College Town in Jordan
IRBID, JORDAN -- If you ask a Jordanian about the Internet, he'll invariably tell you how this college town in the country's north holds the Guinness world record for "the most Internet cafes in a single kilometer."
In fact, the Guinness folks in London say there's no such record. Too bad, because Irbid deserves it.
Irbid, with its three big universities, is a busy, vigorous, but frankly, not very pretty small city. Plain brick buildings dominate, their facades usually plastered with billboards, most in Arabic but many in mercantile English, like the "Big Taste of America" Viceroy cigarette ads.
Internet cafes are everywhere, like pay phones, with names like Apollo and StarGate. One two-story minimal had five. The cafes are an easy way for someone to have a small business. It helps that Jordan's young, Western-educated King Abdullah II is a big techno-buff.
The royal enthusiasm for the Internet, though, is not unabashed. Antigovernment sites that are especially irksome, like the USA-based www.arabtimes.com, are simply blocked, China-style. Privately, Jordanians tell you the tricks they use to get around the blockades.
I spent some time in Speed 2, the sister cafe to Speed 1. Speed 2's 24 PCs, which rent for about $1.50 an hour, make it one of Irbid's bigger cafes.
Most of the students I saw were in Western-style clothes, even an occasional T-shirt and jeans. Most spoke English, often learned in school and perfected in Web chat sessions. They were all strikingly friendly.
Hamad Al-Kalbany, a 30-year-old law student, was checking his e-mail, hoping to find a note from his wife, who is going to school in England. I asked to see his inbox, and discovered that while a largely Muslim country might be able to ban pork-based Spam, it is powerless against spam, the e-mail kind.
The inbox was stuffed with Arabic riffs on the usual come-ons: "Claim your gift certificate NOW, Hamad."
"How did they get my e-mail address?" asks Mr. Al-Kalbany. It's the eternal question of e-mail users everywhere.
A while later, a serious-looking woman with a covered head walked in to make a printout of a formal-looking document half-Arabic, half-English. I sneak a peek at a copy. It's a Certificate of Participation in a local volleyball team. My first Middle Eastern soccer mom.
A few machines away, Yassir Quran and Hazem Khundhier, two second-year physics students, are using Microsoft Word to finish a report for their statistics class.
Mr. Quran says he often chats online with people from all over the world, but that when he does so with Americans, he is invariably asked if he's a terrorist. What his online chat partners can't see is that the 20-year-old Mr. Quran is a wisp of a lad, weighing barely more than the PC monitor next to him. Not only is he not a terrorist, he says, "but if I tried to shoot a rifle, it would just knock me over."
He smiles at his joke. You can see, though, the hurt feelings underneath the smile, since you couldn't meet a sweeter guy if you tried. All he really wants to do is use the Web to make new friends, maybe play some chess. You can usually find Mr. Quran on the World Chess Network.
Access times at Speed 2 are OK for simple tasks like e-mail and browsing, too slow for, say, massive downloading of MP3s, unless you have a lot of time on your hands. Akram Ali, the Speed 2 manager, has that time, since he works 12-hour shifts, six days a week. He proudly showed me his multigigabyte Napster collection -- of mostly Western pop music.
Irbid is less than an hour's drive from Syria, Israel and the West Bank. Little wonder the Internet here can sometimes have a special vividness.
Bahaa Faisal, a 24-year-old Palestinian who is a year away from finishing medical school, is looking at some photos when I walk up to him to chat. They're pictures of Haifa, Israel. He says he comes to Speed 2 a few times a week to make virtual visits to the city. He explains how his family was driven from Haifa by Israeli settlers in the 1940s. The Internet offers him his own way of following the injunction to "never forget."
But the Web is not simply for reminiscing. Mr. Faisal also uses it to plan for his future. He says he keeps up on Haifa because he plans to go back one day to marry an Arab woman. "It's my home, too," he says.
I visited Speed 2 the day after the U.S. midterm elections. Mr. Ali said his Republican chat friends in the U.S. were busy celebrating. Everyone in the cafe knew so much about my country. I wondered how much most Americans know about theirs.
Back in Amman, I needed to take care of some credit-card business, and called the stateside number listed on my card for use by people traveling overseas. I told the woman who answered at the international customer-help desk where I was.
"Jordan. ... Jordan," she said. "Is that a city or a country?"
Wall Street Journal