Poetry as political manifesto has a long history in the Arab world. The Prophet Mohammed frequently won over converts to Islam with elegant recitals. Caliphs often deployed serrated verses from their court poet to undermine rivals. So in January, when revered Jordanian poet Haider Mahmoud wrote a thinly veiled ode to King Abdullah II warning him about deepening corruption in the Hashemite Kingdom, the palace quickly went to work–on him.
Mahmoud was attacked in Jordan’s state-controlled press as a traitor, and his son was pressured into resigning his position at the foreign ministry. Jordan’s then-prime minister, Faisal al-Fayez, ordered the mayor of Amman to fire Mahmoud as general director of the city’s cultural center. (Faisal backed off after learning the position was unpaid, but Mahmoud resigned anyway.) The offending poem–titled “Saray,” a Turkish word for “the palace,” but also “the sultan”–became known to Jordanians only after it appeared in a London-based Arabic-language newspaper because no local publisher would touch it.
Mahmoud, who generally avoids controversy, says he wrote “Saray” out of concern that Jordan’s vertiginous corruption threatens the integrity, and perhaps the very survival, of the monarchy. “It was not an attack,” he says. “I care for this country. The poem was a message from the people to the leader against the corruption around him.”
Mahmoud got off easy. These days, public criticism of the Hashemite monarchy can lead to official harassment, detention, arrest and imprisonment–usually in rapid succession. Since February 1999, when Abdullah assumed the throne after his father died of cancer, Jordan has become increasingly authoritarian. At a time when several Arab regimes are at least feinting toward political reform, Jordan is goose-stepping backward. Freedom of assembly has been restricted, and the threshold for dissent has been ratcheted down as political prisoners accumulate and oppositionists are rattled out of bed for interrogation. Journalists have been intimidated or bribed into spying on colleagues and sources. Street demonstrations have been all but eliminated by laws that require protesters to carry permits that are prohibitively difficult to obtain. The tax burden on ordinary Jordanians has intensified as living standards steadily recede. The appeal of Islamic groups is rising inversely to the monarchy’s diminished credibility, even among the kingdom’s traditionally secular, closely knit and increasingly restive tribes.
Corruption, defiantly uninhibited compared with the low-key looting that percolated under the late King Hussein, has soared. And although diplomats tend to absolve Abdullah of wrongdoing–he is deceived, they imply, by courtiers scheming behind his back–a growing number of Jordanians believe that the 43-year-old monarch is not only aware of the plundering but may be very much a part of it.