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Burning with Revenge in Jordan

Aharon Granot — Karak, Jordan

In a dusty Jordanian town on the other side of the Dead Sea, Safi al-Kasasbeh, the bereaved father of the pilot burned to death by ISIS henchmen, won’t rest until his country settles the score. As hundreds converge on the house of mourning during the 40-day honor period, we join the crowd, our heads wrapped in kaffiyehs, and listen to the locals call for blood).

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The hall of mourning in the small village of Hai, in Jordan’s Karak district on the opposite side of the Dead Sea, is swarming with visitors. The smiling face of Lieutenant Muaz al-Kasasbeh — the Jordanian pilot burned alive by ISIS and whose murder was documented in a grisly video — looks down on us, plastered across every wall in this dusty town. Kasasbeh was part of a US-backed coalition working to undermine ISIS when he was captured after his plane crashed over Syria in a December bombing mission. The video shows him standing in a cage in an orange jumpsuit that had been doused with flammable liquid, while a henchman lights a torch nearby, igniting a path of fire into the cage. The video, an obvious cinematographic project of splicing, flashbacks, and voice-overs, is eerily similar to this week’s latest ISIS snuff film, in which 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt were beheaded on a beach in Libya. In Kasasbeh’s hometown, many heads are wrapped in kaffiyehs, and we were strongly advised to do the same. We present ourselves as American journalists who have come to express our condolences to the pilot’s family. During this 40-day mourning period, young men walk around passing out strong coffee in small cups while others hand out moist, fresh dates. I’m together with my friends Assaf Gibor from the Israeli weekly Makor Rishon and our photographer, Eli Cobin, both fluent English speakers. I’ll admit, on this journey I pretty much kept my mouth shut — one word of my heavy Israeli-accented English and we’d be booted out, or worse. We took an Arabic-English translator along too, although Assaf speaks fluent Arabic as well. It looked as though we’d lucked out. Other journalists who attempted to speak to the grieving father, Safi al-Kasasbeh, had been thrown out unceremoniously (including Israel’s Channel 2), but somehow after a tense wait, we gained permission to enter the hall-turned-mourner’s room. Then, after all the anxiety and preparation, we were told that Kasasbeh had been called away — today there would be no conversation. Yet as we turned to leave, Kasasbeh himself suddenly entered; he’d heard we were waiting for him, and for some reason today, he was in a talkative mood — he just poured out his heart. It seemed like our long, tiring trip would be justified after all. We’d crossed into Jordan through the far southern crossing at Aqaba — much farther than the crowded Jordan Valley crossings, but much less conspicuous — and had driven another five hours back north (parallel to Route 90 on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea) until we reached Karak. Our driver, who received what was for him probably more than an entire month’s salary contingent on getting us to the Kasasbeh family, was skeptical and went on about how foreign visitors wouldn’t be let in — but the thought of all that money kept him a little hopeful too.

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