The feminist queen of the Middle East

World leaders rush to pay tribute to King Hussein, but his widow, Queen Noor, deserves much of the credit for Jordan's transformation from police state to cradle of political freedom.


Geraldine Brooks
February 10, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

The obituaries were praising him even before he died: King Hussein, the Arableader who made a modern nation from an impoverished patch of desert, whoturned a warrior's bravery into the courage of a peacemaker.

It isn't so surprising that these emotive eulogies have poured from thepens of usually hard-bitten journalists. The king was an unfailinglycourteous man -- accessible, open and direct in a region whose leaders typically are secretive, remote and dishonest.

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But most of these tributes breezed over the one remarkable thing hedid that may have influenced the style of modern Jordan more than any otherpeacetime decision.

In 1978, King Hussein married Noor al-Hussein, the former Lisa Halaby, aWashington, D.C.-born architecture graduate who was working in Amman on aredesign of Jordan's national airline. In doing so, he gave a conservativeMuslim nation a most extraordinary queen: a liberal, feminist professionalfrom a frankly political family of prominent U.S. Democrats who had protestedthe war in Vietnam and blazed a trail for women at Princeton as a member ofthe university's first coed class. At 26, she was 17 years younger than theking, who had already divorced two wives and lost the third in a helicoptercrash.

She was also beautiful. Distractingly beautiful. And perhaps that was onereason so many people, in Jordan and outside the country, failed to understandher significance.

I first traveled to Amman in December 1987, a few weeks after thePalestinian intifada had erupted in Israel -- just across the depleted tricklethat is all that remains of the mighty Biblical river from which Jordan takesits name. In that raw, angry winter, it was by no means clear that Jordan wasthe most modern, most democracy-prone, most peace-loving nation in the ArabMiddle East. In fact, that winter, Jordan looked a lot like the police states that surrounded it -- the nasty triumvirate of Iraq, Syria and SaudiArabia.

Foreign journalists were being deported, local ones having their presscards (i.e., meal tickets) yanked. A secret-police escort was mandatory inorder to visit a Palestinian refugee camp. The information minister told me that, in his opinion, a model regional newspaper was the fawningly sycophantic,completely censored daily published under the thumb of Saddam Hussein inneighboring Iraq. At that time, the king's appointed prime minister was ZaidRifai, an astute diplomat but unabashed elitist who thought the ordinarypeople of Jordan were ignorant riffraff, not to be trusted with the slightest hint of a political voice, much less a vote.

And at that time, although it was a while before I learned of it, therewas a deep, clandestine power struggle under way for the heart and soul ofKing Hussein. Pitted against Rifai's worldview was the very differentopinion of Queen Noor, who had chosen to make a life's work among the"riffraff" of Jordan, especially the women and children in the poor quartersof Amman and in scattered Bedouin encampments -- the people who had the faintest voice of all in Jordan's public debate. Noor spent much more time among such people than the prime minister did. She understood the depth of their loyalty, and also the danger of their frustration.

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Until 1989, Rifai had the upper hand in the struggle. But that spring,the repressions he'd sanctioned boiled over in a wave of rioting. He was thedemonstrators' principal target, but the queen's name also was called out bythe mobs -- an indirect way of getting at the king in a tribal culture wheredirect attacks on a monarch and a descendant of the prophet Mohammed aren'treadily acceptable.

I met her not long after the riots, arriving at the palace expecting tointerview a battered victim of the region's anti-women biases. Instead, I meta self-possessed, charming and amusing woman who had already seized her day.The king had interpreted the riots as a shot across the bows. Rifai had beensacked as prime minister and the queen's more liberal views were in theascendant. Journalists had got their press passes back and been received atthe palace for official reconciliations. The king had called for the firstelections in decades and had encouraged a measure of debate in thegovernment-run media. It was obvious that the queen had become one of hisprincipal advisors, and perhaps the only one who dared to tell him things hedid not want to hear.

It was through the queen that I got to know the king outside the stiflingformality of palace interviews. As a Washingtonian, she knew how deafening theIsraeli voice could be on all matters Middle Eastern, and she wanted to besure that foreign journalists also heard her husband's views. She sent me offwith him as he flew his Black Hawk helicopter to remote Bedouin settlementswhere I watched the Sandhurst graduate expertly eat with his hand from asteaming platter of rice and lambs' heads. She invited me to family dinnerswhere the king would relax with his children around him, an unstudied, lovingfather and attentive husband who enjoyed Clint Eastwood videos and a turn onhis son's Gameboy -- and who also happened to have known every U.S. presidentsince Harry Truman. She was right in assuming that such access would lead to betterunderstanding of the king's subtleties and the delicacy of Jordan's position as the smallest, most impoverished house on the baddest block in the 'hood.

She redoubled her efforts when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the king's refusalto automatically fall in line with the anti-Baghdad coalition was labeled as apro-Saddam stand. In fact, it was a good deal more complex: both anidealistic attempt to avoid all-out war and a necessary accommodation with theraw sentiments of Jordan's Palestinian majority. Again, her Washington rootsproved valuable. Queen Noor had the know-how to take this message to Capitol Hillin a way that the king himself couldn't. For the first time, she was dealtwith -- as a speaker at the Brookings Institution and a foreign-policy punditon programs such as "Nightline" -- as a sharp intelligence rather than a fashion plate.

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And now, at the king's death, she is all image once again -- a sad andlovely woman standing in the rain, absorbing public grief like that other iconof widowhood, Jacqueline Kennedy. Jordanian history books will probablynever note her as more than an image; for reasons of cultural propriety theyare unlikely to credit her role in the tale of the transformation of Jordanfrom police state to promising cradle of political freedom.

And outside Jordan, she will also likely remain misunderstood. "Willthey let her go home?" asked a woman friend who knows the Middle East only asan abstraction of black veils and feminist nightmares. For a minute or two,I couldn't fathom her meaning. And then I realized she was thinking of "NotWithout My Daughter" and all the other Gothic tales of women trapped andpowerless. I tried to explain that Queen Noor's children are all teenagers now, andthat the eldest, 19-year-old Hamzah, was named crown prince by hishalf-brother, Abdullah, in his first official act as king, in accordancewith his late father's wishes. As well as being the mother of a futureking, Queen Noor has a job in Jordan -- as head of a large and influentialcharitablefoundation that has changed everything from the breadth of artists whoperform in the country to the weekly income of Bedouin rug weavers. I wantedto explain that public affection for her was likely to endure beyond thepassing of the king, that she had made herself a place in that unlikely,infertile soil. But before I said any of those things, I said the firstthing that came into my head.

She is home.

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Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks covered the Middle East and the UnitedNations for the Wall Street Journal. She is the author of "ForeignCorrespondence" and "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of IslamicWomen."

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