A FAMILY'S LEGEND:
THE KING AND DAD
Jordan's Hussein Presented An Alternate Self-Image:
A Way Of Being Arab That Was Acceptable To The West
In the photograph, they stand eye to eye, two men in crisp uniforms. On second glance, it's clear that they aren't exactly level, as my father is stooping ever so slightly to try to accommodate the famously short king as he pins the wings to my father's chest. Both are pilots, military men, and both look terribly young in that old picture, tucked away somewhere today in Syracuse, N.Y., along with many treasured memories.
I grew up in America; Jordan was a puzzle of identities to me. Friends and family had a variety of opinions on our ancestry. I was told that our family was Bedouin, tribal, Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, but when you asked Dad, he'd say, fiercely proud, "We're Jordanian, like King Hussein!"
Dad flew in the king's air force before he emigrated to America. For us, King Hussein was the very stuff of myths: glamorous, handsome, debonair. Dad regaled us with stories about Hussein's daring, his horses, his motorcycles, his love of speed and danger. My father was also the king's fencing partner. When I asked him who the better fencer was, Dad laughed and said, "My dear, the king always wins!" And unlike the British monarchy, which seemed to be installed as professional spectacle and celebrity, the Jordanian monarch also ruled, providing a symbol of unified identity to a region beset by warring cultures and loyalties. The amount of devotion inspired by this king can be hard for Americans to fathom. I was living in Jordan a few years ago, a period that coincided with Hussein's 60th birthday. For a month, the media were flooded with tributes -- parades in the king's honor, musical performances by entire school systems. The Jordanian air force flew in formation every day for weeks. At the supermarket I was handed a flag that said in Arabic: "I (heart) King Hussein!"
But Jordan is a small country, extended beyond its means by a tremendous influx of Palestinian refugees since the creation of Israel in 1948. People murmured about the lavish spending of the royalty. The king's many castles, his fleet of expensive cars and his extravagant parties seemed at times gruesomely wasteful to many Jordanians barely eking out a subsistence living. His close ties to the West and his involvement with the peace process were considered great achievements by some Arabs, dubious activities by others.
Still, away from Jordan's daily realities, the king's image was unassailable in my father's mind. Dad's struggle to establish himself in the New World was arduous, as immigrant struggles usually are. But the unusually keen edge of anti-Arab racism was inescapable here. Dad endured all manner of slurs and racist insults, and he was often blocked from promotions at work. King Hussein presented us not only with the sweet dream of an alternate existence but also with an alternate self-image: a way of being Arab that was acceptable to the West. He was suave, articulate and urbane. A modern man, perfectly poised, it seemed, on the political dividing line between East and West.
My father identified with King Hussein's Westernized image and Jordanian nationalism. Perhaps it was my father's curse to be born with a regal sense of pride. I'd always counted myself lucky not to have inherited his romance of the past. Such deeply bred nostalgia is more than mere longing, it is transformative, a part of the soul. But like him this week, upon hearing of the good king's death, I felt grief open inside me like a hand. I knew at that moment that I was just as in love with that romance of history as my father.
Important as it is to inhabit the present, I think, it's our private mythologies that give life its savor. For my family, King Hussein occupied not only our hearts, but our imaginations as well.
By DIANA ABU-JABER
a novelist of
Visit the office of King Hussein