Shimmering in the noon sun, the road twisted downward in tight little arcs, disappearing behind a stand of frothy shrub, reappearing again along the rim of a rocky precipice and then vanishing from sight in the canyon far below. Beyond stretched the great green Rift Valley. A light breeze blew through the open-sided tent in which I sat high on a mountain in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The wind lifted swirls of sand from beneath thick Persian carpets and ruffled the flowing Arab headdresses of the guards who stood along the flag-lined road. In the intermission between the fifth and sixth events of the Royal Jordanian Automobile Club's second annual hill climb, an orchestra in scarlet-and-black uniforms played a Rodgers and Hart medley. A soldier kept rhythm with his fingers on the barrel of a machine gun tucked beneath his arm. Suddenly the voice of the race announcer interrupted the music.
"The next event," he said, "is for Grand Touring and sports cars from 1,601 to 2,000 cc. The first car in this event is No. 51. Car No. 51 will be driven by His Majesty, King Hussein."
I had traveled 10,000 miles to observe the legendary "boy king" who, since assuming the throne in 1953 at the age of 18, had survived five assassination attempts and countless other plots against his life, had confounded political skeptics by retaining his crown and, indeed, had made Jordan one of the most powerful and influential countries in the Middle East.
Hussein also had become the world's most visible royal sportsman, a lover of fast cars, fast planes, any fast action; not merely an accomplished athlete but a daredevil who sought out danger, who swam, scuba-dived, water-skied and raced Arabian stallions across the desert, jets across the skies and everything from Go Karts to motorcycles around the tracks. It was this aspect of the King that had brought me to Jordan for a firsthand look, and I was not disappointed in what I saw.
When I met Hussein earlier he was preparing his Porsche 911 sports car for the hill climb. He extricated himself from beneath the hood and wiped the grease from his hands. "Welcome to Jordan," he said, taking my hand in his. "I hope you will enjoy my country as much as I have enjoyed yours."
Hussein's build was powerful and muscular, his shoulders broad, his back straight. His black hair, cropped short, was flecked with gray. In the fashion of most Middle Eastern men, he wore a mustache.
Now from the tent on the mountain-top one could see a tiny silver bullet, Car No. 51, on the narrow road. The car slid around a curve, disappeared behind a stand of pine trees, rocketed out the other side and into another curve. It took the turn at maximum speed, clearing a guardrail by inches. The noise of the engine grew louder as the Porsche neared the end of the course. Hussein downshifted into the last tight hairpin. One car had already cracked up there, and several more had come close.
Car 51 took the hairpin wide, hugging the outside to midturn, then slamming across the corner with a screech of tires. It skidded sideways and picked up speed again as it came out of the turn onto the straightaway. With a last burst of power it roared across the finish line. Hussein had made the top speed of the morning.
The Porsche came to a stop at the grandstand. Suddenly the roadway was filled with people, until car and driver were surrounded by a cheering, clapping mob. People reached out to touch the white shirt, the brown arm.
"The customs of centuries change slowly," Hussein commented later. "One does not persuade a man to abandon his donkey by telling him that wheels are better. One shows him. Races such as these give prestige to driving and new heroes to the villages. The Automobile Club is now teaching thousands of youngsters to drive. They will work hard to have cars of their own someday. More cars mean more roads. More roads mean more tourists, cheaper trucking, better communications, closer unification of the country.