For king and country
Thirty-eight years ago, Randa Habib landed an interview with King Hussein of Jordan, a meeting that would change the course of her life. The veteran AFP news bureau chief talks to Helena Frith Powell about her life and her book on Jordan’s royal family.
Although she now considers Jordan her home, the first time Randa Habib went there in 1972 she vowed never to return. She was a journalist working for a magazine in her home city of Beirut when the editor suggested she try to get an interview with an Arab head of state.
“I picked King Hussein of Jordan,” says the head of Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Amman and author of the new book Hussein And Abdullah – Inside The Jordanian Royal Family. “He was hosting a meeting of all the tribes. I was told by a contact at the foreign ministry that at the end of the event he shakes everyone’s hand and that I should shake his hand and ask for the interview then.” Habib did as she had been advised; the king shook her hand and replied “inshallah”, which she took to mean “I probably wouldn’t get it”.
Four days later she received a call to say she had the interview. But when she returned to Jordan she was immediately detained and interrogated. Then she was told her photographer couldn’t go with her to the palace. “I thought to myself: what is this terrible place? I will never come back here,” she explains in a telephone interview from her home in Amman. “I was in a total panic; I was so badly treated and they took my tape recorder, which worried me because my Arabic back then was quite weak.”
When she was eventually shown in to see King Hussein, the atmosphere had changed. The king was utterly charming and insisted that she stay in Jordan long enough to have dinner with his head of foreign media, Adnan Gharaybeh. “I just wanted to get out of the country. I had no desire to stay at all after the way I had been treated. I just thought this was how they dealt with people in Jordan. I even said to my driver, ‘There is no way I will ever come back to this country.'”
But Habib did stay for dinner with Gharaybeh, whom she eventually married, and a few months after her visit she was told by her future husband why her initial reception had been so frosty. “They had received an anonymous letter, which was possibly sent by the Palestine Liberation Organisation to poison relations between the two countries, saying that a journalist from Lebanon called Randa would come and try to kill the king using either a camera or a tape recorder.
“Everyone told him to cancel the meeting, but he refused to. By the time he met me, though, his security had cleared me. In fact, he remembered he had even met my father, so he was nicer than usual, I think. He must have realised what hell I had been through. That was in 1972, and it was the beginning of my adventure in Jordan.” Habib, 57, was born in Beirut. Her father was an ambassador and they lived in Greece, Venezuela, Brazil, the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. She obtained her French baccalaureate in Rio de Janeiro and then went on to study at the Université Saint Joseph in Beirut. Habib was granted French citizenship in 1989 because of her French education, link to French culture and job with a French institution (AFP). At the time, this privilege was offered to some citizens of Lebanon, which was under French control until 1943.
Following her marriage to Gharaybeh, with whom she has a son and daughter, she moved to Amman in 1980, where she became a correspondent for AFP; in 1987 she became the bureau’s director, a post she still holds today. She has covered Iraq extensively: the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and subsequent Gulf War. She was kidnapped there in 1994 and suffered severe brain trauma when she was hit over the head with a gun. Habib is still not certain of the identity of her kidnappers, but believes they could have been linked to a previous plot, possibly orchestrated by the Iraqi regime, to assassinate her.
“Someone pointed a gun at me but it failed to go off,” she says. “Then Saddam’s regime tried to take me to court twice on trumped-up charges. As I am a French citizen, the French embassy dealt with them, and I never had to go there to stand trial. The kidnappers were certainly tipped off that we would be there, and the driver of the minibus took a very unsafe road. If they had killed us it would have looked innocent. The regime always denied they had anything to do with it.”
In 2001 Habib was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Merité by the then French president Jacques Chirac. In 2008, Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, awarded her France’s highest decoration: the Légion d’Honneur. But in a career spanning 25 years, it is her coverage of Jordan for which she is perhaps best known. Habib has now written a book about her experiences in her adopted homeland. Hussein And Abdullah – Inside the Jordanian Royal Family has been translated from French into Arabic and was published in English for the first time this month. Her husband stayed on as head of foreign media for another year before going into the private sector where he worked, among other roles, as a director of Otis Elevators. He now has his own consultancy.
In her book, she charts her extraordinary relationship with the Jordanian royals, including the story of how King Hussein, who ruled for 46 years, broke the news of his plans to change the succession of the throne from his brother, the Crown Prince, to one of his sons in January 1999. He had already asked his brother in 1992 to guarantee that one of his sons would take over as king when he died. His brother had refused.
The king was in London, receiving treatment for cancer, when he called Habib. “There was a phone call from the palace and I was on deadline so I asked if I could call back. I thought it was the press officer. Then it was made clear to me that it was King Hussein from his London home. The call was totally off the record, but he confirmed that he would take crucial decisions regarding the succession once he was back in Jordan.”
Habib asked him which son it would go to. “I have a lot of sons and a lot of options. Please don’t name any of them,” he told her. “I agreed to do as he asked,” she says, “and he agreed to give me an exclusive interview once he was ready to make his announcement. He said, ‘It’s not going to be easy for you, you’re going to be under a lot of pressure’, and I was. The moment I filed the story on the wires quoting a ‘well-informed source’, the minister of information paid me a visit. He happened to be the son-in-law of the Crown Prince. He made it clear he was not there in an official capacity and questioned the fact that I had had a phone call from a London number that day. I told him it was my birthday and my children were both studying in London. ‘And your children call via the Royal Palace?’ he asked. I think he was under a lot of pressure from his in-laws.”
Was the scoop badly timed coming on her birthday? “No, it was a wonderful birthday present.” King Hussein came back to Jordan in January 1999, where he was declared cured. A week later he went to the US for a bone marrow transplant. It was not a success, and he returned home on February 5. Sadly, he died two days before Habib was able to get the interview he promised her. But he kept his word; prior to his death he had granted CNN’s Christiane Amanpour an interview, but his aides reassured Habib that “the king will tell her nothing”. He didn’t answer her repeated questions about the succession. In fact, Habib says, he only agreed to the interview as part of a deal to ensure CNN’s live coverage of the king’s return to Jordan on January 19, 1999.
Habib has a good relationship with King Hussein’s son, King Abdullah II, and his wife, Queen Rania. She describes the latter as extremely bright. “She has managed to conquer the world and is a great asset for her country and a strong defender of women’s and children’s rights.” Habib was the first journalist to interview Abdullah after his accession to the throne as well as the first international journalist to interview Queen Rania, but she concedes that things were different with the current king’s father.
“With his father it was a relationship built up over many years. He knew he was behind my marriage, for example. Of course, there were times when he was angry with me, but at the same time he also knew there were things he couldn’t stop me from saying and he respected me as a journalist with integrity. And I knew he would never lie to me.” How does she think Abdullah compares to his father? “I think Abdullah has had to deal with an extremely tough 10 years; the 9/11 attacks, the war on terror, for example. Also, he is more focused on the economy and domestic issues. He harbours no ambition of becoming a huge Arab leader who can influence the politics of the region.”
On the region and its future, Habib says she is disappointed in the Obama administration and feels we are in a “period of pessimism”. “A few months ago after that speech in Cairo we had huge hopes,” she says. “But now the people in charge tell us things look very grim and that the pressure on Israel has not eased. But it doesn’t mean it is the end. It is a deadlock situation, but we have to believe that we will have a breakthrough.”
The journalist and author of the book Kill Khalid, Paul McGeough, says Habib has “shaped history as much as she has revealed it” by being in Jordan to cover the stories coming out of the region. Does she agree with that statement and is that the role of a journalist? “It’s not really very accurate,” she laughs. “But I can see where it comes from. As a journalist when you reveal things you make them inevitable, so in a sense, yes, you are making history. For example, an assassination attempt might go unnoticed, like the one on Khalid Mishal, the Hamas leader who was almost killed in broad daylight by Mossad agents in 1997 while taking his sons for a haircut. But we work on emergencies; we are the teller of the moment. It is up to historians after that to analyse and put things together and take the time to draw the lessons.
“As journalists we point out events and then move on to the next thing. We can only analyse things in depth and in a general regional or international context, when we take the time to write a book.” Habib’s son has lived in Dubai for the past 10 years, where he works as a management consultant, but she says Jordan is going to remain her home, even if things are not what they used to be. “You used to have to come through Jordan to go to Iraq and the West Bank, so we were really at the centre of things. It used to be very exciting. It is not as active now, but that gives me more time to write another book.”
Habib says she is not yet sure what her next book will be. “Maybe something more social, a novel based on facts,” she says. “I am thinking of writing a novel to show that the Middle East is not just about wars and blood, that there is a place for romance, poetry and nice things.” Even though AFP prefers to move its bureau chiefs around, Habib has a special dispensation to stay in Amman. “I feel Jordan is my home now, although I have Brazil under my skin and I think it will always be there,” she says. “I spent my teenage years there. It is an incredible country that taught me tolerance and not to be a nagger. People there of all colours and classes live happily together; even people with no money seem happy. They are not naggers or complainers. Living there taught me that we sometimes don’t count our blessings enough.”
Habib wanted to be a writer from an early age. She remembers reporters coming to her home to interview her father and asking her what she wanted to be. She told them she wanted to be a journalist. “I loved writing and was always very curious about things around me. I often felt that I could express things better in writing than I could talking. I have never been disappointed in my choice of career.”
Her first meeting with King Hussein was clearly a turning point in her life, both professionally and personally. She remembers the adventure with much fondness and nostalgia for the man and the way he shaped her future. But she never did get her tape recorder back.
Hussein And Abdullah – Inside The Jordanian Royal Family, is published by Saqi Books and is available in quality bookshops.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog www.beautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as contributing regularly for newspapers and magazines, writing short stories and studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, Helena is also working on a thriller called The Longest Night that will be published in spring 2019. Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and came out in paperback in April 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives between there and London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
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Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
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Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
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Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019