An Unsentimental Education

Queen Noor
Queen Noor; drawing by David Levine


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…

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