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The King and I 

Lasting impressions from an audience with Jordan’s Hussein

Wednesday, Feb 17 1999
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Photo: AP/Wide World

In February of 1978, almost exactly 21 years ago, I went to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with the notion of meeting with the king. It was a heady time in the Middle East. Anwar Sadat had just made his historic trip to Jerusalem, and the rest of the Arab world was furious. Print and electronic press from all over the world were camped in Amman, hoping to ask Hussein, the moderate, for his opinion.

I’d been in Egypt to interview Sadat’s wife for an American news syndicate and figured that, as long as I was in the neighborhood, I’d try to get Hussein on tape as well. Never mind that he was refusing almost all interview requests. I was young and full of naive confidence.

Besides, I’d worked out a trick. In my last meeting with Jehan Sadat, I told her I was planning to see Hussein. (I didn’t mention that he had no plans to see me.) Was there anything, I inquired, that she’d like me to ask him? Mme. Sadat graciously took the bait and gave me the same question that was on everybody else’s mind: Why hadn’t he gone with her husband to Israel? Not exactly an earth-shattering inquiry, but it gave me a tool.

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Amman was crowded with businessmen normally head-quartered in Beirut who moved operations temporarily to Jordan whenever fighting in Lebanon made commerce impossible. Clumps of them littered the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, tying up every available international phone line. I checked in and made my way to the closest Palace press office, which happened to be located in the hotel. There I informed Ahmed, a first-tier, flak-catcher press officer with an ingratiating, gold-toothed smile, that I wished to interview the king. Ahmed looked bored. I told him about the Mme. Sadat question; he blinked, picked up a nearby phone and dialed the Palace.

In the next hour I received calls from a succession of court officials, each higher on the food chain than the next. Finally I was told where to show up for a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Hekmat, a European-looking fellow in a Saint Laurent suit who, it seems, was the Jordanian equivalent of Sidney Blumenthal. "I just met with Jehan Sadat, and she gave me a question to ask His Majesty," I told Mr. Hekmat. "It’s not a terribly important question," I assured him honestly, "but I’d like an opportunity to ask him if this is at all possible."

He cajoled me suavely to tell him the question, so that he might ask His Majesty and get back to me. "Oh no," I said. "It’s very important that I ask the king myself. I want him to answer the question spontaneously." Hekmat persisted. "I’m sure the king would still be very spontaneous when you ask him again. Very spontaneous." I held my ground. I must ask His Majesty in person or not at all, I said.

Astonishingly, it worked. A crew from German television had been languishing in the capital city for weeks without so much as a glimpse of Hussein. Yet, within an hour after leaving Mr. Hekmat, I received word that an audience had been arranged.

King Hussein was waiting in one of the large, frugally decorated offices he kept at the limestone royal court building. I extended my hand, hoping that a handshake was not some horrific violation of royal protocol, and was relieved when the king reached back. However, instead of shaking my hand, he kissed it gallantly, then motioned me to one of the big, soft easy chairs in the corner of the room. Then, at a glance from the king, Mr. Hekmat nodded and withdrew.

The only person who did not seem beside himself with curiosity about my now-infamous question was King Hussein himself. I asked it. He answered it. ("When President Sadat took his initiative, he didn’t ask us for our opinion. It seemed that he was willing to take all the responsibility himself . . .") After that, he was content to submit to most any question I had, as if these minutes with me offered a welcome respite from an otherwise troublesome week.

It should be noted here that Hussein was, at the time, between wives. Alya, his third wife, a stunning Palestinian woman with dark-blond hair, had been killed the February before in a helicopter accident. And he was still a few months away from his first date with Queen Noor, née Lisa Halaby. When I met him, the king was a very lonely guy.

Perhaps that’s why, although he responded to my political inquiries with predictable caution, whenever the conversation veered back to the personal he was relaxed and happy to chat. He said he didn’t expect to fall in love again. "I feel I’m so full of scars and — I’m getting on in life. I feel I wouldn’t like to burden anyone with me and my problems, after all that has happened. These 42 very full years sometimes seem like many more than 42." He sighed. "Although I feel the gap there very much indeed."

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