As we say in Arabic, these days are pregnant with events which invoke many memories to those who follow history like I do. Three events in the last century that shaped modern Jordan and the wider Middle East occurred in February and March and even though they may seem ancient, even irrelevant, to those of you outside the region, their impact is still felt and remembered, and should never be underestimated. Modern Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and many countries in the region were created in the aftermath of the First World War. The Hashemites, the clan who ruled the city of Mecca for almost a thousand years until the last century, played a decisive role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire. It is to this clan that the royal family of Jordan belongs. Indeed my country’s official title is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Just over 22 years ago, on Sunday, 7 February 1999, I travelled to Liverpool from London ahead of the course that I was due to run for 5 days, starting the next day. It was a heart-aching journey as I had just heard the news of the death of King Hussein of Jordan a few hours earlier. It was not that the news had come as a shock; tens of thousands of Jordanians had held a night vigil outside the hospital in Amman where the late king had spent his final hours. Rather, like many Jordanians, he was the only king I had ever known, having come to the throne in 1952. Less than 3 weeks earlier, on 19 January, the king had returned from his cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic in the USA to be welcomed by almost one million Jordanians. They lined the streets of Amman to cheer their king, believing that he was cured. However, as his condition worsened, he returned to the USA on 25 January, only to return to Jordan severely ill, prior to his death 13 days later.
The funeral was scheduled to take place the next day, Monday. It was painful for me to know that I was going to miss watching it. Instead a colleague and I would be spending the day training some 25 scientists in multi-cultural team building. That Sunday night and the next morning, the British media covered both the death of the king and the imminent funeral extensively, with lots of reports about Jordan, the king, and the legacy of his long reign. The course began with the usual introductions and warm-up exercises. Two things happened which will stay with me for the rest of my life.
First, we gave the delegates – half of them British, the rest a mix of Europeans, Indians, Chinese, North and South Americans - a questionnaire that explores the stereotypes that people have of various cultures, including the Arab culture. Having used this questionnaire with similar groups of scientists from the same company, it was a shock to hear this group speak so positively about the Arab culture, contrary to previous occasions. In fact, the Arab culture came through shining for the first and last time when doing this exercise. For me, it plainly showed how important the media is in shaping stereotypes. The delegates had been closely following the news from and about Jordan and this had moulded their view of the wider Arab culture. Yet it also showed how fickle such stereotypical views of another culture can be, even among those whose opinions one would expect to be evidence-based. When we repeated the same exercise with another group of scientists a month later, the Arab culture got the usual negative reception.
The second thing that happened was that a few of the scientists asked if we could all take time off to go and watch the king’s funeral. This was seconded by the rest, for which I was most grateful, and I was able to say goodbye to my King, albeit remotely, from my Liverpool hotel. The fact that the funeral was attended by so many world leaders, never before or since assembled in one place, is a testimony to the esteem in which King Hussein was held amongst the world’s politicians. As much as it is a sad day for Jordanians to commemorate, it is also a source of pride that our king won the respect of friends and foes alike. He is still fondly remembered by Jordanians of all ages, including those who never witnessed his reign. There were many times in the mid-70s and early 80s when I was asked in the UK where I came from. Whereas Jordan would not ring a bell for the majority, I would subsequently utter the magic words “King Hussein” and everyone would nod their heads in recognition. He was a man with great charisma, a king of hearts who ruled his kingdom for so long and against all odds amidst all the instabilities of the Middle East. Next month we Jordanians will celebrate the centenary of the birth of our kingdom. We have much to celebrate.
Whereas Jordanians remember 8 February as a day of mourning, our next-door neighbours in Iraq remember 9 February with mixed feelings. It was on that day in 1963 that Maj. Gen. Abd Al-Karim Qassim was executed, having mounted a bloody but successful coup 5 years earlier against the Hashemite King of Iraq, Faisal II, the second cousin of King Hussein. The coup on 14 July, 1958 came only a few months after a union was announced between the kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq. Some, including conspiracy theorists, believe that the coup was mounted to stop such a union. Whatever reasons Qassim and his associates had for overthrowing the Iraqi monarchy , the nature of its end remains fiercely debated by many Iraqis. Some say that the bloodiness of the coup – all but one member of the immediate royal family were eliminated mercilessly - left a curse on Iraq given that the royal family were Hashemites and hence direct descendants of the Prophet of Islam, Mohammed. Others though celebrate 14 July 1958 as the day that Iraq won its true independence from the British, irrespective of the bloody vicious circle in which Iraq has found itself since then, not least the events of 2003 with the downfall of Saddam Hussain.
Talking of the British and their involvement in the Middle East leads me to the third event which Jordanians recall at this time of year. Not a lot of people outside Jordan know that the Chief of Staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces until 1956 was a British soldier who is popularly known as Abu Hunaik (man with little jaw) by Jordanians but whose real name is Sir John Bagot Glubb or Glubb Pasha. The nickname Abu Hunaik refers to Sir John’s shattered jaw which he sustained while serving in France during the First World War, whereas Pasha was the Ottoman title given to senior ranks in the army and other forces. Having arrived in Jordan in 1930 following a 10-year stint in Iraq, Glubb Pasha went on to lead the Jordanian forces even after Jordan’s independence from Britain in 1946. To this day, Jordanians are divided on the role and contribution of Glubb Pasha in the building of the Jordanian Army and its defeat in the war of 1948 with Israel. As I write this article on 1 March, Jordanians are celebrating what we call “the Arabization of the Jordanian Army”. This was the day in 1956 when the services of Glubb Pasha and all his British advisors were terminated. This took place against a rising tide of Arab nationalism across the region and, amongst Jordanians, growing antagonism towards Britain, firstly as a colonial power and, just as importantly, for its role in the creation of the state of Israel. Whereas feelings against Glubb Pasha were high back in 1956, 65 years on they have mellowed and matured somewhat, giving the man credit for his integrity, his role in modern Jordan, and his lifetime commitment after he left Jordan to explain Arab peoples, cultures and history to an international audience. He was a true Arabist of the old school who from his retirement in 1956 till his death in 1986 wrote many books including his most famous: “A Soldier with the Arabs”.
A personal anecdote: my father, who served in the Jordanian Army, likes to tell the story of how Glubb Pasha once sent a letter in Arabic to the Jordanian Prime Minster of the time. It consisted of 18 pages. There was not a single grammatical or spelling mistake in it. Those of you who understand the central importance of the Arabic language to the Arabs will know why that story explains some of the admiration that many Jordanians still have for Glubb Pasha.