Jordan's Hussein moved his nation

Citizens' affection for king was genuine

February 14, 1999|By S.M. KHALID

THE RECENT DEATH of King Hussein has led to widespread mourning in his beloved Jordan and evoked new concerns about stability in the Middle East, specifically the stalled Middle East peace process.

Unfortunately, in many Western capitals, King Hussein's historical importance has been either simplified through numerous personal anecdotes or diminished by a focus on his relationship with Jordan's powerful neighbor, Israel. Relatively little has been said about Hussein's public image in Jordan, his relationship with his subjects and his place in the Arab world. Evidence of King Hussein's legacy could be seen along the route marking the funeral procession.

On the rain-swept streets of Amman, Bedouins, Jordanians and Palestinians, whose past differences have threatened to tear the country apart, stood together and openly grieved for their fallen monarch. Many waved posters of King Hussein. They did so in a clean, increasingly modern city of 1.5 million people, which bears little resemblance to the hilly, dusty outpost of a few thousand souls where King Hussein was born 63 years ago. But just as he built Jordan with bricks, mortar and sweat, so, too, did he weave together a nation of different ethnic and religious threads.

``He [King Hussein] created the kingdom,'' said Hisham Shirabi, a prominent Palestinian scholar and former Georgetown University professor. ``He made it possible for a society with a definite identity. He provided Jordan with a modern bureaucracy, the best university in the Arab world. He created an economic system of free enterprise, with some welfare aspects. And, despite limited democracy and some retreat on reforms made, his rule was never tyrannical. He served as a father figure who provided security.''

Four years ago, during my first trip to Jordan, I was greeted almost immediately by the old adage: ``Hussein is Jordan, and Jordan is Hussein.'' I was naturally skeptical of this hackneyed phrase, which came to mind as I drove around Amman and saw the billboards depicting the smiling monarch. When I entered government buildings, hotels, cafes and restaurants, framed portraits of a smiling King Hussein stared down from doorways and walkways. I judged this all to be the same kind of personality cult that I had seen elsewhere in the Middle East. But I discovered that King Hussein's image in Jordan stands in stark contrast to many other Middle East leaders.

In more than a half-dozen capitals, the gratuitous color portraits of various heads of state were so huge and numerous that they had essentially become landmarks. This was a holdover from the era of the charismatic Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose face, voice and charm captured the imagination of the restive masses of the Arab world in the late 1950s and 1960s. He was the personification of Arab nationalism, the modern architect of what was known as the ``Arab project,'' by which Palestine would be liberated and the rest of the Arab world would be unified and redeemed.

When Nasser died in 1970, an estimated 6 million people attended his funeral in Cairo. Genuine grief swept not only the Middle East but much of the Third World. He was an authentic historical figure of the 20th century. While there will never be another Nasser, the cult of personality that he encouraged has been shamelessly copied by many leaders of lesser vision and stature.

Portraits of the king

As I spoke with Jordanians in the privacy of their homes, I noticed that many of them had portraits of King Hussein hanging from their walls and doorways or displayed in other prominent places. But they did this voluntarily, not in response to a directive from the local political boss or a member of the shadowy state security agency.

For all his flaws, King Hussein, like Nasser, was genuinely popular among a wide cross-section of his people.

King Hussein's reign spanned Jordan's transformation into a modern state, and he was the personification of this, growing from a boy-king to a wise, respected elder statesman. That is one reason why Bedouins, Jordanians and many members of the Palestinian expatriate majority hung portraits of the monarch in their homes; they held King Hussein in their hearts.

At some point in almost every conversation I had, Jordanians from all walks of life would proudly tell me about their face-to-face meetings with King Hussein. Others would tell me about personal acts of kindness by the monarch, such as picking up stranded motorists along desert roads or paying medical expenses for a sick child.

Despite being the target of numerous assassination attempts, King Hussein insisted on mixing freely with his people, ignoring safety concerns by making impromptu public appearances. Although he ruled by decree for much of his reign, he cultivated his constituents to such a degree that many average Jordanians considered that they had a personal relationship with him.

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