little fucker” as A*** rightfully grabbed me and forcefully told me to keep walking and not provoke the gang of youths that was following us.
It was too late, the rocks started to rain down hitting all of us including the taxi driver. I was hit in the back of the head, my shoulder and most painfully in the ankle as we increased our pace and finally made it to the taxi some 3 to 4 minutes away. Helped again by some Jordanian guys, one of whom was a mountain of a man, we jumped into the taxi as the youths surrounded it still throwing rocks and after a few tense moments the taxi sped out of its parking space sending bodies sprawling.
We were safe.
The drive back with the windows down was one of my favorite taxi rides for a very long time.
The dual carriage way in the opposite direction was at a standstill for miles as the Jordanian fans hung out of car windows singing, waving flags and celebrated their countries win over Australia.
As the adrenaline wore off slowly the our taxi became very quiet as we sped back to the hotel.
The beer lubricated post mortem of the evening lasted until way past bed time as we bonded over our recollections of what had just happened and how lucky we were it hadn’t had a far worse outcome. I slept well despite the bruises that night and the heartfelt apologies, free food and gifts I received from Jordanians over the following week have gone a long way to mutating my memories of the evening into just another good travel story that I’ll tell a thousand times I’m sure. But if I’m honest there were a few moments when I was genuinely scared in the way only being a white boy in the middle of an angry mob in a foreign country can make you. My bravado will say otherwise but don’t believe it.
Oh and the moral of the story? the lesson learned?
Never, NEVER go to football matches, even if you get free tickets.
***Here is a little video from the night, shot on GoPro and Harenzumi (more on this later)……at some point I put all the cameras away and just ran, big wet girl that I am, when rocks are flying at my head my first instinct is to protect the hard earned cameras and stay alive not what the best angle is or how stable the footage is, so sue me.***
Be sure to check out the other posts in the Jordan series:-