In the male-dominated cultures of the Middle East, very few women wield influence. One visible exception: Princess Ghida Talal of Jordan, who’s saving the lives of scholars threatened by political regimes through her work with the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE/SRF). Over the past decade, the organization has helped academics escape dangerous conditions in 45 countries and recently rescued more than 230 scholars from Iraq. Through Princess Ghida’s efforts, many of these Iraqis have gained safe haven in Jordan in the past four years—a coup for the SRF, which has not had the same success in other Arab nations.
Born in Lebanon, she studied at Georgetown University, then worked as a journalist for ABC News in London and for the London Sunday Times in Argentina. In 1991 she reconnected with Prince Talal of Jordan (whom she’d met in Washington, D.C.), then a close adviser to his uncle, King Hussein. She and the prince married that year and moved to Jordan, where she created an international press office for the king and served as his press secretary until his death eight years later.
Princess Ghida is now chairperson of the King Hussein Cancer Center, which she helped transform from a dismal, underfunded clinic to one of the top hospitals in the world. Dubbed an activist royal, she also works to destigmatize cancer in the Middle East.
As we sit down to talk, Princess Ghida, dressed casually in jeans and a purple cashmere sweater, pours tea and serves cake. Old Islamic art as well as huge Warhol paintings grace the walls of the family home, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the countryside. “We call it the House of Blessings,” she says with a smile.
Q Scholars have been targets of violence in Iraq. Why are they in danger?
A During a conflict or when an oppressive regime has taken hold, one of the first things to happen is an effort to destroy education and intellectual discourse. Academics are considered a challenge to authority and control. When I learned that scholars in Iraq were being harassed and killed, persecuted for the simple crimes of thinking and publishing, I wanted to play a role in rescuing them. I joined the board of SRF and began reaching out to Jordanian universities and people in government about hosting scholars.
Q Can you describe the situation in Iraq?
A Hundreds of academics began contacting SRF in 2007, saying they were being attacked. They didn’t know who was targeting them, but many were kidnapped. Some were shot at in the streets. Saddam [Hussein] had people under a tight rein, but generally he cared about learning. His regime collapsed, and there was, and still is, lawlessness. My husband describes it as a Lord of the Flies scenario. When symbols of authority have failed, people fear that the scholars could be the next leaders. It’s shocking, because 25 years ago, most of the country had a great tradition of learning. There was a saying that books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut and read in Iraq.
Q Do you worry about scholars leaving the Middle East for good?