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Archive for the ‘Queen Noor’ Category

In 1999 when King Hussein of Jordan died, I was twelve years old and had very little understanding of the politics of the Middle East.  However, my social studies teacher took King Hussein’s death as a chance to, for several classes, teach us about the man, his legacy, and the complicated politics of the region in which he ruled.  As part of this, we learned about Queen Noor, his American-born fourth wife, formerly Lisa Halaby, who spent years working alongside her husband to improve the lives of Jordanians, including promoting extensive education initiatives, setting up microfinancing for small business, particularly those run by rural women, and recruiting international tourism to boost the local economy (has anyone seen Indian Jones and the Last Crusade and not wanted to visit Petra?). 

It’s been years since those classes though so I picked up Leap of Faith: Memoirs on an Unexpected Life by Queen Noor with little memory of what I had learned eleven years before, excited only to learn more about a woman of whom I had a positive impression.  The book, to its benefit, is not so much about Queen Noor as her husband.  As she says in the introduction:

I had always imagined that if I were to try to tell my story that I would do so in a quiet reflective period toward the end of my active life when there might be an almost complete story to tell.  However, after my husband’s death, many people encouraged me to share my memories and my perspective on Hussein’s legacy at a time when it might be of particular relevance. (p. ix)

A few short chapters at the beginning of the book are devoted to the Queen’s life as Lisa Halaby, eldest daughter of a distinguished Arab-American family.  Privileged as these years were, they pale in comparison to the rest her life and the Queen seems eager to deal with them quickly and efficiently before moving on to what she clearly views as the beginning of her ‘real’ life: her marriage to King Hussein.  In fact, over the course of the book, we almost learn more about King Hussein’s early life than we do about the Queen’s.  She clearly finds him far more fascinating topic than herself, a view I’m inclined to share.

I had difficulty putting this book down: in addition to acting as an autobiography for the Queen and a biography of the King, it is a fascinating political history of Jordan and the surrounding region.  Surrounded by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, the political tension is extreme.  Jordan, despite being an Arab nation, was and continues to be very pro-Western in its attitudes.  Along with Egypt, it is one of only two Arab nations to have normalized, though tense, relations with Israel.  Israel, as you would expect, is a major focus of the political events in the book.  Queen Noor’s perspective is particularly fascinating on this topic: her commentary on America’s support of Israel is pointed, particularly after repeated attempts by the Americans to pressure her to promote their views and policies amongst the Arab nations. 

Clearly, the book is heavily biased, as it should be.  The Queen adored her husband and this worship comes through: perhaps too many victories are attributed to him personally but that is only natural, in a book that is meant to affirm his legacy and place in history.  Her own achievements are mentioned in passing, very much in the style of “while Hussein was off securing peace in the Middle East, I set up a few charitable foundations and solicited millions of dollars in funding for education and rural development programs.”  It’s difficult to understate how far Jordan advanced in such a short time, despite having been overrun by Palestinian and Iraqi refugees that have doubled the nation’s population, and how far ahead of its neighbours it remains in terms of education, political freedoms, and human rights.  It has well-developed regional and over-seas tourism, impressive environmental conservation programs, and a monarch, King Abdullah II, who continues the progressive works his father initiated. 

I would definitely urge anyone interested in the Middle East to pick this up: there are too few books on Jordan and Leap of Faith is a valuable contribution to that small group.  A good knowledge of the recent political history of the region would certainly be of benefit, allowing for a more critical reading: as impressed as I was, you do need to take everything with a grain of salt.

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