Alice Su

In Jordan a family mourns as a nation erupts

Those close to airman killed by ISIL become national symbols as country debates its next moves in conflict

KARAK, Jordan — Ansam al-Kassasbeh looks like her brother Moaz al-Kassasbeh. She has the same hazel-brown eyes and soft mouth as the Jordanian pilot, whose face has appeared on posters and broadcasts all over Jordan since the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) released a video of his killing on Tuesday.

Ansam last saw Moaz on a Sunday in December, not long before he was shot down over Raqqa, Syria, on Dec. 24. Ansam, 22, had just graduated from college, and her older brother had taken her chocolate cake in celebration. The next time she saw his face, it was in a YouTube video that showed him being burned alive in a cage.

On Thursday all of Jordan seemed to have flocked to Ansam’s hometown of Luwa’ay, a small town nestled in a hilly, green area of southern Jordan’s Karak governorate, on the outskirts of the city of Karak. His death has put the city at the center of a national debate in Jordan over the country's role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL. Middle East experts wonder if his death will lead Jordan to reduce its involvement, as critics of the war have called for, or up the ante against ISIL.

Luwa’ay seems an unlikely place to spark such controversy. Almost all its residents belong to the Bararsheh tribe, a clan with seven subtribes, including the Kassasbehs. “It’s a poor area, but the tribes have good connections,” said Laith al-Takhaineh, a local journalist. The land wasn’t good for much except olives, he explained, so most men went to the military as a source of income. They made starting salaries of about 300 Jordanian dinars ($422) a month, but many have risen to important positions in Jordan’s security forces and government.

Until recently, Luwa’ay didn’t get many visitors unless they had family in the town. But last week the roads were filled, police guarding street corners as visitors from across the country poured in for Moaz’s azaa, three days of traditional public mourning. On the second day, rows of men filled a white Bedouin tent, sprawling over the same space where Moaz had his wedding six months ago.

‘Let us be martyrs too’

Jordan’s King Abdullah, second from right, with Safi al-Kassasbeh, second from left, the father of slain pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh.
AFP / Getty Images

King Abdullah arrived, embracing and sitting next to Moaz’s father, Safi al-Kassasbeh. “Moaz held to his true religion and understood humanity,” Safi said. He paused as planes roared overhead, flying back from bombing ISIL-held territory in Syria. “Those are Moaz’s comrades,” one Kassasbeh uncle murmured, eyes welling with tears. Men in the crowd cheered, “Long live the king — live, live, live.” As Abdullah left, several youths pushed toward the front, waving brown envelopes and asking to join the military. “Let us be martyrs too,” they yelled. “We will give our lives.”

But Ansam stayed at home. She sat on the floor with Moaz’s wife, Anwar Tarawneh, who had just returned from the hospital. They became sisters-in-law in July, with weddings one week apart. ISIL had meant nothing to them then, Anwar said.

“We thought Daesh was a joke, just a bunch of guys with beards and video cameras. We didn’t even know if it was real,” Anwar, 26, said, referring to ISIL by its Arabic acronym. When Jordan joined the U.S.-led coalition against the group in August, Moaz began to pray that his bombs would not kill innocent Muslims, Anwar said. “Now I wish we’d hit them,” she said, referring to ISIL fighters.

Ansam remembered when she saw the video of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto’s beheading, which was released on Jan. 30. She sent Moaz a WhatsApp message as she had every morning since he was captured. “Did you see the beheading, Ma’ozeh?” calling her brother by a nickname. “Do you think it’s real?”

The Japanese man haunted Ansam’s imagination. She said she screamed once when her husband touched her from behind, imagining he was Goto’s headless corpse. When she opened her kitchen cupboard in the morning, she saw Goto’s head in her cooking pot. At night, she whispered to her husband, “I feel like Moaz’s head is under our bed.” He told her to go to sleep and not to worry. Soon Moaz would return home.

“We were all sure Moaz would come back,” said 43-year-old Mazen al-Kassasbeh, an English teacher and a second cousin of the pilot. The people of Luwa’ay were angry when Moaz was shot down, Mazen said, but at the king and the anti-ISIL coalition — not at ISIL. “Everyone was against the coalition because it felt like we were fighting for no reason. We didn’t know what Daesh was. We just heard they were Muslims.” The tribe was so sure ISIL would release Moaz that they began building an arch to welcome him on his return. Ansam bought a new red dress. She was going to wear it when her brother arrived and when the two couples went on vacation to Sharm el-Sheikh, a touristic city in Egypt, which they had planned for June.

‘To defend our kingdom’

When the immolation video came out, youths in the small city of Karak burned tires in the street, chanting for the execution of Sajida al-Rishawi, a woman jailed in Jordan for her role in a triple hotel bombing in the capital, Amman, in 2005 that killed dozens of people. Moaz’s wife and mother collapsed and were taken to the hospital. Jordanians flooded Twitter, Facebook, TV and radio overnight with expressions of grief and demands for revenge. Jordan swiftly executed Rishawi and a second prisoner said to have links to Al-Qaeda and sent dozens of airstrikes over Syria and Iraq. Thousands gathered in downtown Amman on Friday, waving Jordanian flags and posters of Moaz. They prayed for the pilot and marched, chanting, “Death to Daesh” and “Baghdadi, wait, wait, King Abdullah has dug your grave,” referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader.

Moaz’s death was an attack on his religion, nation and tribe, Mazen said. “I am a Muslim first, then a Jordanian, then a son of Kassasbeh,” he said. Jordan would fight against ISIL as one, he insisted. Others in the family agreed. “We don’t believe in the coalition for its own sake. We believe in our own principles, which are to defend our kingdom,” said Abdelkarim Kassasbeh, a 78-year-old uncle. “This is Jordan’s message — God, nation, king.”

But the events of the past week have so traumatized some of Moaz’s close family that they are seemingly in denial of what happened.

Ansam shook her head. “If he is dead,” she said, “if — and I don’t think he is. I feel that he hasn’t.”


Anwar Tarawneh, Kassasbeh’s widow.
Khalil Mazraawi / AFP / Getty Images

“Right?” Anwar exclaimed. “I feel it too. I feel he’s still alive.” The two women reminisced: Moaz used to bake cakes with them at home. He taught Ansam how to make the traditional Jordanian dishes maqlubeh and mansaf. Anwar didn’t know how to cook; Moaz always prepared food for guests, but they pretended Anwar was the chef.

“We were so close, our siblings were jealous of us,” Ansam said. Their mother called them Siamese twins. “He used to put his head in my lap, and I’d play with his hair until he fell asleep,” Ansam said, and Anwar laughed. “Me too. Honestly, he’s like a little kid. He’d want me to scratch his head for five minutes so he could sleep.”

Ansam said she always called him by the nickname Ma’ozeh, not Moaz. Anwar said she called him qalbush (close to her heart).

The women were interrupted as azaa attendees gave them lunch: five heaping plates of lamb and hot yogurt on top of rice and almonds, covered in thin bread typical of Karak. Anwar looked at it and burst into tears. “He used to say, ‘After I die, you’ll have azaa for three days, then eat mansaf every day and forget me,’” she said. “I won’t touch it.”

Outside, Migdad al-Kassasbeh, 23, a cousin, watched azaa visitors finish their meals and go. He and Moaz grew up going to the mosque together. The people of Luwa’ay had just wanted Moaz to return home, he said.

“Now we need this country to stay safe and for people to be peaceful. Even the killers — I pray that God will guide them to the straight path,” he said. That’s what Moaz would have wanted, Migdad said, before the roar of another fighter jet cut him off. He watched it swoop low overhead.

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