An Excerpt of 'Other People's Houses' by Hilary McPhee
In Other People's Houses publishing legend Hilary McPhee exchanges one hemisphere for another. Fleeing the aftermath of a failed marriage, she embarks on a writing project in the Middle East, for a member of the Hashemite royal family, a man she greatly respects. Here she finds herself faced with different kinds of exile, new kinds of banishment. In this excerpt McPhee recounts her first few days in Jordan.
Forty-eight hours later, I was in Jordan.
Instead of reading Queen Noor’s life story, I had spent the long wait in the first-class lounge for the connection north from Dubai engrossed in Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, published by Faber in 1991. Born in Manchester to immigrant parents from South Lebanon, Hourani is still credited with training more Middle East historians at Magdalen and St Antony’s College, Oxford, than has any other historian at the university. The book’s maps, twelve of them, were badly printed in my paperback edition but oozed a serious erudition that added to my anxiety. The expansion of the Islamic Empire from Spain to the Sudan and Ethiopia, and north to the shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian, from the seventh century; the eleventh-century Umayyad caliphate; the Ottoman Empire from the sixteenth century, to the Mandates after World War I, culminating in the partitioning of Palestine from 1937—the Arab world was like some vast mosaic I would never grasp.
I knew no Arabic and my phrase book from Daunt’s was printed in Egypt, where, I now gathered, the words and pronuciation were very different from the Arabic of the Palestinians, Chechens, Armenians, Circassians and Bedouins who inhabited Jordan. The situation in Iraq and Syria was different again. There was classical Arabic and there were the regional dialects.
Hourani ended his book with tables showing the Family of the Prophet, the Shi’i Imans, the Caliphs, the Ruling Families and, finally, the three branches of the Hashemites, beginning with Hussein, King of Hizaz, the Jordanian and the Iraqi branches. Hizaz was somewhere below the plane in the vast wadis of Saudi Arabia. In Jordan, would I be interviewed by his great-grandson? More probably, by one of his underlings. There were no details from anyone of the kind of meeting that awaited me—only the implication from the posh HRH personal assistant in London that it might be slightly disorganised and not very British.
At Queen Alia airport, I was the only passenger to be separated from the queues of foreign workers and European tourists heading for Petra and the Wadi Rum. I was ushered onto a blue-and-gold carpet through a gate labelled ‘Crowne Classe’, into a VIP lounge with deep ashtrays, smoking stands, velvet sofas, glasses of mint tea and a faintly seedy air of luxury. I discovered later that Crowne Classe meant I was ‘a guest of the Royal Household’. Without a visa, my luggage and I were given a version of diplomatic immunity—which I would later find out meant that people who behaved ‘inappropriately’ or otherwise blotted their copybooks would be fast-tracked out of the kingdom and onto a plane back to where they came from. Literally.
Then, in a speedy and heated car, I was driven on a freeway through a dazzlingly white desert landscape, while the driver explained carefully that security would be very tight at the hotel in the middle of Amman where I was to stay. This was because of the suicide bombings by Al-Qaeda at three luxury international hotels in the same precinct just six weeks before. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had planned the attack, was a Jordanian militant Islamist from Zarqa, a few miles outside Amman. Fifty-seven people died, and 115 were injured, most of them local families attending a wedding reception. This was Jordan’s first terrorist attack, and huge street demonstrations condemning the violence had followed. At the Le Méridien hotel, body scans and thorough luggage and handbag checks would be mandatory throughout my three-day stay.
A strikingly beautiful young woman in casual western winter clothes was waiting for me at reception. She introduced herself as Adiba Mango, Prince Hassan’s ‘research assistant who had been transcribing the tapes’. She took me up to an enormous suite on the top floor, with a vast marble bathroom with a spa, and several bed- rooms. I should rest now, and she would collect me midafternoon, to meet some of the family and to be briefed by them about the project. She wasn’t sure who I would be meeting, but made it clear that the questions in my notebook would have to wait.
Why an autobiography by interview? Whose idea was it? The handful of speeches I’d been given to read in London, and the books I’d skimmed in the British Library, now seemed to me to be less-than-useful to draw on for a discussion—assuming, of course, there would be a discussion. Maybe I would be issued instructions, sent away to consider them. My small notebook of questions now looked absurd. Were there models that were drawn on when the project was first envisaged? Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Donald Rumsfeld had all recently produced powerful, or simply self-serving, books about the parlous state of the world and their visions for sorting it out. The phrase ‘to offer insights’ had leaped out at me from one of El Hassan’s BBC ‘Dialogues’. His involvement in ‘interfaith and intercultural dialogue’ was frequently mentioned—catch-alls I didn’t hear in smug Australia, where the benefit of multicultural-ism was yet again being contested. I had failed to come up with an Australian version of a memoir as an example. The demand for political memoirs would only really grow strong after Howard lost office to Kevin Rudd in 2007.
The researcher called for me at 3.30, and we drove fast through heavy traffic to the gates of a compound where the Royal Palaces had been built on a hill overlooking what she called Old Downtown. She explained that King Abdullah, Prince Hassan’s nephew, lived in a much more modern compound, in one of the newest circles of rapidly growing Amman.
The soldiers in the several gatehouses obviously knew her, and waved the car through. She drove slowly along the streets of the large, tree-lined compound, pointing out the institutional buildings and old palaces—all with bars on the windows, and no one in sight except for a man sweeping leaves. We reached a gate where the researcher rang the office on her car phone and was told to go to the guest house, where some of the family would join us. She took me into a small sitting room, where an open fire was reflected in the polished parquet floors, and there were silver-framed signed portraits of various members of royalty, most of whom I didn’t recognise.
While we waited, she told me that her parents were close friends of Prince Hassan and his wife, Princess Sarvath, that her mother was Swedish, and her father’s family Circassian. She had recently married, and had been a research assistant for a biography of King Hussein. She had read history at Oxford, and the task of transcribing the Prince’s interviews had fluctuated, depending on his availability and her own. She spoke of the Prince with great respect and affection, and confirmed that ‘the book project’ had been in the pipeline for several years. My hockey-playing school friend was mentioned, as sharing the transcribing load, between managing schedules and travelling with the Prince.
Why me? I did not ask.
The first member of the family to arrive at the guest house introduced herself as Badiya. She was the youngest in the family, a stylish young lawyer in high-heeled boots, with a swirling tweed skirt and small talk, who lived in London. I was obviously being vetted before being introduced to her parents. Then her extremely beautiful black-haired mother, in a long camel coat and boots, burst into the room, welcomed me, clasped my hand and told me to ask her husband anything I wished when he joined us. He must do this book, he needs to do it, she said. He calls it his ditty and makes himself available when he can, she went on, but he has to be pinned down. At this point, I think, I said I needed to see a lot more of the transcripts than the ten pages that had been sent to me in England before I could decide. She agreed.
Why me? I did not ask.
Then a short, round man eased his way into the room behind his wife, and I stood—or maybe I didn’t, I can’t recall. Prince Hassan was in his mid fifties, grey haired, moustachioed, grey suited, courteous. His air of deep melancholy struck me. He was introduced by his wife, who now left briskly with the two young women, so we could ‘talk’. I told him I had seen ten pages of transcript only and described my preliminary reading in the British Library. This project, which had been ‘in research’ for a while, I gathered, would require a good deal more than that.
I asked my questions about the progress of the Iraq War, and the refugees Jordan was caring for—the more than 600,000 who had crossed the border since the war had started, now housed in camps in Amman and near the Syrian border, which were full to overflowing. I told him that a book along the lines of his latest publication, To Be a Muslim: Islam, Peace, and Democracy, explaining Islam and Muslims for the lay reader, was badly needed in my country as well, as attested by the recent Cronulla riots, which had been all over Al Jazeera and CNN. Australia’s decision to join the coalition of the willing had been no surprise, Prince Hassan said. Australian politicians regularly came through Amman ‘for meetings’, and Alexander Downer and Gareth Evans were mentioned. Prince Hassan’s only visit to Australia had been to Melbourne during the Gough Whitlam era. He remembered riding around the Tan Track on a lively police horse supplied to Government House.
His wife had made it rather clear that he was a reluctant starter for a memoir, so I asked about the kind of book he was prepared to do. Was it to be published in English and in Arabic? Both, he said.
I was interested in his point of view of Jordan as a concept rather than a nation. His grandfather had conceived it as ‘a pluralist haven’, which, again, I had picked up from some of the things I’d read, and I wanted to understand what this meant in modern Jordan. I didn’t question him about what he was prepared to disclose regarding the turmoil of the succession change, since I assumed the transcribed interviews would make this clear. I asked what the function was of the wonderfully named (in English) Arab Thought Forum, which had been mentioned often in some of the speeches I’d read. He did not question me at all about myself—but I was used to this from people immersed in their own work.
We spoke for about half an hour, then walked to the office, the Diwan, where an assistant had been instructed to give me a fat envelope containing 100 pages, to read overnight. I was to return in the morning with ‘my impressions for the Prince of its strengths and weaknesses’. Management speak had a grip here too.
Back at the hotel, I ordered a whisky, had a deep spa bath, and contemplated telephoning my family, but it was the middle of the night in Melbourne, and my husband was somewhere in Chicago and not answering his phone. Then, over a meal in the hotel’s bistro, I started reading the pages, trying to get my tired traveller’s mind around their potential, badly wanting them to be wonderful. And they were—sort of. Like most first rough drafts, especially those done through interview, it took a while to get going. But there was powerful and important stuff in the context of this latest terrible war, which was happening less than a thousand kilometres east of where I was. People were queuing at the borders of Syria and Jordan to get away from Baghdad and Mosul, paying 150 Jordanian dinars (about eighty Australian dollars) for a visa, and using more cash for bribes and as evidence they could pay their way, precipitating the latest in the refugee crisis Jordan had been struggling with since 2003.
Lines leaped out of the transcript at me. ‘The distance between the head and the heart’—the necessity of the heart being kept in check, in order to construct a policy, to fulfil the role of Crown Prince. What was a Crown Prince? There was a strong sense of the role being a duty and a privilege but also a great burden.