Thursday, November 10, 2011

Queen Noor of Jordan

American by birth, Queen Noor of Jordan (b. August 23, 1951 in Washington D.C.) is the last wife and widow of King Hussein of Jordan. She was queen consort of Jordan between 1978 and 1999. Upon her husband's death (1999), she became the queen dowager of Jordan. She is the current president of the United World Colleges and an advocate of Global Zero, an anti-nuclear weapons proliferation campaign.

Early Life
Royalty. Born in Washington, D.C., on August 23, 1951, the Queen of Jordan was originally named Lisa Najeeb Halaby at her birth. Her father, Najeeb Elias Halaby, was a former U.S. Navy test pilot and lawyer who had been head of the Federal Aviation Administration under President John F. Kennedy. Born into a distinguished Arab-American family, Lisa experienced a privileged upbringing, attending exclusive private schools in Washington D.C., New York City, and Massachusetts before enrolling in the first co-educational class at Princeton University in 1969.

In 1972, after taking a break from academics to waitress, ski, and study photography in Aspen, Colorado, Lisa returned to Princeton and took up her study of architecture and urban planning with a renewed vigor and drive. Upon graduation, she flew to Australia and worked for an architectural firm that specialized in the design of new towns. At this time, her steadily growing interest in Arab culture took shape in the form of a job offer from Llewelyn-Davies, Weeks—a British architectural firm that had been commissioned to re-plan the city of Teheran—which she immediately accepted.

Marriage to King Hussein of Jordan
Lisa returned to the United States in 1976, where she planned to obtain a master's degree in journalism, entertaining the idea of pursuing a career in television production. In the meantime, her father had just accepted an offer from the Jordanian government to help redesign their airlines, forming the company Arabair Services. He offered Lisa a job and she accepted, foregoing the Columbia School of Journalism to become the airline's Director of Facilities Planning and Design. She assisted in the design of the Arab Air University, to be built in the Jordanian capital, as well as a housing company for Royal Jordanian Airlines employees.

During this time, Lisa attended several important social events in Jordan, and occasionally got the opportunity to meet King Hussein (they first met at an airport ceremony in 1977). The King, who was still mourning the loss of his third wife, Alia, took great interest in the airlines. The two became friends, and by 1978, their friendship had evolved into a romance. Lisa later recalled to Dominick Dunne of Vanity Fair: "We courted on a motorcycle. It was the only way we could get off by ourselves." After a six-week courtship, King Hussein proposed to Lisa on May 13, 1978.

On June 15, 1978, Lisa Najeeb Halaby became the first American-born queen of an Arab country, taking the name Noor al-Hussein or "Light of Hussein." She and King Hussein married in a traditional Islamic ceremony at the Zaharan Palace, where Queen Noor was the only woman present. Although the Jordanian people expressed discomfort about King Hussein's choice of a non Arab-Muslim bride, they soon warmed to the union when they witnessed Noor's genuine interest and commitment to Jordan and her conversion to the Islamic religion.

Queen of Jordan
Queen Noor's throne came with a myriad of challenges, multiplied by her status as a foreigner with an extremely liberal background. She immediately took on the responsibilities of managing the royal household, as well as the three small children from Hussein's former marriage to Alia. She constantly needed the accompaniment of bodyguards, as King Hussein had survived more than 25 assassination attempts.

Noor enthusiastically embraced and exceeded her official duties, concentrating on the improvement of Jordan's educational resources. Addressing the issue of bright children going abroad (resulting in the loss of Jordan's most talented youth), Noor helped to establish the Jubilee School, a three-year coeducational high school for gifted students. She also devoted energy and funds to preserving and celebrating Jordan's cultural heritage, helping to establish the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts, an annual event featuring dance, poetry, and music, which attracted thousands of tourists. She also formed the Arab Children's Congress, and annual program for Arab children of all nationalities that emphasizes their common heritage.

Among her more delicate initiatives, Noor set out to address the issue of women's rights. Although she advocated increased educational and employment opportunities for women, founding the Women and Development Project, she remained sensitive to the interests of those reluctant to work outside the home for religious reasons. She told Enid Nemy of The New York Times, "I believe in expanding the options open to women, at the same time not telling them that they are not fulfilling themselves if they don't have a job."

In 1985, she collected all of her development initiatives under the umbrella of the Noor Al Hussein Foundation (NHF). She also served on several international boards devoted to peace, positive educational and cultural development, and preservation of wildlife and natural resources.

Queen Noor's involvement in the political arena has been decidedly behind the scenes due to her ambiguous status as an American (although she relinquished her alliance and citizenship when she married). However, in 1984, when King Hussein walked the political tightrope—trying to please both his American and Israeli allies as well as protect his Palestinian citizens during the Iran-Iraq War—Noor stood by his side and supported his criticism of Americans for being one-sided in their commitment to Israel. During a speech at the World Affairs Council in Washington D.C., Noor argued, "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." She has received criticism from both the American people for her allegiance to Jordanian interests, as well as Islamic fundamentalists for overstepping the traditional boundaries of her role as Queen.

Husband's Death
King Hussein was stricken with Lymphatic cancer in 1992, and by 1998 was receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. After losing consciousness, Hussein was flown back to Jordan. On February 7, 1999, King Hussein died at the age of 63 in the Royal Suite of the Al Hussein Medical Center. A surprise to all, two weeks before his death he appointed his eldest son, Abdullah, instead of his brother Prince Hassan, to be his heir to the throne.

Noor handled her husband's death with her characteristic grace and bravery, nobly consoling the distraught nation. However, as a young widowed Queen with few solid ties to her kingdom, she struggled to redefine her position inside the Arab world. Although she has decided to remain in Jordan, she has reduced many of her former engagements with national and world organizations and has scaled back significantly on staff and supplies in the palace.

Queen Noor's ties to Jordan and its people remain through the four children she had with King Hussein: Prince Hamzah, born in 1980; Prince Hashim, born in 1981; Princess Iman, born in 1983; and Princess Raiyah, born in 1986. In regard to the importance of her title and the trappings of royalty, Noor told The Washington Post, "What is important about me is independent of all that. What is important of everybody in life is independent of all that. And what is important about my husband was also independent of that."

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