By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
At one point, I asked who knew him best. "No one," he replied. "People know various sides of me. But with the big problems, big decisions, one can’t show weakness. One can’t share one’s inner feelings as a human being. I was able to do that with Alya, but behind her, it hasn’t been possible. People don’t really want you to be human. It worries them."
Hekmat had told me I could have 20 minutes at most with the king. Yet, after more than an hour of talking, I was the one to bring the interview to a close. On my way out the door, I asked one last question. "If I wanted to see the real you, Your Majesty," I asked him, "how would I do so?"
"Well," he said, "I suppose I am truly myself flying my plane. And when I’m out in the villages with ordinary people. Let me think about it. I will arrange something." By the time I reached the Intercontinental there was a message waiting. I was invited to dinner at the Palace the following Monday. I actually skipped around my hotel room. "I’m going to dinner with the king!" I sang ridiculously. I couldn’t believe my good luck.
On the days in between, I wandered around Amman and down to the Dead Sea, talking to ordinary Jordanians about the man with his face on the money. I noticed that most had multiple pictures of Hussein on the walls of their homes and offices. And these were not just official photos, but snapshots and posters like teenagers might put up of a favorite movie star. Given a modicum of encouragement, everyone was willing to whisper some sworn-to-be-true bit of gossip about His Majesty, about the newest plots against him, the affairs he’d had with this woman or that. Each Jordanian I encountered, even those who were critical of him, talked about the king as if he were more than mortal.
The Palace was about 10 miles outside of Amman. A taciturn Jordanian army sergeant fetched me from the hotel in a dark Mercedes, and we drove in total silence past two separate sets of guarded iron gates, each bearing the unmistakable gold crown. The king’s residence was a two-story modern stone structure the color of sand, its architecture a hybrid of desert-fortress Bauhaus and ’70s Southern California ranch-style, the kind of house that Rod Stewart or some other rock star of the era might lease when recording in Los Angeles.
When I arrived, the king was in the upstairs living quarters dressed in a short-sleeved plaid shirt and casual slacks, losing a game of Ping-Pong to his children’s American nanny. When he greeted me, he urged me to drop the formality of Majesty. "Please," he said, "call me Hussein. It’s my name, after all!" The interior d√©cor was beige on beige and completely forgettable. Jehan Sadat’s parlor had been furnished with exquisite antiques and treasures from all over the world, but in those pre-Noor days, Hussein’s furniture looked as if it had all been bought in 15 minutes from a high-end mail-order catalog. The only items of note were the big color photos of the king’s eight kids that graced nearly every wall, most taken by Hussein.
Hussein was a small, sturdy man, just 5 feet 4 inches, with an overlarge head and a mouth that took up much of his face. He was not classically handsome, but a cute guy by any woman’s standards. He was charismatic, impassioned. He’d been a thrill seeker as a young man. But now he compelled one’s attention in a gentler manner.
"Do you want to see what is most precious to me?" he asked once the nanny was gone. I nodded and followed him. He led me to the nursery, the wing of the house where his three youngest children slept. The door of each child’s room was propped open by floppy-eared stuffed animals, "in case they cry," he said. "Sometimes when I can’t sleep I come in here and watch them." He spoke also of his older children. Abdullah, who two decades later would be crowned king, was then 16 and away at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. "He’s a fine son," said Hussein. "We are very close. I am trying to decide what to get him for his birthday." He admitted he was closest to the "babies," as he called them, who then ranged in age from 2 to 5. As he took me from room to room, he lingered over each sleeping form, breathing in the musty-sweet child smell as if for reassurance.
Back in the living room, he motioned me to a large plate-glass window. It was a clear night, and the silhouettes of dark, dry hills looked like the backs of whales, beached and sleeping. "That’s Jerusalem," he said, pointing to clusters of lights beyond the hills. "We are exactly 27 kilometers away. Just within their artillery range."
The two place settings looked lost on the huge dining table. Hussein moved a vase filled with four dozen long-stemmed roses the color of persimmons out of the way so we could talk without obstruction. He was dieting under doctor’s orders and wasn’t at all happy with the Pritikin-type menu to which he was confined. The cook presented each low-fat course with slapstick drama, hovering nearby to watch the king’s reaction with mock terror. Hussein acted as straight man and groaned mournfully as he poked at each new item on the crested royal plates. When I pronounced a sauceless vegetable dish delicious, the cook smiled √† la Roberto Benigni and clutched his heart. "Oh, thank goodness, madam! You have saved my job!"
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