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Actually, Mendel Cohen was more than a simple carpenter. He was a contractor to the king. Abdullah, the only Arab chief known to have talked directly with Israeli leaders, was the first ruler of Transjordan (as it was then known), an entity created shortly before the birth of Israel. Cohen, a native of Jerusalem and fluent in Arabic, was hired in 1937 by then-Emir Abdullah to refurbish his palace in Amman. Work led to friendship, and Cohen soon became familiar with the royal household and the inevitable court intrigue. Portraits of Abdullah's sons, the slow Naif and the explosive Talal (father of Jordan's present king, Hussein), the noble characters, and the wily courtiers are all drawn neatly. The stories related here range from the operation of the harem to feasts in the emir's tent, where an entire roasted camel was not an unusual entree. More than a royal backstairs exposé, this is a thoughtful text, respectful of Arab ways and the teachings of Islam as well as the lessons of the writers' own heritage. Biblical history is felt as a current presence. The forces of enmity that finally separated Cohen and the king (in 1948, Cohen fought in the Israel Defense Force against the Arab forces commanded by Abdullah) have not abated, yet years later, visiting Amman at the invitation of Hussein, Cohen's daughter found reason in her father's experiences to hope for peace.
An engaging story and a vision of friendship, seen perhaps through rose-tinted glasses, but nevertheless a rare upbeat view in a particularly dim season for Mideast peace.