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?
A We consider this program brain protection or brain gain. The whole point of SRF is to help on a temporary basis so scholars can continue their work and one day go back to their home country. We connect them to universities around the world, help them find housing and give them grants of about $20,000 per year. Some of the Iraqi scholars have been brought to America and Europe, but most want to stay close to their own students.
Q Other Arab countries, however, are not supportive of Iraqi refugees.
A The other Arab countries have not shown the same interest, and the wealthy ones have different priorities. Qatar is spending $4 billion to build football stadiums for the World Cup, and Dubai is investing $13.5 billion in its culture village. It’s fine to build museums, but why not also give the small amount needed to save one of our own Arab scholars?
Q What’s your reaction to the treatment of women in the Middle East?
A You feel your blood boiling. But the only way to respond after the initial anger is by soldiering on. Jordan has made major headway with regard to women. It’s not perfect, but we have equal opportunities in terms of education. Women work as doctors and in government. I don’t know if I can say there is complete equality, but I wonder if you would consider women in the United States completely equal in terms of jobs, either.
Q What are the issues women scholars face in your region?
A They face more persecution than men. Oppressive regimes do not tolerate the idea of a woman existing, let alone writing and publishing. Some of the Iraqi women scholars who were rescued went through indescribable horrors. Many were beaten; they saw their husbands killed or their children kidnapped. About 20 percent of the [SRF] scholars are women. That’s not a bad percentage, because men constitute a greater percentage of scholars than women nearly everywhere.
Q You’re deeply involved with the King Hussein Cancer Center. Is this personal for you?
A Yes. My husband and I had been married only six months when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We had the privilege of traveling to the U.S. for his care, and I wanted so much that other wives would have the same opportunity forhope that I had. When I began as chairperson of the center, we had a couple of full-time doctors and very inadequate treatment. I wanted to make sure that cancer was no longer a death sentence in the Middle East. I met with the National Cancer Institute in the U.S., which agreed to send doctors to us if we met certain criteria. Now we have about 170 oncologists, and we’re the only center in the developing world to have accreditation. People from Arab countries get treatment in line with international standards, and there’s a goodwill fund for the underprivileged.
Q Is there still a stigma to cancer among Arab women?
A Yes. In our part of the world, 70 percent of women with breast cancer used to be diagnosed at stages 3 and 4, when it’s less curable. We started an aggressive campaign for early detection. In three years we’ve been able to cut that statistic in half.
Q Many organizations in Jordan have a “royal patron” who lends his title to the cause. But you’ve gone far beyond that. Why?
A The global culture has flattened, and a title means less and less. You have to be engaged in society. I suppose if I were aloof, I could hear a lot of “Yes, Your Royal Highness.” But what would that mean? I wouldn’t have the respect of people—and that is what I care about. The world has changed, and nobody speaks of royals in hushed tones anymore.