Why Memoirs Matter In The Arab Spring – Analysis


King Abdullah II of Jordan’s new book, Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril, is a captivating, educating and entertaining read, although it has gone by largely unnoticed in the Arab world.

Translated into Arabic and released in eight languages in February, the book failed to arouse even a stir in the Arab media, overshadowed no doubt by events in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Jordan itself. The book, however, is a milestone in modern Arab autobiographies, since rarely do Arab leaders write memoirs – at least, not while at the apex of their careers. The book was authored, it must be noted, before the Arab Spring began in Tunis last December.

The book concentrates, with little surprise, on Jordanian domestics, like reviving the economy, for example, through joining the World Trade Organization and signing a free-trade agreement with the United States. Political development since he assumed the throne in 1999, he admits, has been “two steps forward, one step back”.

When speaking of the Jordanian political class, he describes its figures saying: “Some have restricted change out of fear of losing privileges that they have long enjoyed, while others simply lacked imagination.”

The king goes into great detail about the personal trauma that besieged him and his family during the illness of his father, the late King Hussein, who died in February 1999.

Abdullah indulges his readers with plenty of trivia, like a close personal bond with his namesake, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who he first met while still a young man in the 1970s.

“I sat next to him at a dinner and remember reflecting on the fact that this man, almost 40 years older than me, and I shared the same name. He had been a crack shot and told me stories about putting out cigarettes with his pistol.” The Jordanian king adds that his Saudi counterpart “likes to watch the news while he eats, and it is a sign you are an honored guest if he feels relaxed enough in your company to host you in an informal setting with the TV on”.

More stories unfold throughout the book, like a secret meeting orchestrated by his father bringing Syria’s late president Hafez al-Assad face-to-face with his arch nemesis Saddam Hussein in al-Jafr, a remote desert village about 140 miles [225 kilometers] south of Amman. The meeting lasted for several hours “into the early hours of the morning”. Present at the meeting was the young Abdullah.

“My father took Saddam to one side and asked how it had gone. Saddam wearily said that he had spoken for no more than 15 minutes during the whole time. Relegating someone with Saddam’s massive ego, almost entirely to listening was not a good idea.”

The Jordanian royal family’s relations with Saddam remained cordial, added Abdullah, who gives an account of special mission to Baghdad in the summer of 1990, shortly after the invasion of Kuwait, where King Hussein tried convincing Saddam to withdraw before the US invasion.

“The Iraqi leadership was isolated from the wider world, and as can often be the case in dictatorships, nobody wanted to tell the leader that his ideas were faulty. So Saddam’s sons had a greatly overinflated – and unrealistic – perception of their military strength.”

He recalls Qusay, Saddam’s son, telling him, “Morale is very high; we want war.” Abdullah explains how “none of it made much sense and that he told Saddam’s sons, “I’m telling you, from what I learned in England, you guys don’t stand a chance.”

The king speaks of a “fishing trip” he underwent in the Anbar province in the 1980s, with Uday and Qusay, where they would drive into a lake by boat, with sticks of dynamite, rather than fishing rods, which they would throw into the waters, and then dive to collect all the dead fish.

King Abdullah speaks of a particularly interesting 1988 visit by Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery and George Lucas to Jordan where they filmed scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The king, who was then a young prince in the Jordanian army, took them on a rollercoaster ride in his helicopter.
In March 1984, the Queen of England Elizabeth II came to Jordan for a state visit. The prince was asked to serve as military equerry to the queen and her husband, Prince Philip. He had just graduated from Sandhurst Academy and served in the British army. “Due to security reasons my father also asked me to be the queen’s personal bodyguard. “If somebody fires at the queen” said Hussein, “you will put yourself in the way. And if it means losing your life to protect our guest, you bloody well do it. Otherwise, I will shoot you myself.”

Hussein stands out as a main character in Abdullah’s tale, who confesses that they bonded well, as father and son, military commander and subordinate, and as two friends. One night, Hussein took him along to a secret mission by boat, to Israel. Under cover of darkness the father and son boarded a small fishing boat and sailed across the Gulf of Aqaba into an Israeli harbor.

Hussein went into Israeli territory to speak to officials, while Abdullah was left in the dark, guarding the boat. Among the thoughts that went through his head was what would happen when everybody woke up to find a Jordanian prince in the middle of Israel, having ventured into the country illegally by night, accompanying none other than the king of Jordan.

The entire book, written in simple English, is an enjoyable read, telling volumes about the man behind – or beneath – the Jordanian crown. It sets the record straight for the 49-year-old monarch, shattering strong stereotypes of him on the Arab street.

Stereotype one is that the man is “alien” to Arabic society, particularly the Bedouin culture of Jordan, simply because he studied in the United Kingdom and has a British mother (and a British grandfather who happened to be a British officer).

Stereotype Two is that the king is a pawn of the Israelis, who takes orders from consecutive Israeli prime ministers. Although he mourns Israeli premiere Yitzhak Rabin, who was gunned down by an Israeli extremist in the mid-1990s, Abdullah shows no affection for present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and previous office holders Ehud Olmert or Ehud Barak. In one part he says, “Everyone in the region increasingly fears that we will soon be plagued by yet another devastating war. Israeli politics are mainly to blame for this gloomy reality.”

The king’s strategy in life, he says, is to replace “bombs and bullets with tourists and entrepreneurs”. The king comes across as a decent every-day man who likes to cook, is still heartbroken at losing a father, who loves his wife, Queen Rania, dearly.

One leak of courage is a chapter called “My Islam” where Abdullah gives his own version of jihad. Abdullah says: “Many associate this term with violence and war, yet jihad literary means ‘struggle’ and refers primarily to the internal struggle to better oneself. It is a struggle for self-improvement but a wider struggle to improve the lives of others around you.”

Victory in this jihad, he adds, is achieved by “many small triumphs throughout the day, some of which may be so small as to be almost invisible to others”. Those who claim to act in Islam’s name, he adds, in clear reference to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, are “just murders and thugs”.

What makes the book remarkable is that Arab leaders usually don’t write books, at least not while in office. In looking through Arab literature over the past 100 years, only a handful of titles carry the byline of an Arab leader. None of the six kings of Saudi Arabia, for example, left a written account of their careers, and nor did any of the 19 presidents of Syria or any of the rulers throughout the entire Gulf.

In Egypt it’s a little bit better, with two out of four presidents, Muhammad Najib and Anwar Sadat, having authored autobiographies. Gamal Abdul Nasser published the closest thing to a memoir, being a collection of thoughts into a semi-autobiography of his early years, called The Philosophy of Revolution.

Lebanon’s leaders are all prolific, with most of them having written autobiographies, and so were the two former dictators of Iraq and Libya, Saddam and Muammar Gaddafi. They not only wrote memoirs, but philosophical works as well, in addition to plays and entire novels.

Without doubt, however, the most seasoned in memoir writing are the kings of Jordan. King Hussein wrote numerous books in both Arabic and English, the first of which Uneasy Lies the Head was published in 1962. Its title came from Shakespeare’s famed phrase in Henry IV, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

There are memoirs attributed to his father King Talal published in the 1960s in the Egyptian periodical Rose al-Youssef, but many take these with a grain of salt, accusing Talal of being mentally unfit to pen a memoir. And finally, a two-volume memoir is signed off by Hussein’s grandfather, the founder of modern Jordan, King Abdullah I, after whom the current monarch is named.

Zein al-Abidin Bin Ali and Hosni Mubarak have plenty of free time to write their memoirs now. Perhaps, with the Arab Spring ripping through the Arab world, it would be advisable for other Arab leaders to do so, while they remain in office – to get their version of history out to the rest of the world – just as King Abdullah II has done.

This article appeared in Asia Times on October 19, 2011.

Sami Moubayed

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. He is also a writer, political analyst, and historian, based in Damascus. His articles on Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria appear regularly in The Daily Star, Asia Times, Al-Hayat, Gulf News, al-Ahram Weekly, and The Washington Post. He lectures frequently at the Assad National Library on the founding years of the Syrian Republic, in association with the Friends of Damascus Society and appears regularly on Syrian TV, Al-Jazeera, and BBC.

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