Family Business

When last we left off, Talal of Jordan was being forced to abdicate his throne in favor of his son Hussein. Talal’s enemies may have originally intended for him to be just a glorified placeholder until Hussein took power, but the brief king made sure his name would forever be remembered in Jordan’s history. In January of 1952, Talal signed off on the Constitution of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Constitution, considered pretty liberal in the 50s, confirmed that Jordan was an independent Arab State, ruled by a hereditary monarchy and balanced by the Legislative, Executive and Judicial powers (although the Executive powers belonged to the king). It also laid out the “rights and duties of Jordanians”, including “freedom of opinion”, the “free exercise of all forms for worship and religious rites” and freedom of the press. (Arab Law Quarterly). Interestingly (but not surprisingly), the section on equal rights protected Jordanians from discrimination on the basis of “race, language or religion”, but not sex. The issue of gender equality is one that is still being addressed today, as Talal’s Constitution continues to be amended. 

Like Father, Does Not Like Son

The government that Talal officially established in the 1952 Constitution was the same government that declared him unfit to rule in August of that same year. As I alluded to in the first post of this series, there were some who were suspicious of the circumstances of Talal’s abdication. In fact, “many Jordanians believed that there was nothing wrong with Talal and that the wily British fabricated the story about his madness in order to get him out of the way” (Shlaim), because he was notoriously anti-British. 

Talal’s stance on the British was just one point of contention between Talal and his father Abdullah. Theirs was a difficult father-son relationship that was not unnoticed by their family, least of all Talal’s son and heir Hussein. In Hussein’s own writings, he expresses pity and an almost protective tone as he reflects on his father’s treatment:

The two men were separated by different lives and different ages, and their differences were exacerbated by opportunists. Worst of all, my grandfather never really realized until the end of his life how deeply afflicted my father was. He could not conceive that a man at times gentle and sensible, but at other times very ill, was not being just awkward or difficult. My grandfather was so healthy and tough he could not appreciate what illness was. We in the family knew. We watched our father with loving care, but my grandfather, who lived partly in the heroic past, saw him from the outside. (Shlaim)

The print at the the top of the photo says: CAIRO, EGYPT: Crown Prince Talal of Jordan (L), shown here with his father, the recently assassinated King Abdullah, is reportedly resentful of developments in Jordan which made his younger brother, Prince Naif, regent upon their father’s death. Talal, in Geneva for treatment after a nervous breakdown, may make a surprise return to Jordan and seize the throne. ACME Telephoto via

Here we have compelling evidence that Talal did in fact suffer from some form of mental illness, as stated by his own son. Another of Talal’s sons, Hassan, believed his father was bipolar and not schizophrenic. Either way, Talal’s family seemed to agree that something plagued him. And, according to Hussein, the strain between Talal and his father Abdullah while he was alive was a source of stress that did not help Talal’s fragile mental state growing up. 

Uneasy Lies the…Head!

Whether Talal’s abdication was politically motivated or truly a result of his illness, the reality was that Talal did not have any meaningful support from the Jordanian government or army to fight back even if he wanted to. His son Hussein was named king at the age of 17, but the regency that was put in place was short, as Hussein turned 18 in May of 1953 and was then officially able to assume the throne. It is hard to think of an example of a young monarch suddenly stepping into power under a political situation that was stable, predictable and secure. Usually because a regency occurs after the sudden death of the previous monarch, there is some uncertainty and worry about the path ahead, especially if the replacement was young. Hussein was no exception as he took control of a country in the middle of a veritable hotbed of shifting alliances and violent power grabs. In need of guidance, help came from an unlikely place – Hussein’s mother, Queen Zain (yass Queen…you know I had to do it). Zain was educated and respected and to the delight of the British, recognized the upsides to maintaining the alliance. She no doubt had a part in influencing Hussein to take the same stance. 

Queen Zain with two of her sons, Hussein and Hassan.

Throughout his 46 year reign, Hussein’s alliance with the West continued to be a point of contention among Jordanians, particularly as the country’s demographic makeup shifted as a result of surrounding conflicts. But it was far from the only controversy during his rule. Hussein’s biggest challenge was navigating hostility between Jordan’s neighbor Israel and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that were living in Jordan. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) used Jordan as a home base for attacks against Israel, as both Israelis and Palestinians believed the land of Israel belonged to them (a conflict that continues today with no end in sight). Hussein eventually had to take action because “by September 1970 the PLO virtually controlled a state within a state” (Britannica) in Jordan. They were a threat not only to the stability of the country but to Hussein’s rule as well. In what is known as Black September, the Jordanian Army went to war against the PLO and forced them out of Jordan. However, the latter decades of Hussein’s rule focused on trying to mend relations between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Pictured from left to right: Yasser Arafat (1st President of the Palestinian National Authority), King Hussein of Jordan, Bill Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu (Prime Minister of Israel). Hussein helped negotiate the Wye River Memorandum between Israel and Palestine in 1998, the year before his death.

Hussein’s rule ended as it had begun – with a regency. But this time, it was his brother Hassan who was acting as regent for Hussein while the Jordanian king received treatment in the United States for Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Unlike his father Talal, however, Hussein returned to Jordan and disbanded the regency. But it was short-lived, as Hussein fell ill and and died in February of 1999. His oldest son Abdullah II became King of Jordan and is currently on the throne today. In a wonderful coincidence (and yes it is a coincidence because I just recently became aware of this), King Hussein’s autobiography is titled Uneasy Lies the Head. And no wonder – between watching his father struggle with mental illness, witnessing his grandfather’s assassination, navigating decades of violent conflicts and fighting cancer, few were more aware of the thin thread that held his family on the throne than Hussein. 

Sign Of the Times

Robins and Post claim that Talal’s blatant sickness worked in Jordan’s favor, as there was really no question among the Jordanian government that Talal was unfit to rule. The result was a smooth transition from Talal to his son Hussein, after what could have been a dicey situation following Abudullah’s assassination. Following the abdication, Talal was sent abroad for treatment, again little about which is known. Shlaim notes that he was sent to “a sanatorium in Turkey, where he stayed in less than splendid isolation until his death in 1972”. There are also some reports that he spent time in additional countries in Europe before ultimately settling in Turkey.  Either way, as Riley wrote last week, the treatment that Talal received would have been questionable at best. And again, as we have witnessed far too often in this blog, we see the unfortunate pattern of someone suffering from mental illness being sent away and seemingly forgotten about. Out of sight and out of mind, even in the 20th century. It seems time does not heal all. 


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