Lisa Halaby, better known as Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, has lived anything but a conventional life. An American of Syrian descent, she went on to wed Jordan’s late King Hussein bin Talal, and quickly left her unique mark on the role of queen. The Jordanian Royal family referred to her as “Moslem Miss Noor Halaby.” Because she was not an Arab, at best the country’s press had expected her to attain the rank of “princess,” like Princess Muna al-Hussein, the mother of the present King of Jordan, Abdallah II. But it was King Hussein, who called Lisa “Queen,” al-malika Noor. Of his previous three wives, King Hussein had only honored Alia with that title.
Elisabeth (Lisa) Najib Halaby was born in Washington, DC in 1951 to Najib Halaby – a Syrian-American airline executive who served as both chief of the Federal Aviation Agency and then as chairman of Pan American World Airways – and Doris Carlquist. She studied architecture at Princeton University and graduated in 1974. It was her work as an architect that allowed her to meet King Hussein bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The meeting took place in Amman, where Lisa was working on the development of Queen Alia International Airport.
She converted to Islam, taking on the name of Nur (meaning light in Arabic), before marrying King Hussein in 1978 in Amman. Thus, Lisa became Queen Noor and served as queen of Jordan from 1978 until her consort died on February 7, 1999. Noor had a challenging task from the very beginning. She succeeded Queen Alia – after whom, the airport project the young Lisa had been working on was named – in the second-oldest Arab dynasty.
Queen Alia was the daughter of a Jordanian diplomat of Palestinian descent. Like Noor, she too lived her youth in the United States, where her father was Jordan’s ambassador, then moved to Jordan at the age of 23. And, like Noor, she also met King Hussein in the context of civil aviation. During the five years she was queen, Alia played an active public role and supported projects to improve the condition of women and children in her country. She promoted women’s suffrage in Jordan – which would eventually be introduced in 1989 – but she was unable to see the results of her efforts as she was killed in a helicopter crash in 1977.
Queen Noor had a substantial legacy to follow. In the wake of Queen Alia’s untimely death, the next year, 1978, brought many more shake ups in the Arab world.
To be sure, Queen Noor had a substantial legacy to follow. In the wake of Queen Alia’s untimely death, the next year, 1978, brought many more shake ups in the Arab world. Israel invaded Lebanon in March of 1978 and shortly thereafter, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed a unilateral peace agreement with Israel, which prompted the Arab League to expel Egypt.
When I was a student participating in an archaeological dig in Jordan in 1989, I had an opportunity to meet a few Jordanian royals – two of whom were Queen Noor and King Hussein – at the American Center of Oriental Research. I said an embarrassed “hello” after I heard a hearty laughter from a nearby hall, which turned out to be coming from the late King. Jordan faced considerable economic difficulties at the time, including an extreme devaluation of the Dinar and the theft of some US$100 million from the Central Bank of Jordan by one Ahmed Chalabi. Yet the Queen and her King seemed like two worlds that had come together in the midst of turmoil.
A year later, in 1990, I was about to start graduate studies, and the world was preparing for a massive war in the Middle East to oust an Iraqi occupying army from Kuwait. It was the first Gulf War, the one that Washington led, guiding an international coalition that even included the Syria of Hafez al-Asad. King Hussein, one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East, however, did not join that coalition.
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Queen Noor is said to have protested the Vietnam war in her youth. As a queen, though she remained respectful of traditions, she was seen as a symbol of emancipation, even if she rarely spoke about politics during her husband’s reign. It was walking this fine line that allowed her to withstand periods of crisis in Jordan, presenting an image of strength and compassion.
I understood King Hussein’s reasons for not joining the war effort well. And I thought about that fleeting encounter in Amman: King Hussein and Queen Noor had seemed so united then, and the East and West so close. But, as US General Schwarzkopf started deploying his plans, I wondered what the American born Queen of Jordan was thinking. How she must have felt about her husband’s choice not to join the US-led coalition and I also sensed that she would have done the same. As the Eastern and Western worlds were about to collide, I considered Noor to be the best representation of that situation for Jordan—a country in which East and West have often clashed, but where they have also often come together in friendship.
Though she had been strategically quiet on political matters before, Queen Noor was not a mere “prop” in King Hussein’s diplomatic and public relations arsenal. By then, she had become known for her environmental advocacy and her anti-nuclear weapon stances – including a legacy of anti-war activities in her youth, and her support of conflict resolution.
She embraced her role as Queen of Jordan, doing her best to diffuse the tension by traveling to Western capitals to explain – in universities and even in the US Congress – Jordan’s precarious position, caught as it was between remaining loyal to the United States while also protecting important domestic realities.
These considerations included the fact that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was Jordan’s biggest trading partner and that Jordan had a very large percentage of Palestinian citizens and refugees, most of whom appreciated Saddam’s rhetoric in support of their self-determination. Indeed, Noor still visits the refugee camps to this day, sometimes driving a jeep – alone. And in doing so, unlike “quiet” royals, who isolate themselves to the pleasantries of the Court, Queen Noor exposed herself to criticisms from all side, domestic and American, always fully aware of the political and social significance of her actions.
Queen Noor had to face the conservative sectors of Jordanian society, who questioned the queen’s public role during the First Gulf War – and those who questioned her loyalty to the Kingdom.
By taking on causes that would have real risks, Queen Noor had to face the conservative sectors of Jordanian society, who questioned the queen’s public role during the First Gulf War – and those who questioned her loyalty to the Kingdom. She met the controversy head on, as the Hashemite monarchy came under unprecedented pressure.
Queen Noor navigated through the crisis not by criticizing but by understanding the Islamic movement and the factors that caused it to spread. She saw fundamentalism as the product of disillusionment with secular forces, and their failure to bring political and economic solutions to Middle Eastern societies’ problems.
In 1990-91, through her diplomatic work, Noor validated King Hussein’s decision to call her Queen from the very start. The girl who had grown up, living a life of privilege in the United States, went to live in Jordan, a country that is the closest to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as it has maintained a diplomatic relationship with Israel (since 1994). And she was an American who genuinely criticized American military actions in the Middle East.
Queen Noor is a Director of Refugees International where she has focused on reminding the world of the thousands of Iraqis who were made homeless during the US-led war in Iraq in 2003.
Today, continuing this legacy of diplomacy and activism, Queen Noor is a Director of Refugees International where she has focused on reminding the world of the thousands of Iraqis who were made homeless during the US-led war in Iraq in 2003. She has also addressed the plight of Syrian refugees. Beyond the Middle East, she has advised the United Nations on implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Central Asia and in Colombia.
Noor is also a Commissioner of the International Commission on Missing Persons, the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, and Global Zero, which wants to ban nuclear weapons. Noor’s interest in peacebuilding has inspired her to serve as President of the United World Colleges, as a trustee of the Aspen Institute, and as an advisor to Search for Common Ground and Trust Women. Additionally, in her ongoing commitment to environmental causes, she is a Patron of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and the Founder and President of Bird Life International.
A mother of four children, all descendants of the Hashemite dynasty, she might be best described as a citizen of two worlds. Queen Noor currently makes her home between Jordan, the US, and the UK and shows no sign of abandoning her regal influence among the causes she’s long stood up for.