The difficulty this formidable biography had to overcome was that its subject’s majesty and the kingdom he ruled were both, let us say, unlikely. The story of a desert prince whose grandfather was an intrepid king but whose father, the heir apparent, was mad–a prince who had been roughed up by tribal discipline and groomed in British public schools, who ascended his throne at 17 after his grandfather, his liege and mentor, was murdered before his eyes–would have quickened any reader of Kipling. But this was 1953, a little late for Hussein bin-Talal, the man who would be king, to bring the glow of Victorian monarchy to Bedouin tents. The previous year King Farouk had been overthrown in Egypt during the July 23 revolution; princes were going to Monte Carlo to look for starlets. And what was Jordan? Imagine the desert left over after imperial powers and stronger monarchs had carved up the region, a country that had recently conquered new lands west of the Jordan River, lands that happened to include the most contested holy city in history and, therefore, a million people who hated their conqueror’s guts.
There are three ways for the biographer, Avi Shlaim, to meet this challenge: one, create a vivid portrait of a youth who, maturing through dangerous tests, positioned himself more or less heroically among shifting allies and enemies; two, show how his force of personality, staying power and progressive spirit gave legitimacy to an artificial country and even engendered a kind of civil society; and finally, prove that his moral balance contributed positively to the much larger story into which he was swept up–in this case, a fatal regional conflict that threatened himself and his neighbors. Shlaim has neglected the second, but he’s made a compassionate attempt at the first and succeeded brilliantly at the third, so we gain a fairly complete diplomatic history of the Middle East through his subject’s eyes. That may be enough for any one book.
The Emirate of Transjordan, Shlaim writes, had been created in 1923 by the “stroke of [Churchill’s] pen,” a wasteland with nothing but a railway stop of a town between Damascus and Medina, the ancient Philadelphia, now Amman. “Bounded by the valley of the Yarmouk on the north, by the Arabian Desert on the east, by the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and Wadi Araba on the west,” Shlaim explains, “it had no outlet to the sea until Abdullah grabbed Ma’an and Aqaba from the expiring kingdom of the Hijaz,” the vast desert lands around Mecca and Medina, in 1925.
The Abdullah in question was the older middle son of Emir Hussein bin-Ali–the presumptive descendant of the Prophet–who was Sharif of Mecca at the beginning of World War I. Sir Henry McMahon, the high commissioner in Egypt, arguably promised Emir Hussein an independent Arab kingdom (and Muslim caliphate) from the Persian Gulf to Damascus if he and his sons rose against Ottoman rule–which they arguably did, in desultory guerrilla raids, famously supported by T.E. Lawrence, as the war turned in Britain’s favor. Behind the emir’s back, however, the British and French secretly concluded the Sykes-Picot Agreement, projecting east-to-west spheres of influence for each great power: Damascus to Beirut for France, Baghdad to Jaffa for Britain. Once the war ended, they secured League of Nations mandates over hinterlands attaching to these cities–the French in “Lebanon,” the British in “Palestine”–and drew up the rest of the weird borders we know today.