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An Unsentimental Education


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more than a few European women were either kidnapped by or enticed to marry exotic Ottoman potentates; some remained to spend their lives in royal harems. The legendary Lady Hester Stanhope roamed the Syrian highlands with her Bedouin lover. Lady Ellenborough, William Pitt’s cousin, wife of the lord chancellor, ran off to marry an Arab sheik. The exploits of various such women were memorably described by Lesley Blanch in her portrait of romantically inclined, mostly upper-class English women who made their lives in North Africa and the Near East.1

More recently, a twenty-six-year-old American, Lisa Halaby of Santa Monica, California, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan, famously married Hussein ibn Talal, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and became Queen Noor of Jordan. (It was “the most romantic marriage of the century,” according to one TV commentator.) Lisa Halaby was the daughter of an American aviation executive, raised in privilege while attending excellent private schools. She was a graduate of the first class at Princeton to accept women. Two years after graduation, in 1976, while visiting with her father in Jordan, she was casually introduced on the airport runway to King Hussein.

Hussein’s family, the Hashemites, had ruled Mecca for almost a thousand years. Forced out of Arabia after World War I by the tribe of ibn Saud, they were given power over Iraq and Transjordan, two artificial entities carved out of the defunct Ottoman Empire by their British overlords. In 1949, following the first Arab–Israeli war, Hussein’s grandfather, Abdullah, the first emir of Transjordan, annexed East Jerusalem and the so-called West Bank in a tacit agreement with Israel, and declared himself king. Only England and Pakistan recognized this annexation. His grandson Hussein, a graduate of Harrow and Sandhurst, was barely sixteen when a gunman suddenly stepped out from behind a pillar during Friday prayers at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and assassinated Abdullah for initiating peace talks with Israel. Abdullah’s entourage fled in panic; the gunman turned and fired a shot at Hussein. The medal he wore on his uniform, a decoration his grandfather had insisted he put on that morning, deflected the bullet and saved his life. Two years later he was king.

When he met his future American wife, Hussein was a dashing, good-looking man with a beautifully trimmed, graying beard. He was sixteen years older than Lisa Halaby, and equally at home in England and in Jordan. He owned town and country houses in both countries and spoke both classical Arabic and the King’s English in clipped upper-class tones. In and out of several marriages, the King had a longstanding reputation of being something of a playboy. He had successfully survived not only the perilous sports to which he was addicted—racing motorcycles in the desert and performing daredevil acrobatics in his helicopter and jet plane—but more than a dozen attempted assassinations and coups d’état. Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan agents had repeatedly tried to do away with him, whether by ambushing his car, shelling his palace, or trying to shoot down his plane. In later years, Israeli Mossad agents helped to foil attempts on his life. To marry and live with him was, to say the least, somewhat risky. Some of the conspiracies to kill him were downright medieval, as when an Egyptian valet filled his nose drops with poison. The bottle accidentally broke and the poison ate through the enamel of the sink it fell into. He always carried a gun. His autobiography, written in 1962, was aptly entitled Uneasy Lies the Head.

Lisa Halaby became Hussein’s fourth wife; two former marriages had ended in divorce, his third wife died in a helicopter crash. Upon marrying Hussein, she became stepmother to eight children. “Why don’t I see more of you?” he complained shortly after they met by accident at Amman Airport, as though they were already old friends. Flustered, she blurted out something incoherent and quickly excused herself. Hussein called her for a date. He would pick her up at her apartment and drive her back in the evening with himself at the wheel. Their courtship consisted of seven-hour-long intimate lunches in the palace, helicopter rides piloted by the King, picnics on the shore of the Dead Sea, and races through the desert on Arabian horses or on one of the King’s several Harley-Davidson motorcycles. There were also long weekends with the King and his children at the royal seaside compound in Aqaba where the barbed-wire border with neighboring Israel’s resort town of Eilat was barely a half-mile down the beach from the stone jetty of the royal property. The children seemed pleased at the prospect of again having a live-in mother. Halaby could barely keep up the pace and still work at the job with an engineering firm she had recently taken in Amman.

Halaby became involved with Hussein shortly after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, a time of intense political and diplomatic activity, the beginning of a peace process in which Jordan was deeply involved. In retrospect, she would find it astonishing that Hussein had been able to find so much time to spend with her during those tense weeks. She did not want their friendship to lead to just another royal affair. Flattered by the King’s attentions, as practically any young woman would be, she was levelheaded enough to know that charm is often part of a king’s trade, not necessarily of his character. Her father was uneasy as well. On a brief visit to Amman just as the romance was beginning, he cautioned her. “Take care, Lisa. The Royal Court is full of intrigues, and this society can be vicious. I like King Hussein very much, as you know, but I don’t want you to be hurt.” The King grew more and more persistent, crooning the current hit song of the Swedish pop group Abba after lunch. (“Take a chance on me!”) Two months after their first date, her father was in the kitchen of his country house in Alpine, New Jersey, when the phone rang. He heard Hussein say in his deep voice: “I have the honor to ask for the hand of your daughter in marriage.”

Before coming to Amman, Lisa Halaby had been employed by an architectural firm in Iran and was now working in the Jordanian capital for an American company specializing in aviation design and technical support to countries throughout the Middle East. She was a slim, tall, athletic, strikingly beautiful blonde. Coming from a “moderately dysfunctional family,” she was also in search of her “roots.” Her mother was of Swedish descent; her father was the well-known Najeeb Halaby, a former Pentagon and State Department official, head of Pan Am and the Federal Aviation Administration—the son of a Syrian Christian immigrant father and a Texan mother. As head of the FAA under Kennedy, she writes, her father had been “an oddity in WASP Washington” even though he had been at Yale with Cyrus Vance and Sargent Shriver. She remembers a quiz in one of the Washington papers during the Camelot years, with the question, “What is a Najeeb Elias Halaby: animal, vegetable, or mineral?”

Her parents had not brought her up in any particular faith, encouraging her to decide about religious matters for herself. The Muslim faith, she writes, was the first religion she felt truly drawn to. Hussein wanted them to marry as soon as possible. A few hours before the marriage, she formally converted to Islam. It was a relatively simple ceremony and lasted only a few minutes:

We went into a sitting room and I proclaimed the testimony of faith, ash-shahada: “Ashhadu anna la ilaha illa Allah, wa anna Muhammadun rasoolu Allah“—I declare there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger.

There is a temptation to dismiss Queen Noor’s memoir as of limited literary or political interest, the record of a storybook romance of the kind commonly produced by ghostwriters. And yet, for all its glossy details about dinner parties and meetings with heads of state and a tendency to be politically correct from the Jordanian point of view, a close reading reveals a serious and important book. It is true that Noor tries to emphasize the positive when she is speaking of, say, Mr. and Mrs. Omar Qaddafi (“a delightful and charming couple”). She insists that Israel is the root cause of all the bitterness and frustration in the Arab world today, and even claims, perhaps innocently, that the enormous expenses of the extended royal family at home and abroad were covered by what she mysteriously calls “the Arab and Muslim world…. Neither of us took any personal money from the Jordanian government,” leaving the reader to ask where the King’s money came from.

But her book nevertheless gives a candid and appealing self-portrait of an independent-minded woman with a keen eye and a touch of self-irony one would not expect in a memoir that moves from one state visit to another and is full of encounters with kings and queens and presidents and first ladies, as well as obsequious courtiers and Eastern and Western potentates, and a household staff that took her suggestions “occasionally as personal insults.” Perhaps, she writes of such incidents, “we were all a little out of sorts.” She provides a convincing record of a marriage that tragically came to a premature end in 1999 with Hussein’s death from cancer; and she has much to say about his lifelong effort to promote peace in the Middle East.

It took Noor time to find a way to contribute to the well-being of a country which was, in theory, a constitutional monarchy but in practice an absolute one. “We have a constitution,” a Jordanian political scientist once told me, “but the King can change it by making two phone calls.” Hussein made policy. He appointed and dismissed prime ministers at will, with no interference from the obedient parliament. The press was controlled, though less so than in most other Arab countries. Jordan was not a democracy, but it was probably—and it still is under Hussein’s successor—the best governed among Arab countries. The regime acted brutally after the “Black September” in 1970 when the PLO made a reckless attempt to seize control of the country, but on the whole it is the most civilized, politically stable, and benign in the Arab world.

After their honeymoon in Scotland, the King suddenly had much less time for her than during the hectic weeks of courtship. She found herself married to a man whose time and attention were stretched to a breaking point. She realized that she was essentially on her own. This was bitter. The reality of what lay ahead sank in. One evening, the accumulation of these pressures took its toll and she broke down. Calling her mother in New York, she said in tears: “‘I feel like coming home.’ …I meant it, but she knew—and I knew—that I was not a quitter.”

  1. 1

    The Wilder Shores of Love (Simon and Schuster, 1954; Carroll and Graf, 2002).

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