In The Magazine

Amal Clooney: The Awe of Gravity

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The name Amal in Arabic means “hope.” Late last year, Amal Alamuddin Clooney ventured to the 17th annual Texas Conference for Women in Austin. It was a rare public appearance for a woman best known as being a celebrity fashion plate and for being seen most (and not heard) on the arm of her debonair actor husband, George.

With her incandescent presence alone, Amal Clooney embodies the hope that there are Prince Charmings—and that sometimes, at least, even confirmed bachelors will succumb to marriage. But she is by no means a trophy wife.

Those who know Clooney speak of her brilliant mind, elegance and intellect. Indeed, she wasn’t invited to Austin as either a princess bride or potent clickbait—though she is surely both. At a sold-out luncheon for 7,250 people, she told of 23-year-old Nadia Murad, Iraq’s 2015 Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a survivor of Islamic State terror, and it was Amal’s brainy passion that filled the stage. Elegant in a half-sleeved pinstriped dress by Giorgio Armani, she spoke persuasively for some 20 minutes. She’d come as a feminist, a human-rights advocate and lawyer, to speak about Murad, a client who’d been kidnapped by ISIS fighters along with thousands of other girls and women when the predominantly Yazidi city of Sinjar fell in August 2014—just a month before the Clooneys’ glamorous September 2014 wedding in Venice.

The contrast between the two women couldn’t be sharper, yet both are icons. Murad became one after escaping the ISIS camp in which she had been held for three months and finding her way to Clooney. Together, they are trying to bring ISIS fighters to trial before an international court. “The worst thing we can do, as women, is not stand up for each other,” Clooney said in Austin, “and this is something we can practice every day, no matter where we are and what we do.”

Clooney has been around. A long-time resident of London who was born in Lebanon, she is now about to become a New Yorker. Shortly before her trip to Austin, the New York Post revealed that the Clooneys had contracted to buy a condominium at 100 East 53rd Street, a Sir Norman Foster–designed tower codeveloped by art collector Aby Rosen’s RFR Holdings. The couple’s close friends Rande Gerber and Cindy Crawford reportedly signed to buy another, reinforcing Rosen’s marketing message, which calls the nearby blocks (also home to RFR’s Seagram Building, the site of the former Four Seasons restaurant, and Lever House) as the Midtown Cultural District. Amal Clooney’s gravity may keep it from becoming a mere celebrity district. And her message of hope wrapped in glamour likely ensures she’ll be embraced by her New York City neighbors, who voted nearly ten to one for Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election.

Moving from metropolis to metropolis is no novelty for Amal Clooney. The Alamuddin family moved to Britain’s capital during the 1980s Lebanese civil war, when Amal was 2 years old. Her parents—one Muslim, one Druze— sent her to notable schools, and following her graduation from Oxford’s St. Hughes she entered the New York University School of Law. Her path to human rights advocacy started there, near Washington Square Park, when she was selected for a clerkship at the International Court of Justice, and for one semester she worked at the offices of now Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who then sat on the United States Court of Appeals—Clooney later named Sotomayor as one of the most influential women in her life.

Clooney finished school in 2002 and after passing the New York State Bar, went to work for Sullivan & Cromwell, representing Enron and Arthur Andersen, which were under investigation for criminal activities. In 2005, she became part of the United Nations tribunal set up to prosecute those responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. After five years in New York, Alamuddin returned to London to work as a barrister for Doughty Street Chambers, a firm known for defending civil liberties.

Throughout her career, dressed mostly in bright colors (she has favored red outfits since her days at Dr. Challonner’s High School in England), Clooney has chosen high-profile clients and taken controversial cases. “I didn’t really know I was going to become a human rights lawyer,” she said in Austin. “I knew I was interested in studying law…and in people.” Among her roster of clients, she defended Al Jazeera reporter Mohamed Fahmy, who was jailed in Egypt by the government, accused of spying. He was later pardoned by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and upon his return to Canada he sued Al Jazeera for negligence. Following the release of Fahmy, who became a close friend, Clooney began seeking the recognition of the Armenian genocide. Turkey has always denied that these mass murders, which started in 1915, violated that convention of international law.

When Clooney represented Armenia in its case against Kurdish leader Doğu Perinçek, the difficulty of her job was made clear. Perinçek, chairman of Turkey’s Patriotic Party, was convicted of racial discrimination by a Swiss court for saying that the “Armenian genocide is a great international lie.” Perinçek was convicted and fined in 2007. After a long trial, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that a Turkish politician should not have been prosecuted for denying that the slaughter of Armenians was genocide.

Clooney moved on to representing the Greek government when it sought to recover the Elgin Marbles, the famous sculptural panels from the Parthenon in Athens, from London’s British Museum, but that effort ended when Greece decided to stop legal proceedings. Around that time, rumors first circulated that she was dating George Clooney; she initially denied it.

Although becoming the official girlfriend of a Hollywood A-lister gave her international visibility, Clooney arguably first gained fame when she joined the legal team defending the former president of the Maldives over what it called his ongoing practice of arbitrary detention. Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives and an international champion of climate change action—he “snorkeled” to international attention by holding an underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 to underline his nation’s vulnerability to rising sea levels—had been found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was accused of ordering the arrest of a Maldivian judge. Clooney took his case when his defense team was forced to quit, and she visited the Maldives after the local co-counsel on the case was stabbed in the head. Her bravery and work, according to The Economist, “helped strengthen the backing of Britain’s now former PM David Cameron for the cause of Maldivian democracy.”

But her latest client seems to be the one Clooney relates to the most. She and Nadia Murad were born relatively close to one another and could have had similarly devastating experiences if Clooney’s family had not fled Lebanon when they did. Together with Murad, Clooney is trying to persuade the International Criminal Court to prosecute ISIS commanders. “If we can’t take action on ISIS, [which] doesn’t have any powerful friends on the [Security] Council, in a case of genocide, then what is it that’s going to make you do something?” Clooney said of the case at the UN’s General Assembly meeting late last year.

This is not the posturing of a dilettante: Clooney’s life was threatened after taking the case against ISIS, but she does not fear their threats or seek to hide. Her new 6,760-square-foot duplex is not only attention-getting, it’s close to the UN, where she often attends meetings, and to the Columbia University Law School, where she will lecture on human rights in the spring.

The Clooneys’ new midtown neighborhood is full of big-name residents, among them Mr. and Mrs. Donald J. Trump, whose triplex is just a few blocks away. She’s not afraid of them either. At the women’s conference in Austin, Clooney was poised and calm as she said she is worried about America under Trump. Even though she is married to one of America’s sweethearts, her parents could conceivably have a hard time getting visas to visit their daughter here.

Aside from her speech, Clooney sat for a Q&A in Austin, and some of her comments about Trump’s campaign promises were misquoted and went viral. What she actually said was that she thinks “at this juncture with a new government coming in, people who work at the international level are concerned about some things that have been said on the campaign trail by the president-elect that relate to international law—for instance, that there should be a religious test imposed on entry into the U.S.; or the fact that there should be state-sponsored torture; that the families of suspected terrorists should all be killed. Those things are all violations of international human rights law and the values that underlie that. So I think there’s concern from abroad as to: Are these things really going to happen? Is the U.S. going to lose some of the moral standing that it has internationally.” Strong stuff.

Shortly, this champion of noble causes, along with her husband, whose politics are similar to hers, will be within cup-of-sugar-borrowing distance from Trump Tower. It might be too much to dream that Amal Clooney will be able to use her charm, smarts, diplomacy and, yes, beauty to temper some of its namesake’s more extreme positions. But after all, Amal does mean “hope.”

Additional reporting by Suzanne O’Malley


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