book reviewBy Martyn Drakard
Book: Lion of Jordan
Author: Avi Shlaim
Publisher: Vintage Books, 2009
Volume: 723 Pages
Cost: Shs 65,000
Available from Aristoc. In his book on the life of King Hussein of Jordan, Avi Shlaim explores the four main circles of Hussein's foreign policy: Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world and the great powers. The first part covers the colonial context for the emergence of modern Jordan, the legacy of the Hashemites (the Jordanian royal line); Hussein's childhood (his education in Egypt and Britain); the making of a king and the early years of his reign.
But the bulk of the book deals with the period after 1967, and especially Hussein's efforts to recover the West Bank and East Jerusalem, lost during the Six Days War. The book contains information not currently available on a crucial aspect of the diplomacy surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. It challenges the conventional view that Israel faced a monolithic hostile Arab world and the related myth of Arab intransigence.
Hussein's influence in regional affairs was much greater than might be expected from the ruler of an impecunious desert kingdom. And against all odds, he remained on the Hashemite throne for 46 years, until his death from natural causes in 1999. The king gave the author an interview on the most sensitive of subjects: his clandestine relationship with Israel.
His biggest problem was the question of Palestine and the Palestinians. Palestinian refugees made up about a half of Jordan's population. In the 1948 war for Palestine, the losers were the Palestinians. The state of Israel was established; Jordan occupied and later annexed the West Bank and the Palestinians were left out in the cold. Abdullah, Hussein's grandfather, absorbed many into his enlarged kingdom but never earned their loyalty.
They wanted their own independent state. To make the point, King Abdullah was assassinated in a mosque by a Palestinian youth. Hussein the man was of slight build but powerful personality and immense political stature, earning him the title "Lion of Jordan". Born in 1953, he took over the throne from his ailing father when seventeen years old. He reigned through the turmoil and violence of some of the most challenging years of the history of the Middle East, managing to emerge as one of the major players.
More a pragmatist than an ideologue, his aims were to make Jordan stable and a leading player in Middle East politics, and to help solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The first aim he achieved; the second has been surrounded by controversy. His critics found him too accommodating to Israel. His personal life was touched by misfortune; his third wife died in a helicopter crash.
Two previous marriages had ended in divorce; the second wife, Princess Muna, had tried to create a home atmosphere in the palace but it didn't work out. His fourth marriage, to an American of Arab-American descent, was very happy and they lived together for twenty-one years, until he died of cancer. Britain showed their respect for him with a memorial service in St Paul's Cathedral in London: a Christian service for a Muslim "of extraordinary dignity and exceptional modesty."