Jordan's Queen makes stereotype-correcting visit

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT is a bit of ``pshaw'' in the midst of pageantry, a snippet of candor amid all the ceremony. When referred to as a ``Cinderella,'' the Queen -- well, the Queen simply rolls her eyes. Not that one couldn't be forgiven for describing the Arab world's first American-born Queen in fairy-tale terms. She is, after all, Queen Noor -- that blue-eyed blonde who caught America's attention and imagination when she shot from Princeton graduate to Queen of Jordan with her whirlwind marriage to King Hussein in 1978.

The former Lisa Halaby, daughter of Najeeb Halaby, former chairman of Pan American World Airways, who is the son of a Syrian immigrant, first met the King while working in Jordan as a design director for Alia, Royal Jordanian Airways.

After their marriage, the King's fourth, the Queen relinquished her United States citizenship, converted to Islam, and changed her name to Noor, which means ``light.'' Today she is the mother of three young children, is actively involved in Jordanian affairs, and serves as an unofficial spokeswoman for the Arab world. (Nearly 60 percent of Jordan's citizens are Palestinians, many of whom are refugees from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.)

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Back on her native turf recently for a ``friendship visit'' to the US, Queen Noor addressed college students and granted interviews in an effort to correct the ``many stereotypes about our part of the world and about royalty.'' Her visit coincided with a flurry of new diplomatic activity in the Mideast. In her speeches, the Queen spoke of her husband's Mideast peace efforts and the necessity of an ``equitable solution'' to war, and she referred proudly to her ``dual [Arab-American] heritage.''

In person, she stops short of describing herself as just-plain-folks, but insists that she ``does aerobics'' and spends her days like many women, ``juggling personal and professional demands.''

``We don't have time for a great deal of pomp and ceremony,'' she said during an interview in her suite at Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. ``We are, in fact, a working couple before anything else. We [just] have different, larger, responsibilities.''

Dressed modestly in a simple silk dress and dark pumps but above-average diamond and pearl jewelry, the Queen presents an elegant mix of American directness and regal dignity. She speaks in a lightly accented voice that no longer sounds purely American, politely but carefully answering questions about her visit, the Mideast, and her unique role in Jordan.

``I had traveled and worked abroad for a time, and before I was married I had worked in Jordan,'' she says, explaining her decision to live in the Arab world. ``I felt very much at home there. It's not just the Arab blood that was responsible for that -- something in me just felt it belonged in that part of the world.

``One of the reasons why I remained in the Mideast and Jordan [is that] Jordan is a very dynamic community in transition. . . . We have preserved a great deal of our heritage. . . . At the same time we are progressive. . . . We have not yet suffered all the failures of the highly industrialized, technologically advanced countries. In other words we're in the process, we're seeking, we're searching. I think that's far more exciting than living and working in an environment where people feel they've found all the answers.

This instinctive attachment to her new country has apparently cushioned the transition from American citizenry to Arab royalty. She describes her first seven years as queen as a process of ``constructive evolution,'' rather than outright change. ``[My role] has grown and . . . evolved. At the outset I knew I would work and be active,'' she says. ``I have my own office. Most of what I've done has been rather revolutionary, as far as someone in my position. At the same time it is a natural evolution within my country.''

While initially concerned with domestic issues, such as education and women's opportunities, the Queen has more recently become involved with cultural affairs and promoting Jordan abroad. She was instrumental in establishing both the Jerash Festival, an international cultural festival held annually north of Amman, and the Jordan Society, a US-based organization devoted to promoting closer US-Jordan ties. Her visit to the US, where she spoke at several Eastern universities, including her alma mater, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, grew out of a similar commitment. ``I'm not coming here to tell the American government what it should do,'' she says. ``I'm trying to create a climate or an atmosphere, through better information, that might be conducive to an evolution of a more realistic American policy on the Mideast.''

While insisting she is ``not a policy person,'' the Queen speaks adamantly of ``a just resolution of the Palestinian problem'' and indirectly chastises the US for its cool reception of her husband's recent peace initiative. ``I'm not telling [Americans] what they must do,'' she says, ``except to say what I think is important in terms of a dialogue with the PLO and an evenhanded role that the US must play.'' She adds that she ``grapples daily with a US position that excludes the Palestinians.''

When asked during the interview if she perceives her husband's current role as analogous to the pioneering peace efforts of the late Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, the Queen insists, ``I wouldn't make the comparison for many reasons.'' She says that ``the complexities of [Hussein's] role are far greater than that of anyone else who has tried to deal with the problem . . . because he is more immediately concerned with what has been the most difficult problem of Arab-Israeli peacemaking all along -- the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.'' The return of the Sinai, Queen Noor says, ``really had more to do with isolating Egypt from the rest of the Arab world than helping promote real peace.''

As to her own role in the peace efforts, she demurs: ``There is so much learning that I have to do to come on a trip like this. [But] I do have the best professors in the world, beginning with my husband.''

She adds that she and the King ``lead as spontaneous a life as our work will allow us -- which means there is not much time for fun.'' When time does permit, the Queen says she and her family frequently ride horseback, ski, or simply escape to their seaside home in Aqaba. ``[We] just spend time with the children down there whenever we can. Even for one day out of months, it's enough to just shift one's perspective.''

The King has 10 children in all, some of whom live at the palace. Queen Noor has insisted that her own three children learn Arabic as their native tongue. She says she is not fluent herself, but her two sons, five-year-old Prince Hamzeh and four-year-old Prince Hashem, already ``think in Arabic. . . . [It] means that I have sacrificed something, but I knew I would be doing that,'' she says.

Another sacrifice involves her relationship with her own parents, who still live in the United States. ``I ask a lot of them in terms of understanding,'' she says. ``They're separated from their grandchildren, and they're separated from my life, which has its own momentum and character that's very different.'' Nearly every trip to the US, she says, includes a visit with them. And recently the Queen has begun reviving some old college acquaintances. ``At the beginning I was really cut off for a while,'' she says, ``but we've been able to redevelop old friendships, and that means a lot to me. It's a connection to my past and to my youth.''

When asked to envision another possible role for herself, Queen Noor is adamant about her happiness now. ``I can't imagine,'' she says. ``My life now really contains most of the elements -- no, all the elements -- that I had ever set out as being desirable for the way I wanted to lead my life.

``It has the professional challenge, a challenge that is also part of my personal relationship with my husband. We share it together. My work is involved with serving people at the same time I am developing my own talents. . . . I have a wonderful family. Somehow it all comes together. . . .

``There are many things that I would love to do that I am not doing now and may never have the opportunity to do. But what I'm doing now is miraculous.'' Then, with more than a trace of American frankness, she rushes to amend her statement. ``What I have, the opportunity . . . is miraculous. I don't want to say that I am miraculous.''

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