The death of King Hussein: Grieving nation brought to a halt

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS NEWS of King Hussein's death spread through Amman yesterday, masses of mourning Jordanians ventured out in the driving rain and mist, many carrying black flags.

Thousands drove to the al-Hussein medical centre on the outskirts of Amman to wait for his body to be removed.

In the markets in the heart of the capital, traders pulled down the metal shutters of their businesses and closed as a sign of respect for their king.

For almost half a century, he had manoeuvred his small country, often changing alliances, to protect it from more powerful neighbours, notably Israel and Iraq.

"He was a very special man," said a father as he waited to pick up his children from a school that had just closed.

The 63-year-old monarch died at 11.43am yesterday after lying unconscious for more than two days in hospital. He had flown back from the United States to die in Jordan last week when a bone-marrow transplant at an American clinic failed to halt his lymphatic cancer.

Crown Prince Abdullah, his 37-year-old eldest son, was immediately proclaimed the new king by the cabinet. He later went to swear to respect the constitution before the Jordanian parliament, where deputies wrapped their red-and- white keffiyehs (headdresses) across their faces in a traditional sign of sorrow.

President Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and the Prince of Wales will be among the many world figures attending today's funeral in Amman.

"No words can convey what King Hussein meant to the people he led for nearly half a century," said Mr Clinton. "No words can convey what he meant to me as a friend and an inspiration."

Even Iraq, so often at odds with Jordan, has sent Vice-President Taha Mohieddin Ma'rouf for the funeral.

Work in the Jordanian capital will halt today as King Hussein is buried. Despite forecasts for more heavy rain, most of the population of the capital is expected to attend. One Jordanian official said: "We face a logistics problem - not a security problem."

However, officials do face concerns over the expected presence of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, amid so many Arab leaders who detest him.

The funeral cortege will wind through the streets of Amman according to a schedule which officials have been preparing ever since it was announced that the King's treatment had failed and he was close to death.

The grief shown in Amman yesterday displays King Hussein's genuine popularity mixed with public apprehension over the future.

Outside the hospital, women sobbed and fainted. Other Jordanians, who are not used to the cold, groped their forward in the winter mist to express sorrow. Police prevented vehicles from being driven up to the hospital.

Groups of young men formed under the awnings of small shops around the al-Hussein mosque, talking softly and anxiously. Elsewhere, people looked worried rather thandeeply shocked by the news of the King's demise.

This may be because his death had been expected. Indeed, many Jordanians believed that he died several days ago. This is because the Jordanian media had given less coverage of the King's illness than many foreign newspapers.

When he returned unconscious from America, local newspapers, radio and television said he was seriously ill, but gave no details.

If the government had hoped to allay public alarm, its censorship had exactly the opposite effect.

Starved of information about the one topic in which people were interested, street rumour ran ahead of the facts. "I'm sure he's already dead and the government is keeping quiet about it," said one woman, 24 hours before the death was announced.

Jordanians are shaken not only by the news of their king's death, but by a series of dramatic events over the past three weeks.

First there was his return from apparently successful cancer treatment in the US last month.

He had lost all his hair during chemotherapy, and he looked pale and walked as if each movement was an effort. But he stood to greet hundreds of officials and leaders at the airport. Then he drove through the streets of Amman - as rain- soaked as they were again yesterday.

He then surprised Jordanians by installing as his heir Prince Abdullah - the commander of Jordan's Special Operations Command who was said to be without political interests - in place of the King's own brother Hassan, who had been crown prince for 34 years.

Prince Hassan had long been the most powerful man in Jordan after the King. But during the monarch's treatment, relations between the two men deteriorated.

In a bitter, rambling letter, King Hussein accused Prince Hassan of smears against his wife, Queen Noor, and of meddling with the army.

Within days, the monarch's condition deteriorated and he returned to the US for final, unsuccessful surgery.