Boyd Tonkin: A king behind the beat of history

The week in books

Fred Halliday was a pugnacious and prolific Irish radical historian who taught international relations at the LSE and died in April 2010. Late last year his mercilessly witty guide to the linguistic atrocities perpetrated in the "war on terror", Shocked and Awed, appeared posthumously from IB Tauris. Over the past few weeks the title, and thrust, of Halliday's first book has seldom left my thoughts. It was Arabia Without Sultans. True, his vision of an Arab world unshackled from all tyrants drew on a Seventies-style Marxism that (as he later wrote) has itself passed into history. What survives is Halliday's conviction that the people of the region deserve so much more than a choice between arrogant autocracy installed by inheritance or by coup, or else some grim neo-medieval theocracy.

At last, the old order changes in the direction that he wished. Yet book publishers find themselves behind the beat. I sympathise with editors who have to commission works on current affairs in the knowledge that years may pass before they see the light of day. Sometimes, expert foresight will be vindicated in spectacular fashion. So full marks to Tarek Osman and Yale University Press for the bull's-eye title of Egypt on the Brink (which was reviewed in these pages on 21 January).

Pretty often, though, events can make a mockery of publishing schedules. This week Allen Lane releases Our Last Best Chance, a mixture of memoir and reflection on the Israel-Palestine stalemate written (or tape-recorded) by King Abdullah II of Jordan. Over the past month his Hashemite kingdom has been convulsed by popular protests. Abdullah, "a "progressive" leader by the previous low standards of his patch, has responded by sacking the former cabinet and installing a new premier and ministers. Some liberalisation of the laws will ensue.

Yet Abdullah still rules rather than reigns. He offers top-down, elite-managed enlightenment. And his book, though full of sensible thoughts about the Israel-Palestine stand-off and the need for domestic renewal, nonetheless speaks the smug and vain language of autocratic entitlement. "I designated a new prime minister"; "I laid down a set of... reform objectives"; "I instructed the new government", and so on.

Such diktats make his book a period-piece at the moment of publication. How much has changed, and how fast, since those innocent days when Abdullah could report that "The Mubaraks have been family friends since the 1980s, and I knew Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal well" - on the assumption that readers would salute the well-connected wisdom of a wise emir.

Ever the technocratic moderniser, the king touchingly wants his region to be associated with "multimillion-dollar IT start-ups in Jordan, Nobel literature prize-winners in Egypt, and the historic architecture of Damascus". Leave to one side what the stalwart republican Naguib Mahfouz might have thought of this appropriation of his literary legacy by a hereditary monarch. As it happens, millions of observers in the West now associate Abdullah's region with the awe-inspiring courage and dignity of citizens who risk, and lose, their lives to get rid of unelected rulers.

Read in a historical vacuum, Abdullah's apologia has attractive features. His quest for peace with Israel deserves praise as diligent and honourable. Most fair-minded readers will agree with him on the conditions for a lasting settlement; on the crimes and follies of the invasion of Iraq; and on the dangerous allure of jihadi violence. And how sad still to be a king of the Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet and Sharifs of Mecca for almost a millennium, and to know full well that the Jordan carved out for your ancestors by Lloyd George and Lawrence of Arabia is a poor substitute for your ancient domains, snatched by the strange and fanatical House of Saud.

Yet, in early 2011, much of Our Last Best Chance reads as regal propaganda. For all its good intentions, it is the wrong book, from the wrong man, at the wrong time. Publishers run the risk of such reversals, and no one can blame them for the want of a crystal ball. Meanwhile, from Tripoli to Cairo to Amman, the desert news that stays news comes from PB Shelley, in 1818: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:/ Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Free books for a night, or forever

On 5 March, 20,000 volunteers will hand out one million free books on the inaugural World Book Night. I wish them, and it, well, but the admirable initiative has been upstaged by the national groundswell of protest against library closures - a wave that continues to attract support from the likes of Zadie Smith, who will read at a fundraiser for the Save Kensal Rise Library campaign next month. Might the two ventures join forces? Perhaps some WBN distributors could insert flyers into their giveaway volumes to tell recipients about local movements to defend libraries and how to help them (for instance, via www.

Capital feast of the written word

For me, the real London literary festival takes place every year at around this time. Jewish Book Week (which runs from 26 February to 6 March) always promises a wider spread of speakers and a more stimulating range of topics than any other package of book-related events in the capital. Writers on show this year (again, at the Royal National Hotel in Bloomsbury) include Niall Ferguson, Edmund de Waal, Linda Grant, Clive James, Alain de Botton, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Howard Jacobson, Eve Ensler, Yotam Ottolenghi, Nicole Krauss, Joan Bakewell, Raja Shehadeh, Stella Duffy and David Baddiel. On 6 March I will be talking to Boualem Sansal, the outspoken Algerian novelist (and former civil servant) whose An Unfinished Business sends French-Algerian kids on a mission to discover another kind of history. And that great actor Henry Goodman will be bringing the words of Stefan Zweig to life. Check out the full programme at, and book tickets on 0844 847 2274.

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