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.”
The new queen wanted to do more than look after Hussein’s eight children from his former wives and bring up the four she had with him. Early in her marriage she asked Hussein, “How can I be most helpful?” He answered: “I have complete faith in you. You have never made a mistake.” But this was obviously not always the case. She made repeated efforts, some of them successful, to improve child care, education, and opportunities for women. (In Jordan today a husband may still kill an unfaithful wife with impunity.) This caused frictions with some of the more traditionally minded Jordanians, as did the difficult adjustment to the life of a willful, preoccupied husband. Hussein’s response to any problems she might have, she writes, was
to counter with some greater problem that he was suffering from…. I also learned that this man, who had the biggest heart in the world, could not talk about things that were personally painful to him.
The most interesting parts of Noor’s highly readable book concern the late King’s view of the Arab–Israeli conflict. He was always convinced that the key to resolving it was reconciliation between Israel and Palestine through partition of the country. Hussein tried to please both sides and often found that he pleased neither. It was often said that Jordan would be the second Arab country to make peace with Israel. Hussein’s grandfather was assassinated for trying to make it the first. Jordan was flooded with three huge waves of Palestinian refugees, after the 1948 and 1967 Israeli–Arab wars, and after the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf, when Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait. In all other Arab countries where they fled, Palestinian refugees and their children remain stateless to this day, consigned to wretched UNWRA refugee camps and shantytowns. Jordan was the only Arab country to grant them citizenship, although some continue to live in camps there. Many Palestinians have served over the years as Jordanian prime ministers, ambassadors, and top government officials.
Hussein’s most loyal subjects have traditionally been Jordan’s sparse, indigenous Bedouin population, formerly nomadic but now long settled, whose members serve as commanding officers in the army and are in charge of the secret service. There were probably no more than 200,000 Bedouins in Transjordan during the original emirate. Today, two thirds of Jordan’s population of 5.3 million people are said to be of Palestinian origin. Most identify with their Palestinian heritage; many want to return to Palestinian territory. Their increasingly important part in Jordan’s social, intellectual, and economic life confronted Hussein with a unique political challenge. Try as he might, for years he was militarily too weak or politically unable to prevent Palestinian fedayeen fighters in Jordan from moving across the long, difficult-to-control borders into their old country. For years he hoped for a permanent Arab– Israeli settlement that would give Palestinian Jordanians the choice of either remaining or returning to their homeland.
It was not until she had started living in Amman that Noor began to understand the enormity of the Palestinian tragedy. Second- and even third-generation Palestinians were being born in refugee camps “with nothing to cling to but memories,” she writes. About Arafat’s PLO, Hussein told her during their honeymoon, “I was sympathetic to their cause, but not to their tactics.” Both before and after Arafat tried to overthrow him in 1970, Hussein repeatedly urged him to take part in a peace process. He was often at his wit’s end with Arafat, Noor writes, and more than once he cut off all contacts with him. When Arafat ordered the PLO to shell the royal palace, Hussein once again tried to negotiate with him and was rebuffed: “Tell King Hussein the only concession I will give him is twenty-four hours to leave the country.”
Hussein continued to search for peace. Beginning in 1963, when he first met with Israeli leaders in London, no other Arab head of state had so many clandestine, though ultimately futile, meetings with them. No other Arab country worked so closely with Israel to try to resolve problems of security, ecology, health, and natural resources (among them pest control, the Jordan River waters, and the minerals of the Dead Sea). The two countries shared a common concern about the intentions of both Palestinians and Syrians. Hussein’s “greatest sorrow,” he told Noor,
was the disastrous 1967 Arab–Israeli war and Israel’s subsequent military occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank. As he recounted the unfolding events of the war, a tale of great deceit and squandered opportunities, he had tears in his eyes. I was fascinated to learn of King Hussein’s apprehensive role in the 1967 war, which was not unlike King Abdullah’s in the 1948 war. They both knew that the Arab armies were no match for the better equipped and better trained Israeli forces. More important, they understood that the only lasting solution would have to be political, not military.
Hussein tried to satisfy both Israel and the Palestinians by offering Israel full peace in return for Israeli withdrawal from the territories it had occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian confederation with Jordan. Both Israel and the PLO rejected this offer. Israel insisted on annexing both East Jerusalem and large chunks of the West Bank. Noor writes that the clandestine meetings continued. On one occasion Hussein flew his helicopter to Tel Aviv and was taken by Dayan on a tour of the city by night. Hussein told Noor, “I wanted them to know that it was not an army that was fighting them but people resisting the occupation of their country.”
In 1978, at the suggestion of President Sadat, Hussein waited anxiously in London for days on end to be called to Washington to join the Camp David negotiations between the US, Egypt, and Israel for a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace. He was deeply annoyed when the promised call never came. Because of his insistence on the right of self-determination for the Palestinians, Hussein’s presence at Camp David, according to President Sadat and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, was seen as potentially “complicating the process.” At the Camp David talks, Menachem Begin said that he would, at most, grant the Palestinians only limited “personal” but not “territorial” autonomy, meaning that they could not have a government of their own.
Sadat signed a separate peace with Israel. He did not much care for the Palestinians. He despised Hussein. He said publicly that all Arab leaders, including Hussein, were “dwarfs”; moreover, he once told me in an interview, “everybody knows Hussein is a schizophrenic; his father was also schizophrenic.”2 When news of the Camp David agreement was announced, Noor writes,
there was no mention of self-determination for the Palestinians. It seemed that our nightmare scenario had arrived. King Hussein was in a state of shock, especially in light of the assurances he had received from Sadat a few days earlier….
The suffering of the Palestinians would become intolerable, Hussein feared. “The fall-out would dramatically influence the twenty-one years of our married life and my husband’s quest for peace.”
Hussein’s next great surprise was the sudden announcement of the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The King was furious, Noor writes. Both Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister, had misled him about the talks. “Why not coordinate?” Hussein complained. “How can we possibly work this way?” That he was left out of the talks showed that he was a minor and, what was worse, a weak player in a cruel game. But he quickly recovered from his shock and warmly endorsed the agreement. He feared, though, that the Palestinians had given away too much in return for an agreement so vague that it sidestepped the truly important issues: the status of Jerusalem, the future of refugees, settlements, and borders. If that was “what the Palestinians want,” he said, “the only thing I can do is support them.”
Since Sadat and then Arafat had made the first moves, however flawed, Hussein now felt free to conclude his own peace treaty with Israel. He preferred to announce the end of the forty-six-year-old state of war in Jordan, not in Washington as Israel and the PLO had done. The Clinton administration, for domestic political reasons, wanted a televised replay of the handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn. Noor urged Hussein not to give in but to follow his own instincts. The US dangled all sorts of financial incentives to make him change his mind, including forgiveness of Jordan’s crippling $700 million debt. “This is the only time I’ve ever compromised for profit to the country,” Hussein said. The peace treaty was formally signed in a moving scene on the Israel–Jordan border not far from Elath-Aqaba.
Unlike the extremely cool peace between Israel and Egypt, the peace treaty with Jordan would prove genuine, at least during Yitzhak Rabin’s lifetime. Rabin and Hussein had known and respected each other for years. They dealt directly, and often bluntly, with each other, but there was an underlying trust and something like friendship between the two men. The two societies, held hostage for so long by conflict, briefly seemed to have found a way to move ahead.
According to Noor, Rabin and Hussein were “able to see issues from each other’s perspective. The negotiating question was always, ‘If I were you, could I live with that?'” Hussein, she writes, would “never have a better partner than Rabin.” He wept at Rabin’s funeral. After this, everything changed. Hussein had never trusted Shimon Peres, whom he considered unreliable and intellectually pretentious. Under Benjamin Netanyahu things quickly grew worse. The settlements on the West Bank inexorably increased in size. The peace process was “deteriorating so rapidly,” Noor writes, that President Clinton invited Hussein, Arafat, and Netanyahu to an emergency meeting at the White House on October 2, 1996. Hussein spoke with great emotion. His words were later leaked to Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times. As Clinton and Gore looked on in amazement, Hussein deplored Netanyahu’s refusal to at least agree to a target date for the final status talks. He protested the continuing repression of Palestinians in the territories. He said he wasn’t sure how much more the Palestinians could take:
I speak…for my grandfather, for my great-uncle who started the dialogue with the Zionist movement. I speak for myself and I speak for Yitzhak Rabin, a man whom I had the great pride to call my friend…. All this good will is being lost. We are at the edge of the abyss…we might be just about to fall into it—all of us.
Staring at Netanyahu, he added: “What we need, sir, is not the arrogance of power but the vision that Yitzhak Rabin had.”
Soon after, when Noor and Hussein were in London, Netanyahu, in an effort perhaps to try to heal the widening breach, asked to see Hussein urgently. The meeting only worsened the situation. Netanyahu arrived at Hussein’s country house together with his wife. Unintentionally, Noor stepped into a minefield by saying that it was encouraging that Israeli and Arab historians and scholars were reviewing textbooks and historical accounts “with a view to correcting the propaganda on both sides.” Mrs. Netanyahu bristled: “What do you mean, propaganda?” Noor replied that one example might be the widely held description of Palestine in the 1940s as “a land with no people for the people with no land.” “What do you mean?” cried Mrs. Netanyhahu. “When the Jews came to this area, there were no Arabs here. They came to find work when we built cities. There was nothing here before that.”
By then, Hussein’s optimism was sorely tried and so was Noor’s. She writes, “Did they truly believe myths like this one?” Relations between the two countries only became worse. When a Jordanian border sentry killed seven Israeli schoolgirls and wounded six others, Hussein fell down on his knees before the bereaved families and insisted that his condolence visits to each family be shown on Jordanian television. He followed up his warning at the Washington meeting with a bitter letter to Netanyahu warning that he was playing with fire in continuing to expand the settlements.
By this time, the King was undergoing treatment for cancer of the urethra. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He certainly deserved it more than Arafat. In 1997 he left his sickbed in an attempt to make progress at the stalled peace talks between Netanyahu and Arafat at the Wye Plantation outside Washington. Noor gives a moving description of his last struggle and the agony of his final days, traveling back and forth between the Mayo Clinic, London, and Amman.
Hussein died in 1999. In his lifetime, for all his bravery and decency, he could have little effect on events outside Jordan. Many believed they could safely ignore him. But better than most people, on both sides, Hussein understood the root causes of the conflict. One contribution of Noor’s book is to show that Rabin did so as well and to underline the tragedy of his assassination. Hussein and Rabin thought they could find a way out while there was still time, but few listened. Today it may be too late.
May 29, 2003