Noor al-Hussein (1951—)

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Noor al-Hussein (1951—)

Queen of Jordan . Name variations: Lisa Halaby. Born Elizabeth Najeeb Halaby on August 23, 1951, in Washington, D.C.; oldest of three children of Najeeb Elias Halaby (a lawyer and businessman) and Doris (Carlquist) Halaby; attended the National Cathedral School, in Washington, D.C.; attended the Chapin School, New York City; attended the Concord Academy, in Concord, Massachusetts; graduated from Princeton University, in 1974; married Hussein Ibn Talal also seen as Hussein bin Talal, known as Hussein (1935–1999), king of Jordan (r. 1952–1999), on June 15, 1978; children: Prince Hamzah (b. 1980); Prince Hashim (b. 1981); Princess Iman (b. 1983); and Princess Raiyah (b. 1986); stepchildren: eight from the king's three previous marriages, including Abdullah, king of Jordan (r. 1999—). King Hussein's first marriage, to a distant Egyptian cousin, ended in divorce in 1956; he then married Britain's Antoinette Gardiner in 1961; they were divorced in 1972; his third wife Queen Alia was killed in a helicopter crash in 1977.

On June 15, 1978, Lisa Halaby, a 25-year-old Princeton-educated architect, wed 42-year-old King Hussein of Jordan, thus becoming the first American-born queen of an Arab Muslim nation. On the eve of the wedding, Halaby, who was raised a Protestant, converted to Islam and, in accordance with Jordanian tradition, took the Arabic name Noor al-Hussein (Light of Hussein). Following a conventional Islamic ceremony, in which the queen was the only woman present, the newlyweds honeymooned at the king's Red Sea resort at Aqaba. While journalists around the world seized upon the fairy-tale aspect of the union, both the queen and her adopted country faced enormous challenges.

Queen Noor's background and privileged upbringing was certainly a plus in preparing for a royal future. She was the oldest of three children of Swedish-born Doris Carlquist Halaby and Arab-American Najeeb Halaby, a former Navy test pilot and lawyer who served as head of the Federal Aviation Administration under President John F. Kennedy. She grew up in Washington, D.C., and New York, and received her early education at some of the most prestigious schools in the country. During the summers, she traveled abroad and was always involved in "something interesting," said one of her classmates. In 1969, she enrolled at Princeton University, becoming a member of its first coeducational class. She majored in architecture and urban planning, taking a leave of absence midway through her sophomore year to study photography in Colorado, where she also worked part-time as a waitress and skied. Following her graduation in 1974, she went on an expedition to Australia to photograph rare birds.

During the 1970s, Halaby toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, but a renewed interest in her Arab roots led her instead to accept a job as an assistant to Marietta Tree , a former diplomat and a director of Llewelyn-Davies, Weeks, the British architectural firm which had been commissioned to replan the city of Tehran. Halaby continued her Middle East connections throughout the decade, working on the master plan for Arab Air University in the Jordanian capital. "I can't explain why, but going there was something I knew I had to do," Noor told Milton Viorst of Parade. "I wanted to let it become a part of me, and I wanted to become part of it. It was the Arab blood in me that I identified with and that I wanted to discover." Employees of the city's InterContinental Hotel, where she lived briefly, recall the lanky blonde beauty hanging around in cutoffs and creating a stir in the lobby by greeting her then-boyfriend with a fervent embrace.

Halaby also attended many social functions in Amman, and thus became acquainted with her future husband, King Hussein, who at the time was mourning the loss of his third and very popular wife, Queen Alia , who had died in a helicopter crash in 1977. (The king's two earlier marriages had ended in divorce.) By 1978, friendship had blossomed into romance, although the relationship was kept secret. "We courted on a motorcycle," the queen told Dominick Dunne for an article in Vanity Fair. "It was the only way we could get off by ourselves." After a brief, six-week courtship, the king proposed.

Following the announcement of the couple's engagement in Amman, there was a public outcry because the king had not chosen an Arab wife; there was also heated speculation as to what title would be bestowed on the bride-to-be. Marvin Howe of The New York Times pondered: "How will this very American girl fit into this very closed Arab kingdom?" But the young queen, who still faced some criticism as an outsider, made an exceptionally smooth transition into her new life, despite the challenges of round-the-clock bodyguards (a reminder of the more than 20 assassination attempts that had been made on the king's life) and the details of handling the large royal household, which included Queen Alia's three children, whom Noor later adopted, and five children from the king's other marriages. After her first year, during which she studied Arabic and the Muslim religion, Noor was upbeat. "I think I have been accepted by the majority of people here in a way I never expected and with such a warmth it's been overwhelming," she told the Christian Science Monitor. "It's given me a lot more confidence and strength than I would otherwise have had. I don't feel any regrets."

Between 1981 and 1986, the royal couple added four more children to their family (two daughters and two sons), increasing the queen's duties considerably. In addition to her official responsibilities, which included heading up the nation's charities, Noor focused much of her outside work on educational development within her country, helping to found the Royal Endowment for Culture and Education and the Jubilee School, a high school for gifted students. She also worked to preserve and celebrate Jordan's cultural heritage and pursued the delicate issues of women's rights and opportunities. For the most part, the queen stayed out of politics, even though her husband's rule became more tenuous after the 1967 Seven Days' War, when Israel defeated its Arab neighbors and occupied the West Bank. In 1984, when Hussein, frustrated over the stalemate in the peace process, lashed out at the United States for its unequivocal support of Israel, Noor added her own voice to his criticisms, making several speeches in the United States reflecting her support of the Arab position in the conflict. "We see an America whose foreign aid to Israel pays for military action against Arab civilians and helps Israel in her violations of human rights, which have been documented and censured by the world community," she said in a speech at the Foreign Policy Association and the World Affairs Council in Washington, D.C., in 1984. "If a lasting peace in the Middle East is ever to be realized, it is time for the United States to bring its practices in line with an active and unambiguous exercise of the principles that govern its democracy."

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, and Hussein elected not to join the coalition against Iraq, Noor again openly stood by her husband, claiming that should relations between Jordan and the United States deteriorate, she would continue to support Jordan. However, as Newsweek reported in an article in 1999, the queen also helped improve her country's image at the time by opening the palace to journalists and taking Western reporters to tour the Jordanian camps for refugees from Kuwait and Iraq. As a result, she became something of a celebrity. She replaced the late Princess Diana in the campaign against land mines and launched her own Web site, all of which was detailed in the press. "None of that endeared her to her critics, who complained about her shopping and accused her of corruption," suggested Newsweek. "Some called her Jordan's Imelda Marcos ."

Throughout the years, the queen's marriage was not without its low points; there were often rumors about the king and other women. Hussein's diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1998, however, brought the couple closer. Noor later said that the six months the two spent together in the United States during the king's treatment was one of the most enriching times of their 20-year union. While living at the Mayo Clinic, and handling Jordanian duties by e-mail, they drove around town in a Volkswagen Beetle, wandered bookstores, and took walks in the woods. "These moments meant much more to us than ever before, knowing that each one was God's gift," said Noor. When they returned to Jordan in mid-January, they were greatly optimistic, convinced that the 63-year-old king had been cured. However, within a week, Hussein grew weak and feverish, and doctors, suspecting a return of the cancer, ordered him back to the United States. Noor remained hopeful as her husband began a new round of treatment, but it soon became apparent that the disease had reached a terminal stage. They immediately returned to Jordan so that Hussein could die at home. As he lay on his death bed, Noor and her children stole time from their own vigil to join the crowd of Jordanians, gathered outside in the winter rainstorm, "to offer them some peace, and to ask them to pray for him," she said.

Following Hussein's death on February 7, 1999, Queen Noor was forbidden by Arab Muslim tradition from participating in funeral arrangements or in the ceremony itself. She spent the funeral day sequestered with other royal women and dignitaries. The following day, however, the gates of the palace were opened and Noor, dressed in black and wearing the traditional white lace yani on her head, greeted the hundreds of mourners who had come to pay their respects. She received thousands more Jordanians throughout the 40-day mourning period that followed, winning hearts with her courage and strength.

Just prior to his death, Hussein had published a 14-page letter in which he bitterly chastised his brother Hassan and replaced him as heir with his son Abdullah, 37. (The king had intended to name as his heir Noor's eldest son Prince Hamzah, 18, his favorite. However, facing the possibility that there might not be time to train Hamzah for the throne, he chose instead the more mature Abdullah.) Although Noor has relinquished her position to Abdullah's wife Rania , it is certain that she will retain a place in Jordan's future, especially if Abdullah designates Prince Hamzah as his own heir. Now that she is free from the constraints of being the wife of a sitting king, there is speculation that she will speak out even more forcefully on the touchy subjects of democracy and human rights. Very near to her heart at present, however, is the nascent King Hussein Foundation, whose mission is to promote debate and to further the king's efforts to modernize the Arab world. Whatever her endeavors, Queen Noor still feels the powerful presence of her husband. "On a spiritual level," she told Time reporter Scott Macleod, "I feel we are still making the journey together."


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1991.

Dunne, Dominick. Vanity Fair. January 1991.

King, Laura. "Sequestered mourning for Jordan's queen," in The Day [New London, CT]. February 10, 1999.

"The Light of His Life," in Newsweek. February 8, 1999, p. 42.

"A Lion in Winter," in Newsweek. February 8, 1999, pp. 40–42.

Macleod, Scott. "Talking With a Queen," in Time. March 29, 1999, p. 50.

Mustain, Gene. "American-born queen has been Hussein's 'light,'" in The Day [New London, CT]. February 7, 1999.

Viorst, Milton. Parade. April 14, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts