Queen has heart-to-heart with kids

Chat: Jordanian royal visits with an area boys and girls club to connect with youths and the issues they deal with.

September 14, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Queen Noor of Jordan had a question for Jamaal Jordan of Baltimore.

She'd come thousands of miles for this meeting and was hanging on every word, regal and blonde, earrings glittering. He, on the other hand, was 17, wearing gray sweats and a white T-shirt and had just said how tired he was of hearing that rap music makes people take drugs or shoot people.

So then how about television shows, the queen asked. Were they a bad influence?

"Naw, man," Jamaal said. "They got a PG-13 rating."

So it went yesterday at the Pleasant View Gardens Boys and Girls Club on East Fayette Street, as 11 students told the queen and a handful of other international dignitaries about what it's like growing up in a rough neighborhood.

The queen comes from a pretty rough place herself, known as the Middle East, although she does live in a palace. Being 47 years old and the mother of four, she also knows a few things about talking to kids and said afterward that Jamaal's relaxed frankness was just the sort of straight talk she likes.

"That is the kind of contact that is most meaningful to me, and I look for it," she said. "And of course I get it from my own children, don't forget. Whatever the age, I've always tried to emphasize honest interaction."

The occasion of yesterday's unlikely chat was to kick off the United States portion of the Children's Hour campaign, an effort by the International Youth Foundation to raise at least $200 million worldwide by convincing people to donate their earnings from the millennium's final hour.

Queen Noor is one of the campaign's "ambassadors," and joining her later yesterday at a reception at the Port Discovery museum was another, Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The queen has been a celebrity since 1978, when she gave up her name and career as Lisa Halaby, a Princeton graduate in architecture and urban planning, to marry King Hussein of Jordan.

It hardly seemed then like it would last for long. She was Hussein's fourth wife and second queen, a tall, striking woman who towered over her older husband in a land where tradition generally offered few meaningful roles to women.But she endured, outlasting not only the king's playboy reputation but also the slings and arrows of rumors, which tend to swirl through the tiny desert kingdom like sandstorms. And when Hussein died last February at the age of 63 after a 47-year reign, she again became the focus of world attention, first as the stoic hostess at his funeral, then as she gamely shepherded her adopted nation through its grief.

Now, as the role of grieving queen recedes, she is embracing new causes. She has taken up the Beautiful Royal role vacated by the late Princess Diana in the campaign to rid the world of land mines. She also will head the new King Hussein Foundation established recently by his successor and eldest son from a previous marriage, King Abdullah II, in an effort to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East.

But, as she found yesterday, when you want to get to the core of the problems creating the need for all these foundations and fund-raisers, there's no substitute for talking to the people at the heart of them.

So she heard from Jamaal Jordan, who at first seemed hung up on the usual teen-age gripes of boring teachers and nagging parents. But just when you were ready to write off his problems as trivial, Jamaal went deeper.

He'd managed to stay off drugs, he said, "'Cause my mother got messed up (on drugs) when I was little, and I had to go live with my aunt. And I didn't want to be like that. I wanted to be a good kid."

So, now, when some of his friends smoke dope and then talk too much trash on the basketball court, he tells them, "Man, I don't want to know all that. Just play."

When asked to name the person he most admires, Jamaal picked two: his uncle, who's two years older and still in school, still off the streets, and a teacher, Mr. Thomas, who's smart and honest and never beats around the bush.

Later in the session, International Youth Foundation President Rick R. Little asked for a show of hands on a series of questions: Who knew someone who'd been shot or stabbed? Who knew someone on drugs? Who knew someone pregnant or with a baby before age 17? Jamaal's hand went up every time.

These were sobering messages to deliver to a queen, even one from a nation where poverty cuts far more deeply than it does in Baltimore. On the outskirts of the capital city of Amman, for example, are some of the world's largest refugee camps, tin-shack villages of uprooted Palestinians that teem with poor health and malnutrition.

Yet, the culture of drugs and violence has not cut into Jordan as it has here.

"Thank God, no," Queen Noor said after the session. "We still have in Jordan a fairly healthy cohesive family structure that does provide a safety net for the young people and the old. So that has prevented a lot of the problems with drugs and violence that we heard here."

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