A sudden late snow is falling, bright with just a touch of magic, as the automatic gate to Aberlash House opens. It’s an afternoon in March but, in this powdery landscape, could be January. Footprints lead a few steps down a drive, between a row of trees, and climb to a small colonnaded entryway. A breeze is up; the air is bracing. Amal Clooney swings open the door and gathers me inside.
“I feel as if I know you already,” she says oddly, setting a latch against the cold. Tall, poised, and—unexpectedly for someone often seen in somber barrister’s robes—funny, Clooney is an easy host, and dashes off to hang my coat. She wears a red thigh-length Giambattista Valli sweater, jeans, and leopard-print boots she picked up years ago in Capri. The stately entry hall around us (towering ceilings, crisp Georgian molding) is trimmed with personal details. A softly faded Persian rug extends down the stone corridor. A side table, lit by a simple lamp, bears silver-framed black-and-white photos of her with her husband, George, and friends.
The two of them bought this house, set on a tiny island in the Thames called Sonning Eye, around the time they married, and then spent their honeymoon here, camping out in the unfurnished rooms. Last June, Amal gave birth to twins, Ella and Alexander, and since then the house—much like the Clooneys themselves—has grown giddy with the trappings of first parenthood. “We’ve had some ‘Mamas’ and ‘Dadas,’ ” Amal says. She smiles coyly. “George was very careful to ensure that ‘Mama’ was the first word.”
The many charms of her life, in other words, have not arrived without some background work. I’ve spent the morning interviewing members of her family, but it’s when I meet her that I learn—and this is why she feels we know each other—that she also subsequently interviewed them about me: a barrister’s instinct for discovery, the better to respond by knowing how things stand.
Many people first encountered Amal Clooney in 2014, on her engagement to George. By then, though, she had already built a notable career as a London barrister in international human rights law—the system through which some of the world’s slipperiest transnational villains, such as ISIS, can be held accountable in court. “I remember all the stages in my career where I almost didn’t have enough confidence to try for something,” she says, “almost didn’t have the guts to follow something I was excited about doing, because I didn’t know anyone else who’d done it or other people made me question it.” Recently she’s tried to help young women approach similarly unconventional paths in law.
“What distinguishes a really great barrister in international-law practice is creativity,” explains Geoffrey Robertson, a cofounder of Doughty Street Chambers, the firm where Clooney works, and one of the giants of the field. International law is, as he puts it, “newfangled”: It requires an eye for synthetic connections and an ear for deft persuasion. “She’s been a leading intellectual thinker on the concept of fairness—in a trial where you don’t have a jury and where, sometimes, you don’t have a defendant,” he says. “That set her apart even before she met George.”
If the standard model for Hollywood marriage is either celebrity pairing or quiet consortship (a spouse outside the limelight, a supportive partner on the running board of the career), Amal Clooney quickly flouted such customs. She was not a celebrity, yet she rose to fame’s conventions and constraints. At the same time, she remained carefully herself, heralding a subtle, welcome change in social expectation on the way. Once, a high-achieving working woman would have been trapped in the shadow of her leading man. Now you go out evenings and expect to find women outshining, in their brilliance and accomplishment, whoever dangles on their arm—even George Clooney.
“She’s the professional, and I’m the amateur,” says George, who’s done a share of humanitarian work on his own. “I get to see someone at the absolute top of their game doing their job better than anybody I’ve ever seen.” He was not alone in feeling so, and a shower of jokes followed news of their vows across their world. “Internationally Acclaimed Barrister Amal Alamuddin Marries an Actor,” went one version of a popular headline gag. At the 2015 Golden Globes, Tina Fey met their match with a punch line: “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person U.N. commission,” she said onstage. “So tonight her husband is getting a lifetime-achievement award.” Nobody in the audience seemed to laugh more joyfully than George.
Even with fairy dust settling atop the Clooneys’ union (they married in Venice; she wore an empyrean off-the-shoulder Oscar de la Renta dress), Amal’s hard, sometimes disturbing work remains a major part of their shared lives. On the afternoon I stop by, she is showing around Nadia Murad, a 25-year-old Iraqi refugee she has invited to the house, and whose experiences informed Clooney’s highest-profile legal battle to date. Clooney introduces us, then peers around her vast, lovely home looking perplexed.
“Where would you like to sit?” she asks, gesturing with a mug of espresso. (Two years ago, she and George tried to go on a healthy-eating cleanse. “It was hard to give up the glass of wine in the evening, but even harder to give up the espresso first thing in the morning,” she recalls. “We’re like, Aren’t we supposed to be feeling amazing?” They bailed on day eleven of three weeks.)
We contemplate two rooms off the main entry. To the left is a very correct sitting room (stuffed chairs, a couch, a hearth) decorated with a mix of family photos (Amal’s parents, George’s parents) and photos decidedly not family-like: George and Amal shaking hands with President Obama; George and Amal meeting the pope. To the right is a room, lined with bookshelves, that is ever-so-slightly strange. There’s a framed antique map of Berkshire, the county nearby; a ship in a bottle; and a gold monogram sculpture (G and A). Amal’s laptop is splayed across a cushioned coffee table, and some art books (Bruegel, Gauguin) are stacked sideways on a shelf, near a collection of vintage Penguin paperbacks. The mantel is decorated with wedding photos; the Clooneys love photos above all else. Some of their most cherished paintings, by contrast, are of George’s late, beloved cocker spaniel, Einstein (posed as a physics professor at a chalkboard), and the head of a giraffe (Amal adores giraffes). When some insurance appraisers came by, a while back, they spent some time peering at these paintings of dogs and leaf-munching mammals before issuing a pointedly low estimate on the Clooneys’ art.
“They were like, ‘It’s barely worth getting a policy,’ ” Clooney says, dropping her voice in mock umbrage. “They were very judgmental.”
Murad and I settle into the cozier, more interesting book-laden room, and Clooney goes to make tea: The snow is heavy on the ground, and it is near the sleepy hour of the afternoon. Murad is shy but self-possessed, and wears her history in her manner. She’s a Yazidi: a member of a Kurdish-speaking ethnoreligious minority that follows a faith entirely its own and, as a result, has been virulently targeted by ISIS. In August 2014, when ISIS fighters appeared in her hometown of Kocho, they escorted her and other Yazidis to the local school. Males were separated from females, who were then sorted by age. The older women and the men, including six of Murad’s siblings, were killed in a mass slaughter. Murad and other young women were transported to Mosul and distributed as sex slaves. She was beaten, raped repeatedly, and, at one point, put in a room with six ISIS guards, who violated her two at a time until she passed out. Then finally one day she was able to escape through an unlocked door (she was one of the lucky ones) and made it to a refugee camp. Through a German refugee program, she began a new life in Stuttgart and started telling her story in the West.
In 2016, Murad met Clooney, who took on the Yazidis’ plight. Over months, Clooney interviewed other refugees and survivors, building a case that could carry through the international justice system.
“Not many people stepped up to help as she did,” Murad confides now, through a translator, as Clooney fusses in the kitchen. Murad is wearing jeans and a playful gray sweater with a cat embroidered on it, but she is still hauntedly thin. “I was surprised that someone like her—a successful lawyer with a strong record—would help us. We’re a very small community.”
The Yazidi case brought Murad and her lawyer to the floor of the U.N., in September 2016. There, in crisp barrister fashion, Clooney delivered a rending plea. “She has shown us the scars from cigarette burns and beatings,” she said of Murad. “Nadia’s mother was one of 80 older women who were executed and buried in an unmarked grave.”
She drew herself up. “Make no mistake: What Nadia has told us about is genocide, and genocide doesn’t happen by accident. . . . I am ashamed, as a supporter of the United Nations, that states are failing to prevent or even punish genocide because they find that their own interests get in the way.”
Progress followed incrementally. In late 2016, the German supreme court authorized an arrest warrant against a high-ranking ISIS commander. In 2017, following a second presentation by Clooney, the U.N. Security Council resolved to establish an investigative team to collect evidence about ISIS’s actions in Iraq. “It tells victims that they may finally have their day in court,” Clooney wrote in an opinion piece following the resolution. “Justice is now, finally, within reach.”
To help draw attention to what remains of the fight, Murad recently published a memoir, The Last Girl. (Clooney wrote the foreword.) In cooperation with the French government, she has started a fund-raising campaign, the Sinjar Action Fund, to support schools, clinics, and other infrastructural necessities in her home region. When the more than 350,000 displaced Yazidis can finally come home, Murad hopes to do what she dreamed of before her nightmare started: open a beauty parlor for women in Kocho, where there are none.
“She’s so eloquent,” Clooney says later. “There are many cases where I think, Well, the reality is, politically, nothing will be done. But there is actually no reason why nothing could be done on this case, where the perpetrators were confessing to the crime.” The Yazidi case, she says, is “a test of the whole international system—if the U.N. can’t take meaningful action, something is really fundamentally wrong.”