Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Queen Noor

Queen of Jordan; born on August 23, 1951, as Lisa Najeeb Halaby in Washington, D.C. Her father, Najeeb Elias Halaby, was a former navy test pilot and lawyer who had been head of the Federal Aviation Administration under President John F. Kennedy. Born into a distinguished Arab-American family, Lisa experienced a privileged upbringing, attending exclusive private schools in Washington D.C., New York City, and Massachusetts before enrolling in the first coeducational class at Princeton University in 1969.

In 1972, after taking a break from academics to waitress, ski, and study photography in Aspen, Colorado midway through her sophomore year, Lisa returned to Princeton and took up her study of architecture and urban planning with a renewed vigor and drive. Upon graduation, she flew to Australia and worked for an architectural firm that specialized in the design of new towns. At this time, her steadily growing interest in Arab culture took shape in a job offer from Llewelyn-Davies, Weeks--a British architectural firm that had been commissioned to re-plan the city of Teheran—which she immediately accepted.

Lisa returned to the United States in 1976, where she planned to take a master’s degree in journalism, entertaining the idea of pursuing a career in television production. In the meantime, her father had just accepted an offer from the Jordanian government to help redesign their airlines, forming the company Arabair Services. He offered Lisa a job, and she accepted, foregoing the Columbia School of Journalism to become the airline’s Director of Facilities Planning and Design. She assisted in the design of the Arab Air University, to be built in the Jordanian capital, as well as a housing company for Royal Jordanian Airlines employees.

During this time, Lisa attended several important social events in Jordan, and occasionally got the opportunity to meet King Hussein (they first met at an airport ceremony in 1977). The King, who was still mourning the loss of his third wife, Alia, took great interest in the airlines. The two became friends, and by 1978, their friendship had evolved into a romance. Lisa later recalled to Dominick Dunne of Vanity Fair, “We courted on a motorcycle. It was the only way we could get off by ourselves.” After a six-week courtship, King Hussein proposed to Lisa on May 13, 1978.

On June 15, 1978, Lisa Najeeb Halaby became the first American-born queen of an Arab country, taking the name Noor al-Hussein or “Light of Hussein.” She and King Hussein married in a traditional Islamic ceremony at the Zaharan Palace, where Queen Noor was the only woman present. Although the Jordanian people expressed discomfort about King Hussein’s choice of a non Arab-Muslim bride, they soon warmed to the union when they witnessed Noor’s genuine interest and commitment to Jordan and her conversion to the Islamic religion.

Queen Noor’s throne came with a myriad of challenges, multiplied by her status as a foreigner coming from an extremely liberal background. She immediately took on the responsibilities of managing the royal household, as well as the three small children from Hussein’s former marriage to Alia. She constantly needed the accompaniment of bodyguards, as King Hussein had survived more than twenty-five assassination attempts.

More on Queen Noor

Queen Noor strides into the kitchen wearing bluejeans and a sweater. She's sophisticated but informal, very Town & Country.

Click to enlarge
At 52, Queen Noor has carefully crafting a complicated new life after the death of her husband, King Hussein.
Buy photo
The New York Times

She sips ginger tea at the kitchen table. At 52, she is striking: blonde, slender and tall. She talks thoughtfully of being a widow and a single mother, of shepherding her kids through college, of her work, of trying to live a "normal" life.

Nothing here screams "royalty" -- no tiaras, no bowing servants -- except for the family pictures in the kitchen. For 21 years, Noor was King Hussein's wife and Jordan's unofficial ambassador to the world. It's been five years since he died, leaving her with a title but no throne, a regal past but an uncertain future.

The public Noor is a worldfamous advocate for Palestinian rights, women's and environmental issues, and peace in the Middle East. Her autobiography, "Leap of Faith," is an international best seller. She commands $60,000 per speech on the lecture circuit. She dines with Nelson Mandela, consults with Kofi Annan, is serenaded by Sting.

She jets around the world, followed by cameras and gossip. Her homes, her four children, her dates are discussed in newspapers in Washington, New York, London and Amman. She is admired, envied and dissected in two different cultures.

Based in Washington, her hometown, she's carefully crafting a complicated new life.

"I have been trying, and I admit very awkwardly, to try to strike a balance where I can live a normal, natural life here, where I don't do anything here or in Jordan that I would not be comfortable with in either place," she says.

This is the inherent paradox of Noor: She's between a crown and a hard place.


Noor became a media sensation the day she got married in 1978 at 26. She happily embraced the role of Hussein's public partner but believed her private life should be off-limits. On her first royal visit to Washington, she was upset when reporters failed to ask substantive questions. "I hoped to be taken as a credible voice with serious matters to discuss," she writes in her book.

Twenty-six years later, so much has changed -- and so little.

Noor has implemented ambitious plans to improve the economic, educational and cultural lives of Jordanians. Her Web site lists reams of charitable interests around the world: Refugees International, Landmine Survivors Network, Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund. She makes 70 to 100 speeches and appearances annually. But she is also a queen, a title that overshadows everything else about her. (Jordan actually has two queens: Noor and Queen Rania, wife of King Abdullah.)

"I'm always going to be instinctively a private person and also motivated to be a public servant," she says. "So I'm always going to be trying to reconcile these two essential parts of me. Obviously, it works well sometimes, and it can be somewhat awkward on other occasions. I'm learning my way slowly through all this."

For the past six months, she's been in talks with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, looking for ways to use her experience in the Middle East in the areas of peace building, women's rights and sustainable development.

"I'll go in as a U.N. person, not as Queen Noor of Jordan," she says. "It's going to be interesting to see how it works, because as a Muslim and an Arab and given my history, I actually can be an effective advocate within Muslim and other communities. I'm trying to see if I can do that in my own right as a world citizen" rather than as an official representative of Jordan.

Washington philanthropist and friend Jim Kimsey, chairman of the International Commission on Missing Persons, has twice traveled with Noor to the Balkans, where they met with heads of states in an effort to open mass graves for DNA identification. Noor, he says, made a huge difference in persuading officials to allow access to the sites. He cites a meeting with former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica in which the two men heatedly "traded some testosterone." Noor, he says, deftly defused the tension.

"She's extraordinarily effective," says Kimsey. "First of all, she's got an enormous amount of charm. But in addition, her intellect is very precise and is able to cover points in detail. I got much more accomplished as a result of having her in these meetings than I would had I been by myself."

Many predicted she would be the perfect person to bridge the cultural gap between Americans and the Arab world after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Her speeches plead for greater cooperation, understanding and compassion.

"She's smart, she's eloquent, she's gracious, and very direct and sincere," says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute here. "Over the years, she developed a gravitas. When she spoke, she spoke like a leader."

"If she hadn't become queen of Jordan, I think she'd have become a public policy wonk," says Victoria Pope, who edited her book. "She loves that stuff. She's really terribly serious."

But she's a queen, and people come to look as much as to listen. Like any celebrity in politics, the messenger is as important as the message.


The former Lisa Halaby was the eldest child of Najeeb Halaby, a Navy pilot of Syrian descent who had the top job at Pan Am and wealthy, influential friends all over the world -- including King Hussein.

Noor grew up in privilege: elite private schools, ski trips to Austria and Switzerland. In her book, Noor describes herself as a loner, bookish, happiest in serious conversations. By the time she entered Princeton University, where she graduated in 1974, classmates had labeled her snobbish and haughty.

But her reserved bearing was a natural fit for a queen, and she embraced her new life and her new name (as a wedding gift, Hussein renamed his fourth wife Noor al Hussein, or Light of Hussein).

She originally intended to stay in Jordan after Hussein's death but has ended up spending most of her time here. Her children -Crown Prince Hamzah, 23; Prince Hashim, 22; Princess Iman, 20; and Princess Raiyah, 18 -- attended schools in the United States and England. Noor's ailing father and her sister lived here, and a family trust owned River House, Hussein's 10-acre estate on the Potomac. (The property was sold in 2001 to Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder.)

Her first public appearance in Washington after the mourning period was at Hashim's 1999 prep school graduation. She later was seen around the city, usually with Kimsey at A-list events: the National Symphony Ball, the Corcoran Ball, opening night of the Washington Opera.

Washington was star-struck, curious and eager to welcome Noor back home. But the woman who is so skilled in her public roles has proved surprisingly awkward. Guests seated near her at formal dinners describe her as serious but not engaged, rarely sharing personal information or observations. She is seen as bright, gracious and glamorous but uncomfortable in large groups and impatient with small talk.

Esther Coopersmith, a longtime friend of Jordan's royal family, says: "Perhaps some people think she's cold. She's not. She's shy and reserved."

At parties, Noor says, she simply tries to spend time with friends, support the organizations and "disappear into the wallpaper." She says she's always been socially awkward. "I'm not good at chitchat. Not because I look down on it -- because it's a very important way of connecting in our world -- it's just that I've never been good at it." She adds one other factor: her poor vision -- she's had Lasik surgery twice.

There's been speculation about a romance with Kimsey, the America Online co-founder and multimillionaire whom she met in 2001. Both deny it, and Noor says she has no plans to remarry.

"He's like a big brother," says Noor. "We happen to do wonderful work together."

It's a friendship she treasures, says Noor, but she avoids being photographed with him. At December's Kennedy Center Honors, photographers were waiting for the two to pass by when she pivoted aside, ruining the picture. "One shot, Your Majesty!" implored one.

But she says: "In the Middle East, a photograph of me with any man that they don't know, who's not a family member, will immediately become extrapolated many times beyond what any reasonable person here might do -- and it becomes an affair, a marriage, you name it."


Noor's memoir, published last spring, is an exhaustive history of Jordan and Hussein's role as peacemaker. Noor believes he was not given sufficient credit for his efforts, placing the blame on "Zionist" lobbying organizations.

After battling cancer, Hussein died Feb. 7, 1999, ending a 47year reign. Prince Abdullah, 37, the eldest son from Hussein's second marriage, became king, and named Noor and Hussein's son Hamzah as the new crown prince.

At first, Noor focused on her part in Jordan's public mourning, then helping her children grieve, writing her book and caring for her father before his death.

"So it's only just now that I feel that I am, perhaps on one hand, maybe going to be able to complete that grieving process and feel minimally satisfied that I've assumed some of those responsibilities to (Hussein) and maybe to his legacy, and to look forward to the next phase," she says.