Queen Noor of Jordan (Interview)

Born Lisa Halaby to an Arab-American family, Queen Noor of Jordan graduated from Princeton with a degree in architecture and urban planning and, in the 1970s, moved to Jordan to work. There, she met the widowed King Hussein and, after a largely secret courtship, they married in 1978.

Queen Noor of Jordan (Interview)

Born Lisa Halaby to an Arab-American family, Queen Noor of Jordan graduated from Princeton with a degree in architecture and urban planning and, in the 1970s, moved to Jordan to work. There, she met the widowed King Hussein and, after a largely secret courtship, they married in 1978. Noor (who converted to Islam and changed her name when she married) became stepmother to his three children and, later, mother to their four children together. She was a fixture by Hussein's side until his death in 1999. Since then, she has remained active in humanitarian causes, including international projects focusing on missing persons, women's rights, and promoting reconciliation between the Arab and Western worlds. On March 12, Noor, 52, will speak in Toronto at LIFEfest (www.life fest.ca). She sat down last week in Santa Monica, Calif., for a wide-ranging interview with Maclean's Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith.

In your 2003 memoir, Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life, you cite a special affection for Canada "because of its progressive humanitarian support for things like global peacekeeping, refugee assistance, and the Ottawa land mines treaty." Do you continue to believe that to be the case?

I can't say I've been following minutely, but I have noted over time that whenever there is a humanitarian crisis, Canada is always one of the first countries to step in, whether it's in Iraq, in terms of focusing on humanitarian needs, or, most recently, Haiti. Canada is always stepping up, setting an example, and leading. In terms of my personal involvement in programs in Canada that are non-governmental, I think of the Lester B. Pearson United World College, named after Pearson, who remains an icon in the world, and certainly one of the best examples of Canadian statesmanship and humanitarian spirit. A McGill University program I'm involved with brings together Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, trying to focus on the most important priorities for conflict - recovery and peace-building.

I can't speak to foreign policy as an expert right now, but I can't imagine ever stopping thinking of Canada as being a county that sets that kind of example, and will continue to do so on a private-sector as well as the public-sector level.

You left North America when you were a young woman. Now that you spend more time back here, do you find much change in the society that you left behind then?

What has changed is that over much of the last 25 years, when I returned to America, it was in the context of very focused and pressured efforts to promote better political and cross-cultural understanding. Sadly, with 9/11, and the deterioration of the peace process since 2000 in the Middle East as well as in the United States, there seems to have been a hardening and polarizing of attitudes. I continue, as I have over the past 25 years, to try to be a bridge-builder between the United States in particular and the West in general, and the Middle East, Arab and Muslim culture.

As a convert to Islam, you have said that you particularly like its commitment to equality of peoples and sexes. Are North Americans surprised by that?

Yes, and it's understandable. For obvious reasons, the media has highlighted some of the most glaring cases of repression of women, and restriction of human rights, that have occurred in the Arab and the Muslim world. Some of these problems exist in other parts of the world, but some of the most dramatic cases include, for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan. I remember my husband and I pulling our hair out over the distorted image that Taliban practices were giving to the whole faith of Islam, and the entire Islamic community of over a billion people in the world. I spend a lot of time trying to promote an understanding of the origins of Islam, the true message, as my husband understood it.

At the same time, I think any Arab and Muslim has to be very honest and open about the conditions that do exist in our region, that have stifled the practice of our faith, and the ability of men and women to live true to the teachings.

It's taken for granted in the West that a democratic political system is always best. Do you agree?

There are different forms of democracy. A half-truth in people's minds in the West - and to a great extent in the Middle East - is that somehow Western democracy is incompatible with Islam. In fact, Islamic culture and even Arab culture is very much based on consensus-building. These are principles my husband reiterated over and over again, and tried to develop contemporary political models for.

In your book, you discuss the many attempts on your husband's life. What was it like to live that on a day-to-day basis?

During our courtship when, for the first time, I found myself surrounded by security whenever I was with him, I thought about it a lot. Each moment was precious, because it was so overwhelming and so unfamiliar to me, that I thought any moment, something might happen to him. And very quickly - I can't tell you when exactly - I stopped thinking about it. I just adopted, perhaps by osmosis, his approach, which was just to have faith, make every moment count.

How do people react to royalty?

Children continue to be disappointed that I don't wear a crown [laughs]. The daughter of very dear friends of mine went out and bought me a tiara, so when I come to their house, I could wear my tiara, and she insists I wear it every time I come, no matter what the circumstances. So young people continue to look to a fairy-tale frame of reference. On another level, adults often focus on looking for the extraordinary, expecting something unusual, not normal. I have always felt that the best thing was just to be oneself, and I taught my children to look at their position in life as one of responsibility, not privilege or entitlement, and the role is one of service, not of aggrandizement.

How hard was it to adjust to the near complete lack of privacy as queen?

It was very difficult. I am very private by nature. But I always regarded public service as a privilege. So that means there is a bit of a dichotomy between trying to live as a private person, and have that zone of privacy for my family, and at the same time being a public servant, where much of the public considers you their property. While that was a very difficult adjustment to make, I did so because it was very easy to see that the rewards, the sense of fulfillment that comes from the service, far outweigh the intrusions or sacrifices that you have to make.

In many ways, as the title of your book says, you've had an unexpected life, but in other ways, your interest in such topics as human rights has remained unchanged.

With friends from way back, there has been no real change. I see myself as just another one of us who has, in my case, been fortunate enough to feel a sense of continuity, if you will, in what I hoped my life might be, and certainly the unexpected way I've been able to pursue that. I just see myself as another ... you know, another working woman, who has been, in that respect, blessed.

During your first 10 years as queen, you only came to the United States on official visits. Did you feel you had to distance yourself from your previous life?

No, it wasn't cutting a tie. I felt I had so much learning to do. Then we had three children at the outset, and then I had my own children - four within about six years - and the work and the political roller coaster. That combined to make me feel there was no way I could justify taking private time away from family and Jordan.

You have talked about how differently Israel is perceived in the Arab world than in the West, and how it is important for westerners to understand that.

I think that there's very good news now. In the last several years, classified documents have been released to the public that shed new light on past events. That has happened in Israel, and now you have a number of Israeli historians trying to write in a more balanced, objective historical fashion about the birth, the origins, of the state of Israel, and now the government documents reinforce much of what the Arab perspective was. Now, you're beginning to have on both sides increasing emphasis on the importance of there being more fact, a more objective and balanced look at the past, to try to understand the suffering that has taken place on both sides. And through that understanding, perhaps to begin to see each other with a human face rather than just through a political lens that has identified one side as the enemy, and the other as the victim.

In the last five years, you've experienced the loss of your husband, the tragedy of 9/11, and new tensions between the West and the Arab world. You've always described yourself as an optimist. Is that still true?

About human nature, yes. I thank God, and perhaps my husband. He strengthened my faith and optimism - that helps to ward off any cynicism and despair at those bleak, bleak moments. Somehow his faith was so strong, and mine continues to be strong. I focus on programs, and try to support initiatives that demonstrate to the world that common ground exists to build on. After all, Jews, Muslims and Christians were living in peace in the Holy Land until the creation of Israel, and the politicization of relations between them, basically over territory that had been shared before, and still to this day as neighbours.

You lived by all accounts a great love affair. Is there a point where you can move on after such a loss?

I don't know, I really don't know. As I say to people who have been through loss, love never dies. It can stay alive forever, and always be a source of strength, hope and faith. Beyond that, it's God's will.

And he [Hussein] makes me smile on a daily basis, which also gives me great strength. So I tend, as he did, to look at life in terms of my blessings, not at what might be missing. I try to remain open as he was to everyone, and to every opportunity for making a contribution.

Maclean's March 15, 2004