Mother believes her firstborn son is no terrorist

N.Y. SUSPECT HAS SUPPORT FROM FAMILY

March 08, 1993|By Chris Hedges | Chris Hedges,New York Times News Service

ZARQA, Jordan -- In cramped, unheated rooms on the outskirts of Amman, the relatives of Mohammed A. Salameh, the man charged in the bombing of the World Trade Center, gathered and pondered the magnitude of the crime and the infamy that has befallen their name.

"He went to the United States to get a job and make money," said Aysha Salameh, his mother, as she clutched a damp tissue. "He went to make something of himself, to speak English, to study, to have a future. And now they say that he did all this, that he did this bomb. No, no, no."

The woman, besieged by neighbors and relatives who came to the home on a narrow dirt lane to express their support, stopped to gain her composure. As she pulled herself together, all that was heard in the small room, crowded with men of the Salameh clan, was the ticking of a wall clock and the soft clink of the prayer beads that slowly circulated between the men's calloused fingers.

"He was a gentle man," said a cousin, Ali Mohammed Salameh. "He would not commit such an act. He was not a person of violence."

Mohammed Salameh was arrested Thursday and charged with helping in the attack that killed at least five people.

Mohammed Salameh's childhood was, like that of many Palestinians of his generation, rudely interrupted by war. Israeli troops occupied Biddiya, his village on the West Bank, three months before he was born. His father, Amin Salameh, a lieutenant in the Jordanian army, packed his wife, five boys and six girls, and left with thousands of other Palestinians for Amman when the boy was 2 months old. The home and most of the possessions were left behind.

The infant did not know it, but he had become a refugee.

The family settled in the Palestinian slums here. The young Mohammed Salameh grew up amid a mass of concrete hovels and dirt streets, where many Palestinians still live piled one on top of the other. To supplement the army pension, his father took a job for an import clearing house. But the family always lived just a few steps away from poverty.

The squalid streets of Zarqa seemed a long way from the idyllic world of Palestine, or at least that version of Palestine that was dished out to children. A color photograph of the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim holy site in Jerusalem, hangs prominently in the living room, as it does in many households here.

Zarqa offers what vices Jordan can serve up: cheap hashish, a few weapons and a trade in stolen goods. But Jordanian authorities say that neither Mr. Salameh nor his family had any record of being involved in the criminal activity that is endemic in the country's third-largest city, a mining center.

The boy was not a good student and had trouble finishing school.

"He wanted to study law or engineering," his mother said. "But he was not accepted into these schools. He could only get into the Islamic law department at Jordan University, although he never finished his studies."

"He became pious and prayed a lot," said his brother Ahmed. "He stayed only with friends who were religious. He gave up everything else for religion. He grew a beard."

But the family, which does not run a strict Islamic household, insists he steered clear of radical religious groups.

"He used to spend a lot of time in mosques, listening to the clerics," said a cousin. "We could see he was becoming very religious, but he was not a fanatic."

His religion, his family says, was only an example of his piety.

"I go to prayers," his father said. "But that does not make me a fundamentalist."

When Mohammed Salameh was 19, he abandoned his studies and tried to find a job.

"He looked and looked, but there was nothing," his mother said.

Against his parents' objections, he went to the United States six years ago. It was the last time he saw any members of his immediate family.

New York apparently did not embrace the young Arab. He took a few menial jobs, but after four months he was was destitute, the family said. He turned, for the first and only time, to his one relative in New York, a doctor, and asked for a $400 loan. But his relative, who had emigrated to the United States 20 years before, turned him down.

The refusal to aid a member of the family, so foreign a concept in his native culture, seemed, according to his parents, to have steeled in him a hatred for the callousness of the society he had entered.

For a while he stocked shelves in a supermarket for less than minimum wage but was unexpectedly replaced, his mother said.

The young man seemed to begin drifting into a world his parents did not know. Jobs and addresses became vague. But nearly every month he called home. Small money orders intermittently reached the house.

"He sent us about $4,000 during all the time he was in the United States," his mother said. "I guess that's not much, but he tried so hard. He never asked us for anything. He always wanted to help."

The last phone call came in January. It was, the family said, the XTC usual brief exchange of pleasantries. In the conversation he mentioned a woman and there seemed in the air to be the prospect of marriage.

The next time his parents heard of their son, he was in the news.

In New York yesterday, explosives experts inched deeper into the huge, bombed-out cavern under the World Trade Center, searching for a still-missing worker and more clues about the explosion.

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