Mutual Affection Tied Sovereign to Subjects
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 8, 1999; Page A15
AMMAN, Jordan, Feb. 7 – On the world stage, he was known as a peacemaker. But at home, the tears flowing for King Hussein on the streets of Jordan's capital today could best be understood through the testimony of Mohammed Farit Shami, a builder from Zarqa whose loyalty to the monarch was cemented 19 years ago.
It was then that he appealed to the palace on behalf of his brother, whose 8-year-old son was suffering from cancer. The family couldn't afford the medical treatment.
King Hussein could.
"We tried all sorts of things to cure him," Shami said, as he stood vigil at the hospital where Hussein slowly drifted into death over the last three days. "We went to the palace, and they treated him at their own expense. . . . King Hussein went into history through its biggest door."
If Hussein was a larger-than-life figure to much of the outside world, his ties to Jordanians came more from that sort of day-to-day compassion and connection than from the grand diplomatic gestures for which he was known abroad.
He saw his grandfather assassinated and survived numerous plots on his own life, yet he never shied away from plunging into crowds. When he prepared to return here from cancer treatment in the United States three weeks ago, he cautioned Jordanians to leave their weapons at home. He wasn't worried about being shot. He was worried that celebratory volleys fired into the air would fall back to earth and hurt someone. He trusted his people that much.
"He was sincere," said Daoud Hanania, a lifelong friend and Jordan's former surgeon general. "Therein lay his grip on the country. It derived from his love of people. . . . He gave the country a benevolent type of rule."
Such was his connection to ordinary Jordanians that most seemed willing to forgive him even when he did things they did not like, such as pursuing a "warm peace" with Israel after signing a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1994.
Viewed from one perspective, the king's long reign was a masterpiece of ward politics. He sat atop a palace operation renowned for its ability to field requests from shepherds and poor urbanites, Palestinian refugees and powerful officials alike. The elaborate patronage system smacked of corruption to some critics, but the palace "handout system," as one local analyst called it, also enhanced the social contract between Hussein and his subjects. It gave all Jordanians a sense that their needs for medical care or jobs or education were important enough for a king to care about.
In his recent biography of the monarch, journalist Roland Dallas cites as the quintessential Hussein moment an incident in which the king was approached for money by a woman on the streets of Amman. Short of cash, he gave her his watch.
The king could resort to harsh methods when he had to, as when he crushed Palestinian guerrillas during the Black September uprising of 1970. But he also made Palestinian refugees feel welcome as Jordanian citizens. "He gave us a passport and an I.D. that are identical to everyone's – no distinctions," said one man as he proudly displayed the documents. "The king told us we are a country of immigrants; we all have the same weight."
Hanania, the former surgeon general, said he witnessed Hussein's humanity at work throughout his medical career. For a young girl whose arm was severed in a boating accident, the king ensured that she had the best physicians, and he telephoned each day to check on her condition.
For the pilot of a military helicopter that went down in flames, the king visited the hospital every day while the young man recovered from burns.
For the victims of the crash of a Royal Jordanian airliner as they were flown home to Amman, the king was on hand to help care for them as quickly as possible.
"We went up to the airport, and he participated physically in unloading the patients," Hanania said. When he took an interest in a person, "he would call . . . and call, again and again."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company