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By LA Weekly
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The king interrupted the fish course to turn on the Sony portable in the dining room in time to catch the evening news that was broadcast in English at 10 p.m. It was an Israeli broadcast of American network news coverage of a meeting between then-President Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat. "More American good intentions," Hussein muttered, staring at the screen with intensely focused attention. "God help us." The fact that Hussein relied on the thrice-removed news for any kind of real information struck me as both ironic and eerie. It was like a child’s game of "telephone" played on a grand scale.
After dinner we sat cross-legged on the floor of the living room and talked about books, rock & roll, and what it was like to be a king in a world where kings were out of fashion. "I think maybe I could have won quite a few elections in my time without much difficulty," he said. "Maybe then one’s image outside might have been different. If you are a monarch there’s a mark against you, at times."
By the time I met him, Hussein had survived more assassination attempts than any other head of state in recent memory, starting at age 15 when he saw his grandfather, King Abdullah (for whom the new King Abdullah is the namesake), shot dead at close range. Hussein was two paces behind when the assassin pointed a revolver at his grandfather’s right ear and pulled the trigger. The boy lunged at the man, who then raised his gun and fired again, this time at Hussein’s chest. The bullet struck a medal pinned to his uniform at an angle and ricocheted harmlessly away.
The most famous attempt was the time, in 1958, when two Syrian MiG-17 fighters tried to force Hussein’s Dove to crash but the king outmaneuvered his attackers. Another would-be assassin worked in the royal kitchen, where he tried poison dosages on the palace cats. When cat number three turned up dead, Hussein’s guards got suspicious. Still another enemy placed acid in the king’s nose drops, a plot that was discovered only by chance as errant drops caused the royal bathroom sink to sizzle.
When I asked the king about the myriad attempts on his life, he shrugged. "I’m rarely frightened at the time," he said. "Only later. It helps that I’m a fatalist. I know when my time comes, that’s it. Nothing is going to prevent it. Without that attitude, one can’t go on." He grew thoughtful. "Sometimes I don’t like myself very much," he said. "But I’ve tried my best. I’ve never considered being a king as being anything exceptional. I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’ve considered myself an ordinary person. The minute I think I’m anything above that, it’s the end of my usefulness to myself or to anyone."
Hussein was quiet for a while. "I believe we go through stages in our life," he said when he spoke again. "An idealistic state when we are young and we still have our hopes, our illusions. A realistic stage when life has taught us to be a bit more cynical. And then perhaps there is a third stage where one finds peace with oneself. I’m at stage two," he said. "Perhaps one day I will reach the third stage. I hope so."
It was nearly midnight, and the king looked tired. But then, all at once, he brightened. "Have you been having any trouble getting through to anyone back in the States?" I could see a certain answer was expected here. I just wasn’t sure what it was. "Uh, I have been having a bit of trouble." Hussein’s expression bloomed into a conspiratorial smile.
"Follow me," he said, and padded off down a hallway. We passed through his sleeping quarters and study, into the small, stark radio room where he kept every high-tech, gee-whiz communications gadget the pre-PC computer age could offer. The pi√®ce de r√©sistance was a ship-to-shore phone. Hussein touched the black box-shaped device lovingly. "You can dial anywhere in the world direct without going through the overseas operator," he said. "I’m not really supposed to have one," he added. "One is only supposed to have them on boats." I considered telling him that he’s the king and can have anything he damn pleases, but I thought better of it. "All right, give me the number you would like to call and I will dial it for you." He was playing magician, and the little black box was his magic rabbit.
Whom does one call in such a circumstance? I settled on my best friend, Janet, who, with the time difference, I deduced would be at work. Once the connection was made, the king retired discreetly to the next room. "Where are you?!" yelled Janet into the line. "Um . . . I’m at the Palace in Amman having dinner with my friend Hussein," I replied idiotically. I was pretty sure he was listening.
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