Her majesty Rania Al Ab­dul­lah on refugees in Jor­dan, Isis and be­ing a Mus­lim woman to­day

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - INTERVIEW - BY Christina Lamb

On Twit­ter (6.5m fol­low­ers) she de­scribes her­self as ‘a mum and a wife with a re­ally cool day job’. That job is be­ing queen, and she looks the part. Her In­sta­gram ( . m fol­low­ers) o en re­sem­bles a fash­ion shoot, with oc­ca­sional fam­ily shots. But among the In­sta­gram pho­tos are also less glam­orous snaps of her ap­pear­ing amid cry­ing women in head­scarves and grief-stricken chil­dren. For her majesty Rania Al Ab­dul­lah, 46, lives in a king­dom sur­rounded by war. Jor­dan shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Is­rael/Pales­tine. Un­like some of its oil-rich neigh­bours, it is a poor coun­try, but it is o er­ing a les­son to the world by tak­ing in more refugees than the whole of Europe; Unicef es­ti­mates that one in four of its in­hab­i­tants is a refugee.

As she walks into the re­cep­tion room at the Al Hus­seiniya Palace in Jor­dan’s cap­i­tal, Amman, where she and the king have their o ces, she is wear­ing tow­er­ing, cobalt-blue heels, the backs en­crusted with dia­man­tés. She is ar­guably the world’s high­est-pro le Arab woman, a plat­form she uses as an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for refugees and for a more com­pas­sion­ate world in the time of Brexit and US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

It was at a din­ner party in 1993 that she met the then Prince Ab­dul­lah, eldest son of King Hus­sein, and fell in love with his ‘great smile’ and ‘in­fec­tious energy’. Six months later, they were mar­ried. Un­ex­pect­edly, Ab­dul­lah was named heir in­stead of his un­cle Has­san, and Rania sud­denly found her­self to be the world’s youngest queen at 28.

‘It was ex­tremely di cult not least as I wasn’t ex­pect­ing it, so I wasn’t pre­pared for it,’ she says. ‘From day one, it’s been one chal­lenge a er an­other. We had 9/11, the war in Iraq and the refugees that came in then, the in­tifadas [up­ris­ings] in Gaza, the wars in Le­banon and Syria and more refugees, so it’s re­ally been a chal­lenge.’

Black-and-white pho­tos of their four chil­dren, aged be­tween 12 and 22, are the only per­sonal touch dot­ted around a palace re­cep­tion room of ivory mar­ble and carved wood. ‘Some­times, try­ing to con­vince the kids to nish their home­work is harder than some of the is­sues I deal with in the o ce,’ she says. ‘Be­ing a par­ent re­ally hones your ne­go­ti­at­ing skills.’

She might be a queen now, but her fam­ily were once refugees. Born Rania Al Yassin, her fam­ily are Pales­tini­ans who were liv­ing in Kuwait. Dur­ing the rst Gulf War in 1991, they were forced to ee along with thou­sands of other Pales­tinian fam­i­lies and re­set­tled in Amman, cap­i­tal of Jor­dan. Rania was do­ing an MBA in Cairo and joined them, get­ting a job in mar­ket­ing at Citibank, then Ap­ple, be­fore meet­ing the prince.

Rania is a Chanel-clad de­fender of Is­lam and an ad­vo­cate for refugees. ‘I think Jor­dan has an un­par­al­leled hu­man­i­tar­ian record when it comes to host­ing refugees,’ she says. ‘We are a small coun­try, and re­source-poor, but we are the num­ber one [per capita] host of refugees. We have taken in 1.3 mil­lion

with ‘I al­waysif you find that, women, EM­POWER THEM a lit­tle bit, they lift ev­ery­one around them. ED­U­CA­TION FOR GIRLS is the best in­vest­ment you can make’

Syr­ian refugees, whereas the whole of Europe has strug­gled to take in 1 mil­lion.’

She is an­gry at the lack of help. ‘Though I am re­ally proud of the Jor­da­nian re­sponse, it pains me to see how much Jor­da­ni­ans have had to su er and how high a price they have had to pay for the world’s com­pla­cency.’

I get some sense of what Jor­dan is deal­ing with when I head 50 miles north­east to Za’atari, the world’s big­gest camp for Syr­ian refugees. Though some have moved on, Za’atari is still home to 80 000, half of whom are chil­dren, mak­ing it Jor­dan’s fourth-largest city; the white trail­ers cover more than ve square kilo­me­tres. It has nine schools, 11 hos­pi­tals, two su­per­mar­kets, its own foot­ball league and a main street — nick­named the Champs-Elysées — of cafés and shops, where you can even hire a wed­ding dress.

Al­most 90% of refugees in Jor­dan live in towns and cities among the pop­u­la­tion, how­ever, putting im­mense stress on ser­vices. More than a third of Jor­da­ni­ans live be­low the poverty line and the land is in­cred­i­bly arid — one of the world’s ve most wa­ter-short coun­tries. The wars all around have de­stroyed tourism to an­cient sites such as the stun­ning rose-red city of Pe­tra, and unem­ploy­ment among young peo­ple is 29%.

‘It may not have been the log­i­cal or sen­si­ble de­ci­sion to take in refugees, be­cause our econ­omy can’t take it. Our ca­pac­ity to cope has been dev­as­tated,’ she ad­mits. ‘Only 35% of the cost of host­ing refugees comes from donor coun­tries. To cover the rest, we’ve had to bor­row. A quar­ter of our na­tional bud­get goes to refugees. Was it the ra­tio­nal thing to do, to take in so many refugees? Prob­a­bly not. But at the core of this cri­sis are hu­man be­ings who lost ev­ery­thing through no choice of their own.’

She cites the ex­am­ple of a woman refugee called Maha, whom she met on a visit to a camp on the Greek is­land of Les­bos. ‘She was just one year from qual­i­fy­ing to be a gy­nae­col­o­gist. She’d had a har­row­ing jour­ney out of Syria, her life had been turned up­side down and she had noth­ing. But her num­ber one pri­or­ity was to be­come a doc­tor. That’s what’s so sad about peo­ple think­ing of refugees as des­per­ate peo­ple wait­ing for hand-outs. These are peo­ple with pride, hopes, dreams and as­pi­ra­tions. Only when we see them that way can we start to em­pathise and come up with so­lu­tions.’

For Queen Rania and her hus­band, there was never any ques­tion of not ac­cept­ing the Syr­i­ans mass­ing at their borders. ‘Do you turn your back on the mother and chil­dren tak­ing a huge risk ven­tur­ing into the dan­gers of the un­known be­cause she knows what she’s leav­ing be­hind is worse?’ she asks. ‘Does my hus­band or­der his sol­diers to close the borders? How is he go­ing to sleep at night? It was never a ques­tion of yes or no, it was al­ways a ques­tion of how are we go­ing to make it work.’

The im­pli­ca­tion is clear: why couldn’t the EU, home to 500 mil­lion rel­a­tively a uent peo­ple, do the same? ‘I don’t want to lump the whole global re­sponse in one cat­e­gory,’ she replies. ‘We have seen in some ar­eas in Europe an out­pour­ing of com­pas­sion. But in other places, in­stead of be­ing viewed with sym­pa­thy, refugees are viewed with fear and sus­pi­cion. That’s a very danger­ous phe­nom­e­non, where se­cu­rity and eco­nomic fears are ma­nip­u­lated to pro­mote iden­tity pol­i­tics and pop­ulist poli­cies.’

The words Trump and Brexit hang in the air. I ask how she feels now that the world’s most pow­er­ful leader is preach­ing that kind of pol­i­tics.

‘It’s sad that, in many parts of the world, the word di er­ent is be­com­ing syn­ony­mous with danger­ous ,’ she replies. ‘Of course, it’s fright­en­ing to think we live in a world where peo­ple can be ran­domly killed sit­ting in a restau­rant, at­tend­ing a con­cert or kneel­ing to pray, but to turn that into iden­tity pol­i­tics and to pro­mote ul­tra-na­tion­al­ism and iso­la­tion­ism and this frac­tur­ing of our world, that’s danger­ous. Fenc­ing our­selves o and each coun­try fend­ing for it­self is not go­ing to serve any­body.’

Her talk of stand­ing to­gether and the need for em­pa­thy in a frac­tured world could not be fur­ther away from the rhetoric of Trump and his Mus­lim ban, and I ask what kind of mes­sage that sends. The queen is care­ful in her re­sponse (she and her hus­band were head­ing to Wash­ing­ton for a state visit to the new pres­i­dent a few days a er our meet­ing) but it’s clear what she thinks:

‘Ev­ery coun­try has its own pre­rog­a­tive and, for ev­ery leader, his pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity is to safe­guard the se­cu­rity of his own peo­ple, that I un­der­stand,’ she says. ‘But the prob­lem of global ter­ror­ism is very com­plex and won’t be solved by ap­ply­ing bi­nary so­lu­tions such as a ban.’

She also wor­ries about what she sees as grow­ing Is­lam­o­pho­bia. ‘One of the main in­jus­tices in our world is the mis­con­cep­tion sur­round­ing Is­lam and the 1.6 bil­lion Mus­lims. Is­lam is not the en­emy. Daesh [Isis] and the like are the en­emy. Their ac­tions are not re­li­gious but crim­i­nal, and if you look into the back­grounds of many of their ghters, they are linked to crim­i­nal net­works and prison cells.

‘Whole­sale fear of Is­lam and Mus­lims only en­cour­ages oth­er­ing of those who speak, look or pray di er­ently and plays into the hands of the ex­trem­ists, who say Western cul­ture is against all of us Mus­lims.’

She be­lieves the onus is on Mus­lims to do more. ‘As Mus­lims, we must work harder and speak louder against these ex­trem­ists and re­ally ex­pose them for what they are, so we can strip them of their abil­ity to at­tract re­cruits.’

She has also long been an ad­vo­cate of girls’ ed­u­ca­tion and has spo­ken out against child mar­riage and hon­our killings. ‘I al­ways nd that, with women, if you em­power them a lit­tle bit, they li ev­ery­one around them. Ed­u­ca­tion for girls is the

best in­vest­ment you can make, be­cause the rip­ple e ect a ects so many is­sues; health, child mor­tal­ity, eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment all bene t when you give girls an ed­u­ca­tion.’

The queen, who claims to drive her­self (some­thing banned in neigh­bour­ing Saudi Ara­bia) and wears Western clothes, gets frus­trated at Western stereo­types. ‘What we see with Arab women is what we see with women ev­ery­where – they beat the odds,’ she says. ‘In many in­stances, they form pro­tec­tive shields against the rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion of young men in their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. They pool re­sources to feed their fam­i­lies. We see them on bat­tle elds, like the Yazidi women ght­ing Isis in Iraq. The West can help by re­sist­ing easy stereo­types of Arab women as sub­mis­sive and help­less. They are not, and once we stop see­ing them that way we can reach out. Women li each other up.’

I ask about her own choice of clothes and her de­ci­sion not to wear a hi­jab. ‘I re­ally do think that re­li­gion is a very per­sonal thing,’ she says. ‘I feel that it’s wrong to try to deal with our di er­ences by try­ing to im­pose ho­mo­gene­ity. Many women in my coun­try wear the hi­jab, and you’ll also nd many women dressed like me. It just ba es me some­times that there’s a huge de­bate about an is­sue that should re­ally be a non-is­sue.’

A er our in­ter­view, I ac­com­pany her to one of the com­mu­nity cen­tres of the Jor­dan River Foun­da­tion, the NGO she chairs that was the rst cen­tre in the re­gion to tackle child abuse and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

Many of the chil­dren are Syr­ian refugees. ‘We need to think not just about the eco­nomic e ects of be­ing a refugee, but also the need to ad­dress psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma and build re­silience,’ she says. ‘I think that in our life­times we haven’t seen a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis more heart-break­ing and ur­gent. There is a whole gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren un­der seven grow­ing up know­ing noth­ing but war and loss. Their child­hoods are be­ing lost to ig­no­rance, and ig­no­rance makes them much more sus­cep­ti­ble to rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion. Are we breed­ing a world more danger­ous than we face now?

‘When you think about it, there is no log­i­cal rea­son why we in Jor­dan are still stand­ing,’ the queen ad­mits. ‘This is a coun­try that had a nan­cial cri­sis, our debt is sky-high, we went through the Arab Spring, we had wars on four of our ve borders. One of the things that has kept us to­gether is that here in Jor­dan we take pride in the fact that we do work on build­ing in­sti­tu­tions. We have strong civil so­ci­ety and strong NGOs that work hand in hand with gov­ern­ment to ad­dress many is­sues. It is part of the rea­son that, against all odds, Jor­dan has re­mained in­tact in the face of tak­ing in so many refugees.’

The conversation comes back around to her im­pend­ing visit to the Trump White House and I ask if she would be im­part­ing any ad­vice to the rst lady, Me­la­nia Trump, who like Queen Rania is a for­eigner who un­ex­pect­edly found her­self as the coun­try’s lead­ing woman.

‘It’s my rst time meet­ing her and I don’t want to pre­sume I’d have any­thing to o er, but if she asks, I would be more than happy to share.’

And with that, the amaz­ing blue heels click-clack away to go and take on an­other cause.


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