As Jordan boils over the murder of air force pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh and weighs future course amid ISIL’s reign of terror, its many happier days in the Levant are invoked with moving pathos in a memoir from that era long gone. Through the Palace Keyhole by Ann Hutchison Sawalha, an American who married into a Bedouin family, is as much a personal history as a chronicle of a period marked by the Arab world’s coming of age in the early oil era, impatient modernisation and cautious social regeneration, as well as multiple tragedies on a pan-Arab level.
Ann, a native of Pontiac, Michigan, was working in Detroit in 1956 when she met Sami Sawalha, her future husband and lifelong guide on a transformational journey to Arabia. For Hutchison didn’t just marry Sami, she got hitched to his family’s fledgling hotel empire and, while raising their children, saw it grow and then shrink in the 1967 loss to Israel of Jerusalem and then recover and prosper again.
The memoir’s main strength lies in the writer’s storytelling skills, her ability to weave, tapestry-like, parallel narratives of family history, societal change and the never ending swirl of political turmoil. Sami Swalha died in 2011 but his hotels survive, a tribute, she says, to Sami’s dreams and strengths, and her own unwavering determination to support him.
“I feel sad for the Middle East and what has happened to the region during my life here, but I’m never sad for us,” Ann Hutchison Sawalha writes. “Nearly 50 years ago we began our marriage with the intent of making a good life together. Youth, passion and love were the bonds that held us together when the ordinary stresses of marriage and the misunderstandings between our Arab and American cultures threatened to drive us apart.
“We survived complex frustrations, hard work, war, military occupation and several armed conflicts in the region. Our youth behind us and our passion diminished, contentment and understanding gained from shared experiences buttressed our hold on love.
“I began my life with Sami half a century ago and it has been extraordinary,” says Ann. As witness to the continuing fortunes of the Sawalha family that this ‘all-American girl, born and raised in an ordinary Methodist household’ married into, the book has a foreword by Princess Muna al Hussein, the former British consort of the late King Hussein and mother of the present king, Abdullah II.
Published by Medina in hard cover. Price GBP 13.95.