Jordan's Queen Noor: A Test of Faith and Courage
By Idelle Davidson
We knew them as one of the world’s most fascinating royal couples. He was the king of Jordan and 16 years older. She was the fresh-faced, Princeton-educated American beauty. Hussein Bin Talal, or King Hussein, as he was known during his 47-year rule, married Lisa Halaby in 1978.
For him, she gave up her American citizenship and converted from Episcopalian to Islam. She studied the Koran and learned Arabic. She embraced his eight children (from three previous marriages) and bore him four more. Upon their wedding, His Majesty presented her with the name, “Noor al-Hussein,” or the light of Hussein. Not only were they king and queen of four million Jordanians, they were lovers, best friends and confidants.
“The closeness and intimacy between these two people as it grew over the last decade until the very moment of his passing, was absolutely extraordinary,” says Middle East specialist Judith Kipper in “Biography,” an Arts & Entertainment video. “It was palpable when you would see them together. It was the kind of intimacy that most human beings dream of to have at least once in a lifetime.”
King Hussein was a survivor in a region rife with tension. The Hashemite prince, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, survived nearly a dozen assassination attempts. He weathered palace intrigue, failed coups and wars. Yet what he could not survive was the cancer that ultimately claimed his body. On February 8, 1999, the 63-year-old king succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now sitting on a couch in the living room of her estate near Washington, D.C. Queen Noor shares the story of her husband’s illness and final days. Her official residence is at Bab-al-Salam (“Gate of Peace”), the family palace in Amman, Jordan. But she often travels to the U.S. for government functions. Some of her children also attend school on the East Coast.
Her Majesty looks relaxed and happy in this tranquil setting. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows open out onto acres of evergreen forest and the Potomac River below. A tender photo of the royal couple embracing, sits beyond her near the hearth. The queen’s composed appearance is in stark contrast to images broadcast around the world just prior to her husband’s death. As His Majesty languished in the King Hussein Medical Center in Amman, the exhausted queen waded into a crowd of thousands. She risked being crushed by the sheer mass of their bodies. As her people wailed in grief, she thanked them for their vigil. Then she closed her eyes and prayed with them for their king.
The final moments for her husband really began in June 1998. For months he had been fighting some rare viral infections and had been receiving treatment on and off at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “We had a heavy official schedule corning up—a state visit to France—and it wasn’t possible for him to keep up with all of his responsibilities, feeling so exhausted and debilitated by the viral infection,” recalls Queen Noor. “So we went back to the Mayo Clinic. We had to get to the bottom of it.”
That’s when they received the shocking diagnosis of his lymphoma. The royal couple put their lives in Jordon on hold and moved into the Mayo Clinic for six months. Queen Noor slept in an adjoining room and the children visited often. King Hussein completed rounds of chemotherapy and went through a bone marrow transplant using his own stem cells.
The couple’s religion and spirituality helped them face their darkest fears. “My husband’s entire life, certainly his entire working life—47 years of his reign—were defined by uncertainty about the future of Middle East peace and the welfare of our people. For us it wasn’t a new challenge facing the unknown. This was yet another battle, another test of faith and courage,” says the queen. Finally, the king’s international team of doctors pronounced him in remission and they returned to Jordan.
Their cautious jubilation was short lived. As if a cruel practical joke, King Hussein’s cancer rebounded and mutated in a vicious way. Within ten days he was back at the Mayo Clinic for more chemotherapy. A sibling donated bone marrow for a second transplant, but the treatment failed. So again, this time with His Majesty heavily sedated, they flew home. King Hussein died three days later.
At least in public Queen Noor is poised and unflappable. Has she had time to mourn? “I will mourn all my life,” she says. I have not despaired but at times I’m frustrated by people saying, ‘well, you haven’t given yourself time to mourn or you haven’t gotten over it,’ as if there’s a formula. I live with my husband’s life and loss every moment of the day. I don’t expect to, and I’m not really wanting to get over it. I want to learn to live in peace with it.”
King Hussein’s oldest son from his second marriage to British-born Antoinette Gardiner, is now the new king of Jordan. The reign of 39-year-old Abdullah II and his 30-year- old Palestinian wife, Queen Rania, have shifted the palace hierarchy. But Queen Noor (who retains her title) is firmly tied to the Hashemite kingdom. Her oldest son, 20-year-old Prince Harnzah, is next in line to the thrown as Jordan’s crown prince. Following his father’s path, he attends Sandhurst, the British military academy.
Queen Noor, meanwhile, spends a good part of her time championing Middle Eastern issues. She is a vocal advocate of banning land mines and heads the King Hussein Foundation, which promotes humanitarian causes.
The queen is also a passionate supporter of cancer research and chairs the Al Amal Cancer Center—Jordan’s first comprehensive cancer center. “In so many parts of the world, ‘cancer’ is still a taboo subject,” she says. “There’s enormous ignorance and so much fear. So many families suffer because of this fear of facing it head on.” That’s why she and the king openly discussed his disease and treatment with their people. It was important to be role models, she says.
“I feel that on a spiritual level, we are journeying somewhat separately right now and that we will be reunited,” says the queen. “I’ve taken great comfort in that.”
InTouch September 2000