Queen Noor's bold "Leap of Faith"

By SHIRLEY SAAD  |  July 9, 2003 at 3:03 PM
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, July 9 (UPI) -- If the continuing conflict in the Middle East and the peace talks between Arabs and Israelis have awakened your interest, there are numerous books on the history of the area, the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the role played by the United States in that conflict. Like most average Americans, even though she was of Arab origin herself, Lisa Halaby did not know much about all of that until she met, fell in love, and married an Arab. Why is her story of special interest? Because Lisa became Nour al Hussein, and the man she met and married was King Hussein, ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

In her autobiograpy, "Leap of Faith," Queen Nour recounts how she met the King, how he courted and married her, and how she became Queen of this desert kingdom.

Lisa was a modern young American woman, a graduate from the first freshman class of women at Princeton, with a degree in architecture and urban planning. She grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., New York and Washington. She met the King while visiting her father, who was a Pan Am executive, in Jordan.

The Queen's autobiography is honest and candid, sometimes funny and often touching. Her account of his majesty's illness and death brought tears to my eyes.

"After bidding a final farewell to my husband with our daughters and the women of the family, I watched as Hussein's sons carried him from our home and placed the casket on a funeral bier for the long, sad procession through the capital to Raghadan Palace, where Jordanian and international dignitaries would pay their respects before accompanying him to a brief service in the mosque of the royal compound, then up to the royal cemetary for burial. 'Hatta al samaa tabki ala Al Hussein,' the people in the streets said to one another as they walked through the rain and dense fog: Even the sky is crying over Al Hussein."

Hers is an unusual voice: an American who took the trouble to learn about the Middle East and who recounts the history of the area, of the royal family and of the recent Israeli-Palestinian problems from an Arab point of view.

She openly discusses her parents' divorce as well as her own marital problems. But the love and understanding she shared with the late king allowed them to come through the difficult times, the political as well as the personal ones.

The King was in a difficult position, caught between Israel and the rest of the Arab world, always weighing the welfare of his people and of his country against the pressures of his allies, the machinations of his enemies, and the survival of the monarchy while still trying to maintain as normal a family life as it is possible for a monarch to have.

Hussein tried hard to remain a loyal friend and ally to the United States, even when he disagreed with its foreign policy regarding Israel. He tried hard to broker a lasting peace in the area, without forgetting the plight of the countless Palestinian refugees, many of whom lived in his kingdom. That is why he considered the Camp David accords, and the peace between Egypt and Israel, a catastrophe. He knew that any peace treaty that did not take into consideration the return of the occupied territories and the fate of the Palestinians would only inflame the rest of the Arabs.

Although of Arabic descent, Lisa Halaby did not know much about either the Arab world or Islam before marrying Hussein. Her mother, Dora Carlquist, was of Swedish and European ancestry, while her paternal grandfather was originally from Aleppo in Syria. He married an American woman who convinced him to convert from the Greek Orthodox religion to the Christian Science faith. Quite a different background from that of Hussein, who was a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad.

Noor entered wholeheartedly into his life, adopting his country and his people, his customs and traditions, his family and his religion. Hussein already had eight children from three former wives before he married her. They had four more together. Today, Abdallah, one of his sons from his English second wife, is the king. He and his wife Rania are, like Hussein and Noor before them, fighting to change the laws ruling "honor" killings.

In Jordan, as in many other Muslim countries, a father, brother, husband or son has the right to kill any woman of his family who has brought them dishonor without fear of legal reprisal. The cause could be something as simple as talking to a man outside the family circle or leaving the house without permission. Conservative elements in the Parliament have blocked the initiatives time and again.

Many aspects of life in the Arab world, even as a queen, must have been hard for the woman who had grown up in the America of the sixties, who had joined student organizations and marched in protest for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. Her job in urban planning took her to places as diverse as Australia and Iran. Nothing in her childhood or youth prepared her for the role of queen, but Noor, like Grace Kelly before her, played her role to perfection. But while Princess Grace's husband Rainier ruled over a peaceful European playground for the rich and famous, Nour al Hussein, which means Light of Hussein, was plunged into a tumultuous world of Middle Eastern politics and conflict.

This is a fascinating book on many levels: the political and historical background of Jordan and the Middle East; the relationship between world leaders and how world affairs affects their friendship; the contrast between life in the refugee camps and the royal palace, and the love story between Hussein and Noor. The Queen addresses all of that in her eloquent and candid style, describing her role as queen, wife, and mother, making a fascinating and easy read.

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