Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life by Queen Noor, 467pp, Weidenfeld, £20
The sub-title of this engaging and inspiring book is Memoirs of an Unexpected Life. For a young American woman to marry an Arab king was indeed unexpected but not entirely unpredicted. At a farewell dinner at a restaurant in Tehran, an acquaintance told Lisa Halaby her fortune in the traditional Middle Eastern way, by reading her coffee cup. He turned over the cup, flipped it back, and studied the patterns within. “You will return to Arabia,” he predicted. “And you will marry someone highborn, an aristocrat from the land of your ancestors.” That man turned out to be King Hussein of Jordan.
Halaby was born into a prominent Arab-American family. Her father, Najeeb Halaby, was a successful businessman and public servant but a demanding and difficult individual. The father’s relentless perfectionism could not be reconciled with the mother’s quest for family peace and the marriage was dissolved.
As a child Lisa was earnest and introverted, a loner by temperament, and she was to remain impatient with small-talk and gossip. Part of this social awkwardness, she confesses, is rooted in her relationship with her father. One of the positive results of growing up in this “moderately dysfunctional American family” was self-reliance. Lisa joined the first freshman class at Princeton to accept women, graduating in 1974 with a degree in architecture and urban planning.
Leap of Faith is the story of her remarkable journey into Hussein’s heart and their 21 years of marriage, ending with the king’s death in 1999. For Hussein it was evidently love at first sight. For the young, independent-minded American woman, the courtship,over long evenings in the palace, involved some doubts. The king was a widower with eight children from three marriages and a reputation as a playboy. “I will not deny that the idea of being his fourth wife, or anybody’s fourth wife, was troubling to me,” she writes. But the king was an assiduous suitor and would even sing to her. Though she was not as drawn to the Swedish group Abba as he was, she was charmed when he would croon “Take a chance on me”.
Having accepted the royal proposition of marriage, Lisa Halaby changed her name to Noor Al Hussein, the “Light of Hussein”. She also converted to Islam and began in earnest to learn Arabic. The love affair with Hussein developed into a love affair with his desert kingdom.
As well as being an intimate portrait of a marriage, Leap of Faith reflects a deep commitment to the people, culture, and natural beauty of Jordan. “I had found myself spellbound,” writes Noor, “by the serene expanse of desert landscape washed golden by the retreating sun at dusk. I was overwhelmed by an extraordinary sensation of belonging, an almost mystical sense of peace.”
There was precious little peace, however, to be found inside the royal palace. Noor knew she had to make some adjustments to her new environment but she found the lack of privacy irksome and unsettling. Court officials were ubiquitous and they constantly intruded on her private space. Over the years she came to realise that some of this dissonance was cultural - “the difference between a western sense of privacy and personal space and an eastern emphasis on communal identity and space”. This was a characteristically charitable explanation for the conduct of the courtiers.
Noor also had to fight to carve out a meaningful role for herself. Many in Jordan thought a queen should be a glamorous figure on a pedestal, perhaps engaged from a distance in charity work. Noor had no intention of being a mere figurehead and spending her time simply opening bazaars and expositions. On the contrary, she wanted to be involved in tackling real problems.
Through the United Nations and other organisations, Noor became involved in issues that were important to her, such as global peacekeeping, refugee assistance and the Land Mine Ban Treaty. Most of her time and energy, however, were taken up with work in the areas of women’s and children’s welfare, human rights, health, education, and the environment.
She became acutely aware that all these problems, tackled in isolation by individual ministries and charities, were fundamentally inter-related. Her role, as she saw it, was to serve as a catalyst for consensus-building and action. In 1985, the Noor Al Hussein Foundation was established. Its aim was to provide strategies for sustainable development and integrating efforts to tackle these problems in a concerted manner.
While King Hussein supported his wife’s domestic initiatives, he himself was mainly preoccupied with foreign affairs, and more particularly with the quest for peace in the Middle East in the aftermath of the June 1967 war. Politics thus became a constant companion to Queen Noor throughout the 21 years of her marriage.
She is a highly sophisticated political animal with strong liberal leanings, and a perceptive judge of personalities. In writing this autobiography, she relied not just on her memory but also on a journal she kept intermittently. Her book contains fascinating accounts of encounters with American, Arab, Palestinian and Israeli leaders. It also sheds a great deal of new light on inter-Arab relations and on the diplomacy surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict.
One theme that crops up again and again in Noor’s narrative is the frustration and anger she feels in the face of American double standards towards the Middle East. From Jordan she began to see the land of her birth through new eyes - and the image that America projected was not a positive one.
Noor had grown up believing in America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and human rights, but she gives many examples of Washington’s failure to uphold these principles in its treatment of Jordan. She complains, with justice, that America’s support for Israel has too often been at the expense of Arab human rights and in violation of international law and United Nations resolutions.
Throughout the 1980s Noor undertook several intensive speaking tours in America, gruelling two-week marathons of speeches and interviews. The American media offered few perspectives on the Middle East other than that of Israel. Noor was uniquely placed to educate her fellow Americans about the problems of the region but it was an uphill struggle.
The warmest reception Hussein received in America was in 1994 when he and Itzhak Rabin went to the White House to issue the Washington Declaration, ending the conflict between Jordan and Israel. Members of the Jordanian delegation could now see first-hand the magical hold that Israel had on the American political psyche.
On at least one issue Noor was at odds with her husband and the leaders of her adopted country: press freedom. From the first years of their marriage, she lobbied her husband and his key officials to reconsider personal and institutional freedoms. The press in Jordan, though privately owned, was effectively government-controlled. Truly independent reporting did not exist. A combination of conservatism and insecurity made the rulers wary of allowing the people to read dissenting opinions. By her own account, Noor’s pleas fell on largely deaf ears. In this respect she was a bit like a lighthouse in the desert: brilliant and illuminating but of little use to her immediate environment.
Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World 1948-1998 (Penguin)