An Ordinary Man
Abu Ammar, Ahmad Thaher, Abu Bakr Al Azzam
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET
US: 31 Mar 2009
As the day dawns in Recycle, a bulldozer is pushing cardboard. The work is loud and clunky and tedious, and at least at first, anonymous. Soon enough, however, you meet one of the men whose business is indeed cardboard. Each day, Abu Ammar collects cardboard for recycling, riding in his truck through the streets of Zaraq, Jordan in search of tossed-away boxes and abandoned scraps. His scavenging helps to feed his family, but frustrates him, as it takes time away from the project he most wants to complete, a series of books about Islam, to “benefit all Muslims.”
Abu Ammar first appears in the film—which airs this week as part of Independent Lens—as he’s engaged in sort of metaphorical scavenging activity, watching TV. A news story affirms that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, recently reported dead, is in fact very much alive. The leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq appears in a videotaped message, proclaiming, “If the corrupt media was honest about the reality in Iraq, I swear you would be seeing our victory and bravery on the battlefield.” Ammar sits back into his sofa, then rises to go to work as his young son Abu Bakr waits for him in his truck. “Toot, toot, toot,” the boy calls out, contentedly anticipating his day on the road with dad.
Father and son spend long hours together (sometimes joined by Ammar’s other children), as Ammar makes and takes calls on his cell phone, plans his pickups. Interviewed by filmmaker Mahmoud al Massad as he drives, Ammar briefly describes his experience as a bodyguard for mujahadeen leaders, including, at one point, an Afghani prime minister. “Was it helpful in researching your book,” asks Massad from offscreen. “Did you discuss issues with them?” Ammar almost laughs out loud. “Of course not, man,” he says, “We were bodyguards. They’re leaders.” He pulls the truck over, briefly, so his older sons—Ammar, Ali al Azzam, and Izadein al Azzam—can jump out to pick up some cardboard.
As Ammar makes his way through this ordinary day, his past, especially his dedication to the theological frameworks that inspired some of the resistance to Western invasions, provides an instructive alternative to the legend of Zarqawi, who happens to come from the same town. As Ammar and his friends recover their own vague memories of the erstwhile Ahmad Fadie, they can’t quite recall whether he completed high school, or if he worked as a clerk at City Hall or on a bus. In any event, they agree, he was “an ordinary man, not even religious.” They nod. “We never even saw him at a mosque,” says one friend. “He just suddenly turned religious.”
Ammar, by contrast, is devout. When he’s not driving his truck or getting his truck repaired, he’s poring through the many quotations he’s accumulated on scraps of paper, bound up in sacks he keeps in a building that belongs to his father but is no longer in use. Late at night, he types into his computer, the screen reflected in his glasses, his expression intent. Though the film doesn’t reveal precisely what he’s writing, Ammar’s investment in it is clear. He sees the attacks of 9/11 as counterproductive; theologists, he says “would never allow it,” especially if they had known the consequences for Arabs and Muslims. His friend Ahmad Thaher Fayyad adds, “You know what Bush says? Sometimes he acts based on a direct message from God,” and the two men share a good laugh over this media tidbit.
Ammar repeatedly expresses his concern that Islam is used as a justification for violence, and hopes to rectify the problem with his own learned work. But first, he needs to get out from under his diurnal crush (he has several children and two wives; he accompanies the younger one, dressed in a burqa, to the clinic in order to learn why they are unable to conceive a child: she’s told that “stress and exhaustion can affect the balance of the hormones” and prescribed folic acid). To that end, he comes up with a couple of schemes, one a trip to Baghdad where he hopes to sell some 58 cars. “We ask God for success,” he says, “My situation will be great. I’ll quit this job and do something else.” But the trip is a bust: at a restaurant, he and his mechanic are presumed to be Wahhabis (Sunnis) by a group of Shiites, including men in “two army vehicles” who threaten to shoot them. “We didn’t want to take any more risks,” recounts the mechanic on their return to Jordan. “So we left everything and came back.” The mechanic smiles ruefully as he remembers their Catch 22: “If you escape the Americans, the Shiites will get you, and if you escape the Shiites, the Americans will get you.”
Ahmad Thaher Fayyad delineates their frustrations and the extremism it produces. “Let’s face it,” she says, “The solution to our problems lies in two things: the economic issue and democracy, freedom of speech. Anyone who can express himself can be part of the system, he won’t take a violent path and won’t face issues of violence. But if you are oppressed and can’t speak your mind, you turn to violence to express your ideas.” Though they see Zarqwi as ineffective, Ammar and his friends understand his rage.
Indeed, in November 2005, a series of coordinated bombings in Amman, for which Zarqawi claims responsibility, leads authorities to round up suspects. These include Ammar, who is sent to prison. On his release, he returns home, where he sits for long minutes, not speaking for the camera. At last, having sipped his tea and bitten off his protein bar, he looks directly into the lens and sighs. “Thank God I was found innocent and not guilty as charged.”
Near film’s end, Ammar decides that “It’s become difficult for me to be in this country.” He watches television again, this time George Bush’s declaration that U.S. forces have killed Zarqawi, the “most wanted terrorist in Iraq.” Now, the man’s legend will persist, despite and because of the stories his former acquaintances exchange. Hoping for a new start, Ammar leaves for Venezuela, praying that God will look after his family in his absence. As he stands on line at the airport and is patted down by security guards, his face remains enigmatic, as it has been through so much of Recycle. Discerning and detailed, the film conveys the daily impossibilities that shape Ammar’s life, the recycled disappointments and resulting despondency. Even as he embarks on his journey, he has nowhere to go.