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King Hussein: He gave treasures to a barren land

For much of his long reign, King Hussein of Jordan wondered how best to measure the worth of one's own life. A person could consider himself successful, he used to say, if he managed to lay down even a single stone on which others could build. He attributed the maxim to his grandfather, King Abdullah - the idea that every person's life should show the way for someone else.

His focus on his legacy was part of his generosity toward his countrymen and his neighbors, whether Arab or Jew. Here was a head of state who wished to be remembered for something other than the enemies he vanquished, like the rulers of the region's ancient city-states. He didn't want a pyramid.

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"What man can afford to waste time?" he wrote in 1962. "At any moment death can claim anyone, and when it does, death itself is unimportant. The only thing that matters is the work that one has accomplished."

It was an uncommon outlook for someone then 27 years old.

Hussein made something admirable out of almost nothing. His country was a creation of Great Britain, a back-handed payment for services the Hashemite family rendered during World War I. Abdullah had hoped for more; he wanted to be named king of Iraq.

Winston Churchill visited Jerusalem in 1921 in his capacity as Britain's colonial secretary to meet with Abdullah. The meeting was among the last at which a British minister could draw a line on a map, declare the line a border, and have it be so. The territory was too poor to be coveted by anyone else. Hussein remembered cold winters from his childhood in Amman in a house without heat. Amman itself was barely even a crossroads. The country had no oil and a bare minimum of fresh water; 85 percent of its land is desert.

But Hussein gave Jordanians invaluable treasures - the great gifts of civility and freedom of thought. In the Middle East they are as wondrous as the ancient city of Petra or the natural sculptures of Wadi Rum. Jordanians can debate politics in their homes without having to lower their voices, and can continue the debate in a restaurant. Who in Damascus would dare do the same? Who in Tripoli, or Algiers, even Riyadh?

Hussein's ministers were fired rather than shot, including those who tried to overthrow him. Damascus, compared to Amman, was sullen. Baghdad was frightened and soulless.

Yes, the television news in Jordan every night began with an item about some ceremony attended by the royal family, but you could switch to a foreign channel without fear that a neighbor would report you to the secret police.

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Newspapers published opinions that were not necessarily identical to the those of the king. Israel became "Israel," rather than "the Zionist entity," in the Jordanian press long before it did in most other Middle Eastern countries

GIVEN the events of the king's life, his tolerance seems a miracle, a blessing for the whole region. He was beside his grandfather in Jerusalem at Al Aqsa mosque in 1951 when Abdullah was assassinated. Syria in 1958 tried to shoot down Hussein's plane; a bomb in 1960 was intended for him; Army officers plotted coups; in 1970 the Palestinian Liberation Organization launched a civil war against him.

The miracle is that he did not retreat into authoritarianism or endless vengeance. He preserved his humanity.

His countrymen used to say "Hussein is Jordan, and Jordan is Hussein," which described both his strength and his country's dependency. Perhaps he preserved his humanity, his grace, to ensure the humanity of his kingdom.

"People's trust is very dear, and one must be up to it, not by trying to do what pleases people everywhere on every occasion, but by doing what satisfies one's conscience," the king said last year.

"All [that] we hope for is that a day will come, when we have all gone, when people will say that this man tried, and his family tried. This is all there is to seek in this world."

*Robert Ruby was Middle East correspondent for The Baltimore Sun from 1987 to 1992. He wrote 'Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms' (Henry Holt, 1995).

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