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Saturday, February 13, 1999 Published at 15:21 GMT

Desert king with a popular touch

Jordanians fear for the future without King Hussein

By former Jerusalem Correspondent Lyse Doucet

When it began, it began in the most orderly, restrained, indeed some said, the most British of ways.

Jordan's sorrow
A fleet of scarlet red jeeps swept through the highways of Amman, Jordanians in the hundreds of thousands lined the broad avenues under leaden skies, a dark and billowing ribbon of people: King Hussein's people.

Was it, I wondered, to be like the last televised royal funeral - silent, that thundering quiet that marked the passage of the cortege of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Would Jordanians, who for days had huddled in a chill, winter rain wailing and praying for a miracle, now hold their breath in the last sad farewell to their king.

[ image: Focus for a mass outpouring of grief]
Focus for a mass outpouring of grief
They didn't and the quiet was soon shattered. A human wave heaved and surged towards the passing coffin.

And why would they remain silent - a people who were never told speak only when spoken to by your king, or, if they were told by some courtier, most never listened; because for all that British public school and Sandhurst had put into this man, for all his noble bearing, his houses in London and Ascot, he was still a desert king, a man born to privilege with a popular touch.

The people's monarch

Most people who stood there on that day are said to have shaken his hand and more.

Over the past week so many personal stories of the Kings kindness were told and retold.

[ image: Friday prayers reflect on a week of traumatic change]
Friday prayers reflect on a week of traumatic change
The same stories told in the photographs of Jordan, framed in the elegant drawing rooms of Amman and the clutter of refugee shacks. Not the photographs of a stiff and formal king, they were snapshots or newspaper clippings.

Sometimes it was a baby's birth, a father's death, a chance meeting.

When I was invited with a group of journalists to have dinner with the King we were no different. We all wanted our picture taken with him as we left.

Even these weren't the perfect royal brand - I should know, I had to take them. Grateful you didn't have to coax this king to smile. He smiles at you from everywhere in Jordan.

Two of my favourite photographs hang in one of the capital's busiest pizzerias.

One has the King tucking into a big slice. In the frame next to it a dashing young man sits on the hood of his car - he'd raced in a rally and came second that day.

"Can you believe it," a Jordanian asked. "The King came second and state controlled television announced that he did."

Sport of kings

It was in fact one of the first expressions I learned in Arabic - mish mahoul - unbelievable. And there was much that was incredible about this king, and for this he was both loved and reviled.

[ image: Jordanians queue to pay their respects at the royal palace]
Jordanians queue to pay their respects at the royal palace
He was a daring sportsman, flying his own planes, racing his motorcycles, horses and cars. But the true sport of kings is politics and the King knew, in this contest, second wasn't good enough.

The price could be the death or your kingdom.

As world leaders filed past his coffin, draped with the flag of a nation imperial Britain created in desert sands, what were they thinking?

Yasser Arafat, who never trusted the ruthless monarch who crushed the Palestinians in Jordan in 1970; ex-president George Bush, who cursed the Arab who backed Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War.

His own brother, Prince Hassan, who only weeks ago was angrily sacked as Crown Prince in public, with the kind of rude rebuke from the King many Jordanian prime ministers have had to endure.

In public, they all said how polite, how nice he was. They meant it.

A rare peace-maker

Hussein of Jordan was a rare man, a rare peace-maker, an Arab leader who spoke of a better future for the sons and daughters of Abraham, including Israelis.

[ image: Many Jordanians felt they had lost a family member]
Many Jordanians felt they had lost a family member
A tone and hope far different from other Arab leaders, and even his own people. He left them behind too, hoping they would follow when he signed a peace deal in 1994, but they didn't.

Many cynically described this day as one when the vultures circled. The grief was genuine but so is the need for hard real-politic in a volatile region, still locked in a bitter conflict the King so wanted to end.

At the start of this century a British officer, Lawrence of Arabia, was asked to take the measure of Arab leaders who could help Britain defeat the Turks.

He was not impressed by Abdullah, King Hussein's grandfather and it took many decades for the British to come to value Hussein.

Now, as the century draws to a close it was the men from Washington who seemed to have come in force sizing up the sons of Hussein and whether they were up to the mark.

They stood together, including the new King Abdullah, his half brother, the new Crown Prince Hamzeh.

In their red and white checked Arab headresses, and black western suits, their family's unique heritage.

And on this day, in military tradition, the Bedouin honour guard marched with their rifles reversed. In Islamic tradition, their checked headscarves were turned inside out and in the best traditions of a king, his nation turned upside down in grief, fearful of a future where he now lives only in their frames.

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