A Queen's Tale

The Early Show, Harry Smith and Lisa Halaby, Queen Noor of Jordan
CBS/The Early Show
She began life as American Lisa Halaby, but marriage to royalty made her Queen Noor of Jordan, and started her on an adventure she never could have imagined.

Now, King Hussein's widow, Queen Noor, chronicles her experiences as wife, mother and monarch in her new book, "Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life."

"It's a book about building bridges. And it's a book as its title indicates, about faith," says Queen Noor. "And if, God forbid, there is a war, I think its message will be even more important in the coming period. Because it's about how we're going to have to win the peace, not only for the people of Iraq, but for the people of the entire region."

She says she wrote the book to honor her husband and his work for peace. "His example gives us a road map, if you will. Certainly, a model for the ways of bringing together opposing forces through dialogue and negotiation, and finding common ground that's based on our common spiritual values, as well as our common aspirations, whether we're Arab or Muslim, American, or any nationality, to create and to build a better life for our children."

Queen Noor says she hopes her book "will bring a human face and present historical, cultural and most importantly, human perspectives on the headlines that people see so often on the Middle East, but don't get the reality."

Below is an excerpt from "Leap of Faith"


Chapter One: First Impressions

I first met my future husband through the lens of a camera. I was standing with my father on the tarmac at the airport in Amman, Jordan, when King Hussein strolled over to greet us. Never one to hold back, my father thrust his camera into my hands. "Take my picture with the King," he said. Mortified, I nonetheless dutifully took the photograph, which caught the two men standing side by side, with the King's eldest daughter, Princess Alia, in the background. Afterward, my father and the King exchanged a few words. Then King Hussein called his wife, Queen Alia, over to meet us.

It was the winter of 1976, and my father had asked me to join him on a brief visit to Jordan, where he had been invited to attend a ceremony marking the acquisition of the country's first Boeing 747. My father, Najeeb Halaby, a former airline executive and head of the Federal Aviation Administration, was chairman of the International Advisory Board for the Jordanian airline. He was also in Amman laying the groundwork for a pan-Arab aviation university, an ambitious project aimed at reducing the region's dependence on foreign manpower and training. This undertaking, still in its infant stages, was the brainchild of King Hussein, my father, and other aviation dreamers in the Middle East. Since I was at loose ends, having recently completed a job in Tehran, I welcomed an opportunity to travel to Jordan, which I had visited briefly for the first time earlier that year. Another trip to this part of the Middle East would bring me back to the land of my ancestors and, I hoped, reconnect me with the Arab roots of my Halaby family.

I distinctly recall my first impressions of Jordan. I had been en route to the United States from Iran, where I was working for a British urban planning firm. From the window of my aircraft, I had found myself spellbound by the serene expanse of desert landscape washed golden by the retreating sun at dusk. I was overwhelmed by an extraordinary sensation of belonging, an almost mystical sense of peace.

It was spring, a magical season in Jordan, when the winter-browned hills and valleys turn green from the winter rains, and wild anemones spring from the earth like red polka dots. Oranges, bananas, strawberries, tomatoes, and lettuces were being sold along the road through the lush fields and orchards of the Jordan River Valley, and city families from the high, cool Amman Plateau were picnicking along the warm shores of the Dead Sea. There was a warmth and joy in everyone and everything I saw, and I was entranced by the delightful harmony of past and present, of sheep grazing in fields and empty lots adjacent to sophisticated office buildings and state-of-the-art hospitals. I remember, in particular, the sight of students walking in the open fields at the edge of Amman, textbooks in hand, completely absorbed in their studies for the Tawjihi, a general government exam that Jordanians must take in the final year of high school.

I knew from looking at maps how close Jordan was to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, but I had not fully understood it until I stood on the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea and looked across at the ancient city of Jericho on the occupied West Bank. Jordan, in fact, had a longer border with Israel than any other country; it ran some 400 miles from Lake Tiberius, or the Sea of Galilee, in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. Despite the enduring beauty of the landscape, World War II, three Arab-Israeli wars, and countless border skirmishes had left Jordan and Israel's cease-fire line — a sacred tract of land where the prophets once walked — riddled with land mines.

My knowledge of Jordan then was limited to what I had read in newspapers or picked up in conversations, but I was aware of King Hussein's unique position in the region. He was a pan-Arabist with a deep understanding of Western culture, a consistent political moderate, and a dedicated member of the Nonaligned Movement. Jordan, I knew, was a linchpin for Middle East peace efforts, strategically located between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. While in Jordan, I also learned that the King was a Hashimite — a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him — and therefore held a special position of respect for Muslims.

The Jordan I visited for the first time in early 1976 was a fascinating blend of modernity and tradition. The Emirate of Transjordan was founded in 1921 and became the independent Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan in 1946. The country had been transformed by King Abdullah, its founder, and then by his grandson, King Hussein, and had steadily developed into a modern state. Having lost its historic access through Palestine to the commercial seaports of the Mediterranean due to the creation of Israel, Jordan had developed Aqaba as a port for traffic on the Red Sea and beyond to the Indian Ocean.
When I first came to know Jordan, the government was initiating an ambitious overhaul of the country's telecommunications. At the time it would take hours to call within Amman, and the capital did not even have international direct-dialing. Birds alighting on the system's copper wires could cut telephone connections, but soon there would be a state-of-the-art network of telephone services linking the country in even its most remote areas.

Smooth new roads had been built, mostly from north to south, to complement the traditional trade routes west through Palestine. You could easily drive, as I did, from Jordan's northern border with Syria all the way to Aqaba on the modern Desert Road. Traveling through the desert I saw nomadic Bedouin tending to their livestock, and children darting in and out of the distinctive black goat-hair tents known as beit esh-sha'ar. As day faded into night, I was transfixed by the rosy golden glow of the setting sun on the rocky hillsides, where herds of sheep looked almost iridescent in the waning light of day.

The Desert Road was the fastest and most direct road to the south, but my favorite route was the scenic Kings' Highway, which followed the ancient trade routes. The Three Wise Men are thought to have traveled at least part of the way to Bethlehem on the Kings' Highway, and Moses used it to lead his people toward Canaan. "We will stay on the Kings' Highway until we are out of your territory," reads Numbers 21:21–22 in the Bible, referring to Moses' request to King Sihon for permission to cross his kingdom, which was denied. Alternating between the two Nikon cameras I wore constantly around my neck, I took photograph after photograph of Mount Nebo, near where Moses is said to be buried, and of the magnificent mosaics I saw in nearby churches, just off the Kings' Highway.

Earlier civilizations kept the dirt track cleared of stones to hasten the passage of donkeys and camel caravans laden with gold and spices, and the Romans paved sections of the Kings' Highway with cobblestones to allow travel by chariot. Evidence of ten thousand years of history is scattered along or near the Kings' Highway, from striking plaster neolithic statues with darkly lined eyes, the oldest representations of the human form, to the Iron Age capital of the Ammonites, Rabbat-Ammon, which forms the nucleus of Jordan's present-day capital, Amman.

The archaeological treasures I saw in Jordan during this early visit were stunning, among them the classical walled city of Jerash in the hills of Gilead, with its colonnaded streets, temples, and theaters. Lakes once covered the eastern desert, where fossilized lions' teeth and elephants' tusks can be found in the sand. On the road to Baghdad loom the 1,300-year-old Islamic "Desert Castles" of the Umayyads — an Islamic dynasty established by the caliph Muawiyah I in 661 B.C. — with their colorful frescoes and mosaics of birds, animals, and fruits, and heated indoor baths.

A few hours to the south lies the ancient Nabataean city of Petra, carved into multicolored sandstone cliVs. Hidden to the Western world for 700 years until Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt stumbled on it in 1812, Petra is entered through a mile-long, narrow Siq, a natural gorge that cuts through the cliffs to emerge into a breathtaking marvel of shrines, temples, and tombs carved into the stone. It has a palette of natural colors and designs that no artist could duplicate, ancient caves and monuments whose floors and walls blaze with swirls of red, blue, yellow, purple, and gold veins of rock.
On that first trip, I explored Amman on foot. Shepherds crossed the downtown streets with their flocks, herding them from one grassy area to another. They were such an ordinary part of life in Amman that no one honked or lost their patience waiting for the streets to clear; animals and their minders had the right of way. I wandered through the marketplace admiring the beautiful inlaid mother-of-pearl objects — frames, chests, and backgammon boards — as well as the cobalt blue, green, and amber vases known as Hebron glass.

Amman looked classically Mediterranean with its white limestone buildings and villas ranging over and beyond the seven fabled hills that Roman general Ptolemy II Philadelphus had conquered in the third century B.C. In my room in the Inter-Continental Hotel, situated on a hill between two valleys, I lay awake each morning in the predawn stillness, listening to the call to early morning prayers, Al Fajr. I was completely captivated by the rhythmic sound of the muezzin calling to the faithful as it echoed off the surrounding hills. Jordan's capital was peaceful and calm, so different from the growing restiveness I had witnessed in the last months of my job in Tehran.

On that fateful day when my father introduced me to King Hussein on the tarmac, a dense cluster of people surrounded the monarch: members of his family, the Royal Court, and government officials, including the CEO of the Jordanian airline, Ali Ghandour, an old friend of my father who had invited us to the ceremony. A lifelong aviator, the King was celebrating an exciting step forward for his beloved airline, which he considered a vital Jordanian link to the world. No doubt he simply longed to head for the cockpit of the country's first 747 and take off. Instead he was surrounded by courtiers, officials, guards, and family members. It was as if an invisible string were holding them all together; when the King moved, the entire group would sway with him.

As I watched, I was struck by the way the King never lost his composure or his smile, despite the overwhelming noise and confusion. For many years I was reminded of that day at the airport by the photograph my father had asked me to take. During my engagement and after I married, I kept it in my office, still in the photo shop's simple paper frame. Sadly, it was lost more than a decade ago, when I asked to have a copy made. I keep hoping that it will fall out of a book or show up in a desk drawer; it is not often that one has a memento of the very first moments spent with someone who would become the most precious part of one's life.

That short stay in Jordan ended with lunch at the King's seaside retreat in Aqaba, which had an appealing simplicity. Instead of living in an imposing vacation palace, the King and his family resided in a relatively modest beach house facing the sea; guests and other family members were housed in a series of small, double-suite bungalows that made up the rest of the royal compound.

The King was traveling at the time but had asked Ali Ghandour to "take my good friend Najeeb to lunch in Aqaba." Over the mezzah, an assortment of appetizers including tabouleh, hummus, and marinated vegetables, the conversation veered quickly to politics —t o Lebanon and its ongoing bloody civil war. I listened intently, asking many questions, fascinated by the complex political events of the region.

Aqaba was a lovely spot, but our sojourn in Jordan was nearing its end. Soon I would be back in New York, hunting for a job in journalism. I never imagined that I would be returning to Jordan just three months later, nor did I have any inkling of how fateful that return would be. Perhaps I should have taken more seriously a curious prediction made on one of my last evenings in Tehran, just a few months earlier. At the end of a farewell dinner at a restaurant in the city center, an acquaintance at the table had told my fortune in the traditional Middle Eastern way, by reading my coffee cup. He swirled the thick grounds, turned over the cup, flipped it back, and studied the patterns within. "You will return to Arabia," he had predicted. "And you will marry someone highborn, an aristocrat from the land of your ancestors."