MORE

The King and I

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.

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."

 

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 décor 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 à la Roberto Benigni and clutched his heart. "Oh, thank goodness, madam! You have saved my job!"

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 pièce de résistance 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.

Finally it was time to go. As we walked to the door, the king asked if I’d send him a book on the interpretation of dreams we’d discussed earlier. "Sometimes it’s hard for me to shop," he said, then told me about an incident, on a trip to New York City, in which he’d expressed the desire to visit Abercrombie & Fitch. (The king was an avid sportsman.) But when he got there, security-minded American officials made everyone leave and filled the store with Secret Service agents. "I felt so badly for the sales people," he said. "I just bought the first thing I saw and left."

At the door the king kissed my hand solemnly and said, "I feel like I’ve known you forever." Good line, I thought. But it wasn’t a line, not really. It wasn’t any kind of pass. Hussein was a man looking for a friend.

The next day I was packing my bags when I got a call from Fouad Ayoub, the king’s press secretary, a lively Stanford-educated man with a fondness for Wittgenstein. "I understand you are leaving Jordan tomorrow," Ayoub said. "I am calling to tell you, His Majesty would like it very much if you would stay."

I panicked. "Oh, I couldn’t," I said. "I have a nonrefundable ticket."

"We could change your ticket," said Ayoub. Duh. Could I possibly sound any stupider? "Thank the king for his kindness," I blurted. "But I must return home." The truth was, I was unnerved by the sense that, if I didn’t leave, I might find myself somehow in over my head. Like I said, I was young.

In the decades between then and now, I’ve often

wondered if I should have grabbed the chance to know this extraordinary man better. In any case, five months after I left Jordan, I received an invitation to Hussein’s wedding to Lisa Halaby, the beautiful young American woman now rechristened Noor al-Hussein, light of Hussein. By that time, I’d written my article and put away all my notes and transcripts in fat file folders, where they remained for the next 20 years.

Three weeks ago, when the world knew for sure the king was dying, I pulled out the folders and read through page after page of Hussein’s words. Much of what he’d said was pegged to the events of the day, and had now lost its importance. Other things, when viewed through the lens of time, stood out in poignant relief.

For example, I’d asked him if he would ever want one of his sons to be king. He didn’t know, he said. "I’m not sure I would wish any of them such a burden."

At another point, I’d asked him my version of the Barbara Walters question (If-you-could-be-a-tree-what-kind-of-tree-would-you-be?): What would he do if a fairy godmother offered him a single wish? What would he ask for? "I’d like to feel that, after all these years," he said, "one has left something behind. A feeling that people will remember one well, that one would have contributed toward a better future, a more stable future. And peace, if possible. I would wish that all those involved will have the courage to take a gamble on peace. It’s the worthiest of gambles. That’s my dearest wish of all."

 

Back then, Hussein’s answer struck my editor as glib and politic. Looking at it now, I think the king was telling the truth. However absurdly anachronous his belief in his family’s divine right to rule, he held to the notion with a passionate and guileless sincerity, then bet the entirety of his life on the hope he could make it count for something good.

Like others, I watched the king’s funeral on CNN, fascinated by the panoply of new friends and old enemies who gathered to say goodbye: Assad, Arafat, the Americans, the Israelis — all those who had agreed and disagreed with him, those who’d actively tried to overthrow him. In the end, they honored him because, for all his mistakes, for all his victories, they understood he was kind, brave, full of heart, a decent man in an arena where such men are in far too short supply. And for that he’ll be remembered. By me. By everyone.


Sponsor Content