AMERICAN-BORN QUEEN SPEAKS FOR JORDAN Noor thinks Americans have never made effort to understand Arab world


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?

It is a question asked here by everyone from schoolchildren to Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. With the beginning of the war, these simmering frustrations have come to a rolling boil. And, although the queen prefers not to discuss the personalities involved, it is no secret that most Jordanians now view Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a hero.

She acknowledges that Americans have trouble understanding this, but that's not surprising, she said. Where the Middle East is concerned, the average American misunderstands "just about everything, don't you think?" she said, laughing lightly. "The United States is a world unto itself, and there just isn't the interest in other parts of the world, not just in the Middle East but in the entire world."

Her old friends in the United States are exceptions to this failing, she said, though even they get into political debates from time to time during long-distance telephone chats. Those calls and conversations have brought her solace during the past month, she said, though there is no longer time for the debates.

Nor for much else, for that matter, except visiting the border to console war refugees in their tent villages, visiting hospitals to comfort truck drivers wounded in allied bombing raids along the Baghdad-Amman Highway and accompanying the king to one function or diplomatic event after another.

"I don't have time to read bedtime stories to my children as often as I should or would like to," she said. "I don't have time to see friends, or even to spend very much time on the telephone except for my work."

What little spare time she has is often spent explaining the heartbreak of war to her four children -- two sons, ages 10 and 9, and two daughters, 7 and 5. "Inevitably, we will share moments that are devastating," she said. When the grisly scene of charred bodies at a bombed Baghdad air shelter appeared on the television, "I asked them to leave the room, but how can you make them once it's begun? You can't change that for them, and they stayed till the end of it."

She has also had to soften the blows of virulent propaganda that have come from nearly all directions in Jordan, most of it aimed at the United States and President Bush. "They pick up all sorts of slogans and whatever from school, and I'm afraid that some of those were not the most complimentary of various world leaders. But I've always discouraged personalizing the kinds of problems we've been living through, and I've also tried to emphasize -- I was just doing it today with my two older boys -- the importance of not becoming biased or prejudiced against a whole nation, or a whole society, a whole culture, because of its short-term

political policies."

Such lessons are especially important because she feels Jordanians haven't held her own background against her. "I've never yet sensed any antipathy toward me as a result of where I have come from," she said. "I don't feel I have to prove myself constantly to people here."

If there's any silver lining to the war, she says, it's that maybe Americans will emerge with a better understanding of how to navigate the eddying currents of emotion in the Middle East.

"If they can begin to listen in the coming period because this region's affairs have now affected so many people in the United States so much, then perhaps there's hope that we can bring down some of these barriers, even though the barriers have tragically been hardened and polarized in recent months."

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