Small World

Jewish World Review /Feb. 10, 1999 / 24 Shevat, 5759

King Hussein Was Truly Gentle Man of Peace . . .

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

JOURNALISTS ARE SUPPOSED TO keep an impersonal distance from the people they write about, lest familiarity shade our reporting. It's a good rule; a little flattery has been known to lull the judgment of even veteran cynics among us.

But somehow, Jordan's King Hussein bin Talal was different. He had a gracious knack of putting you at ease, a regal talent to make you feel at once equal but decidedly in the presence of a king. He remembered faces and names. When he shook your hand, he'd grasp your arm. When he answered a reporter's question, he always said, "Sir."

You had to admire his tenacity and courage, even when you disagreed with his policies. He was, as one colleague once put it, "a good guy" a tireless leader who kept his artificially created nation alive through courage and cunning, a sovereign who won his countrymen's loyalty and affection through his fidelity to them, a husband and father who deeply loved his family and faith and a man who also enjoyed racing cars, flying planes and the presence of pretty women.

He was only a few years older than I am. And because I'd spent so much of my life and career in the Middle East, where his public presence was constant for nearly half a century, I sometimes felt as if, in a way, we'd grown up together. I once dared to mention this to him at a private dinner. He chuckled warmly and said, "Well, sir, I hope we are still both growing!"

Not long after the Gulf War ended, I was back in Amman to interview Hussein once more. It was not the best of times. Pressured by his poor country's economic dependence on Iraq not to mention his subjects' overwhelming support of Saddam Hussein the king had opted out of the U.S.-led alliance and vocally opposed military action against Iraq.

It cost him and his resource-poor desert kingdom dearly. Washington was furious with him, and the oil-rich Saudis had cut off all support. When I came to his hilltop palace at the appointed hour, Hussein was in a meeting. Ever hospitable, he stuck his head into the anteroom to apologize for the delay and make sure that someone brought me a sandwich.

When we eventually retired to a back porch at his adjoining private residence, he loosened his tie and over glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice looked back at the Gulf War. He tried to defend his role and gave his version of events. But he also looked forward. "With good will and calm, this region can still bloom," he said wistfully. "I only pray that something good will come out of all this violence."

It did. It helped trigger the true beginnings of Arab-Israeli peace, of which this great Arab leader was a major architect, publicly and secretly.

The last time I saw the king in person was in New York. He was being honored by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. The scene was wonderfully surrealistic: Hussein, his beautiful American-born wife, Queen Noor, and a sizable royal Jordanian party all surrounded by almost 1,000 American Jews. On the stage, two bands took turns playing. One traditional Arab music; the other, klezmer.

In his eloquent speech, he spoke once more of his devotion to bringing a lasting peace to Arabs and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims "all the Children of Abraham, all of our brothers."

It was one of his favorite themes the one Hussein invoked when he made peace with Israel, when he grieved at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, when he went on bended knee to visit families of Israeli girls murdered by a Jordanian assassin, when he heroically, but characteristically, got out of his sickbed last year to urge Israelis and Palestinians not to destroy their peace accord.

Now this great son of the desert is gone, and all the children of Abraham weep. We will sorely miss this brave brother of ours.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His book on the wartime plunder of the Jews, Pack of Thieves, will be published by Doubleday in 1999.


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