Noor thinks Americans have never made effort to understand Arab world


February 24, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMMAN, JORDAN — Amman, Jordan--If she were still just Lisa Halaby, daughter of an American tycoon, she would have to watch her step these days on the streets of Jordan. Her blond hair, blue eyes and Western good looks would flash like a neon sign, and the least she could expect would be snarling remarks like, "Bush, he is a donkey." Some neighborhoods she would have to avoid altogether.

But as it is, she goes anywhere she wants, because 13 years ago Lisa Halaby became Jordan's Queen Noor, wife of King Hussein. Now, with U.S. troops fighting the Iraqi army a few hundred miles to the east, she easily commands respect and reverence in a land that despises America more by the hour.

It is not a time she bears easily. "I feel torn apart, but I'm not the only person who feels torn apart, and it's not because of where I was born or where I'm living," she said in an interview at her palace office.

"I'm torn apart first and foremost on a fundamental human level by what is taking place. I feel total anguish because I believe, first of all, that there didn't need to be this war, this tragedy. And No. 2, I feel anguished that the world is suffering yet again a violent confrontation of this nature."

But there are no torn feelings about her stand on the divisions between Jordan and the United States. It is a point she makes clear with something as simple as her choice of pronouns. Americans are "they." Jordanians are "we." And as things stand now, she said, "They" are doing a poor job of understanding why Jordan is so upset over America's role in the war.

"They are watching the war on their television screens," she said of Americans, "and I don't think that even the highest officials in government understand, because they haven't visited Jordan. They haven't visited any country yet that has felt the human impact of this war as we have. Certainly most people in the United States are not touched by this except those families that might have tragically lost their young boys or girls."

The queen's views, while representative of her country's feelings, are also emblematic of the views of the several hundred American women who have settled here after marrying Jordanians. Many have become impassioned critics of the war policies of their former homeland. For most, it happens quite naturally over time in a place where the anti-Western view dominates.

At the royal palace on the night of the queen's interview, for instance, one could roll open a window and easily hear an anti-American diatribe being shouted over loudspeakers to crowds outside a nearby mosque.

Lisa Halaby's journey to this point of view began 39 years ago. She was born in Washington to a family headed by her father, Najeeb Halaby, a man of Lebanese descent. He scrambled his way to the top of the business world, eventually becoming the chairman of Pan Am, and she enjoyed the privileges of private schools and other comforts that came with that standing.

Although she learned much from her father about the Middle East and its fractious problems, and grew up with pride in her Arab heritage, she absorbed little of the centuries-long Arab frustration with outside interference.

"I didn't grow up in an Arab-American community, therefore my attachment was a little more abstract," she said. That began changing a few years after she graduated from Princeton University with a degree in architecture and urban planning. She moved to Amman to become a design director for Royal Jordanian Airlines, and she was barely off the plane when her father's heritage began to take root.

"From the first time I arrived in this part of the world I felt, as a human soul, that I belonged here. Looking at the vast horizons of holy landscapes, I felt so much more attached to the origins of spirituality in this region than I ever had before in my life."

Acquiring the Arab world view took longer. That came when she met the king. They began dating, meeting for dinner nearly every night. Then came a marriage proposal, and she knew that an acceptance would be choosing far more than a husband.

"I was committing my heart, soul and whole being to this world, to his world, and to the world of my forefathers." She said yes, converted to Islam, and was married in 1978, taking the title of Queen Noor Al-Hussein, "the light of Hussein." She then began her education in the frustrations of the Arab world, and she now speaks with conviction, as her countrymen do, of the "double standard" treatment of the Arab world by the West.

Why, she asks, does the United States act so quickly to enforce United Nations resolutions against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait after ignoring resolutions against Israel's treatment of Palestinians living on Jordan's Israeli-occupied West Bank?

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