There is no more Lisa Halaby, says Queen Noor al-Hussein -- light of Hussein and queen of all Jordan for these last 3 1/2 years.
"I'm not referred to now as I was several years ago," she says, "but I feel Noor. I'm sure that has a lot to do with the way His Majesty has made it my name in feeling. Before, he called me Lisa . . . In fact, Lisa is not another person, but I don't respond as naturally to it."
She sits in an upholstered chair in a small room off the entrance to Blair House, hands clasped. Her blond hair spills over her shoulders. Her blue eyes are stunningly luminous.
The transition was quick, but not necessarily easy, from Princeton-trained planner and designer to international celebrity in the volatile Mideast. The world press again succumbed to the ageless fascination of royalty matched with beauty.
"All of a sudden, I was a wife, a queen, a mother," she says. "All of a sudden I was inspected and analyzed. I had tremendous responsibilities to the king." For him, she says, she must be a wellspring of support and peace. And of herself: "I think he cares very much about my happiness. He has encouraged me from the start. He has given me an open ticket to go out there. He says in retrospect that there was never any time he felt that he should pull me back. He left me on my own. At times I wished he had advised me or guided me."
She was 26 when she married King Hussein and converted to Islam. She graduated from Princeton in 1974, an architecture major, the daughter of Najeeb Halaby, former chief executive of Pan American World Airways. King Hussein had had three wives, and the ruler of Jordan, though not the strongest of political powers, was a survivor of both assassination attempts and the shifting loyalties of the Arab world. At the time she met Hussein, she was working for Royal Jordanian Airlines as director of facilities, planning and design. She and her father had dinner with the king in February of 1978. When the king proposed three months later, he gave her a thick gold ring with rows of tiny diamonds.
As she sits in the Blair House reception room, at the end of a state visit to Washington, the ring glistens on her right hand. There is about her an air of sophistication and control, and she speaks easily but carefully in a clipped, deep-throated voice that has a hint of an Arabic accent.
She sees her parents infrequently. Her 26-year-old sister, Alexa, who lives in Dallas and "loves children," didn't see her youngest nephew, Hashim, until he was 4 months old. "We're separated by time and space," she says. "They're not close to an immediate awareness of what I do. They don't see it. It's impossible to describe."
This week she went back to her college alma mater to give a speech and talk to students. One asked what she does all day, provoking giggles.
"This is a question that everyone wants to know," she says. "There is no typical day in my life."
But here is a start: Noor and Hussein have breakfast together almost every morning in their breakfast room. On Fridays -- their day of rest -- they sleep in till 11. "We have one peaceful beginning moment of the day. It's nice. It starts the day off well." She pauses, and says almost wistfully, "It's one of the few moments we have together, and we can sort of digest the morning together." Not totally undisturbed, though, since they are joined by their children -- 19-month-old Hamza and 5-month-old Hashim -- and two other children from Hussein's previous marriages. Other children live away from home, but during vacations there are sometimes 10 children, from all the marriages, present.
They have dinner together as well, usually seated casually on cushions on the floor. "We might watch a video," she says. "I'm sure when my entourage comes they would love to watch more American television." Sometimes friends will come over. Even when Hussein works until 11 or midnight, they watch a film before retiring. "We love films like 'Singing in the Rain,' and romantic comedies. There are some things that Walter Matthau has made that are very entertaining. It's lovely to watch something very funny at the end of a long hard day."
They live in Amman in a two-story house that Noor says is too small for their life style and their children. They have a housekeeper and cook, and they sometimes entertain heads of state there. "We live very simply and informally."
Heads of state are received downstairs in the sitting rooms. When they bring their wives, Noor might have dinner with them. But when they come alone to talk with Hussein, she eats elsewhere. "No, that would be all men and it would be a working dinner," she says. "I'm not a politician or a policy maker, though I do work for certain policies in certain areas. As far as His Majesty discussing affairs of state with another head of state, it's not an appropriate forum for me to be part of at all . . . That would be the same in this country. No, it's not frustrating and it's not unusual . . . My job and the position I'm trying to develop is one that is complementary to His Majesty. It's not either a substitute or the No. 2 man or woman."
Still, several years ago, she "requested permission" to receive the president of Iraq. "Because he was coming to my house, I felt I should receive him in the house with His Majesty -- just for that purpose and nothing more . . . That's something that had never been done before. I wasn't trying to set a new precedent or make a dramatic gesture. I just thought it would be nice on the human level if His Majesty thought it would be appropriate. And he did."
She denies any rumors of rifts in their marriage, particularly reports that Hussein and she had separate living quarters and that she was not allowed in his. "We laughed when we read it," she says with a low chuckle. "We don't have space in the house for there to be separate quarters. His Majesty chortled. He laughed uproariously. He said, 'Quarters? What quarters?' "
Noor paints an optimistic picture for women in a part of the world that has a reputation for subordinating women to men.
"His Majesty has high respect for women. He approved the appointment of a woman to the cabinet. And he supports new laws and regulations making it easier for women to work in the country. He has a lot of respect for the capabilities of women . . . He wants women to take part in the development of the country as naturally and smoothly as possible."
A minute later, King Hussein opens the door and looks in on his wife. "How was your morning?" he asks her quietly. "See you upstairs?" And departs after giving Noor a kiss on each cheek.
"We always connect during the day like that," she says. "In the last few days, it's been like ships passing in the night."
Sometimes Noor travels with Hussein, taking a secretary and one nanny, or two, when the two young children are on the trip. Two Jordanian security men also accompany her. "Some Arab countries I would travel to, some not. Some Arab countries don't have a policy of receiving women -- that is not their national custom. And that is why I might not attend a meeting with an Arab head of state -- even a social function. It's their custom and we respect it."
She is asked whether that troubles her.
"No, not at all," she says. "It's not worth it, really. It's not putting me down. It's not putting women down. It's their own national custom . . . and we don't interfere in their affairs or their social habits."
But, says Noor, Hussein discusses political issues with her. "I'm the one person that he can tell everything to," she says. "I express my opinions but I don't register where I think he's at. But we do discuss things. That, by the way, is very satisfying for me."
As for the disputed land that Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and which many Arabs feel should be made into a homeland for the Palestinians, Noor says, "I think Israel should do what is right. If it does what is right, it will be right for it and right for everyone else. I really think it's that simple on one level, but obviously it's very complicated. If justice is done, if people are respected, then everything is possible and so much more." She leans forward in her chair, fervent. "All of this ridiculous tension," she says, hand slicing the air, "is robbing all of us of our present and our futures -- throughout the entire area. It's best for us all to be out of this confrontation."
Noor recognizes the personal dangers she and her husband face. "We are vulnerable," she says. "He has survived several attempts. We are vulnerable as any head of state . . . It is a part of life to such an extent that it is simply that -- a part of our everyday life. We live our lives as freely as we can." That includes tennis in the summer, skiing in the winter, and shopping excursions to Paris and London.
On trips inside Jordan, they are surrounded by crowds. "They want to touch us, they want to feel us. They feel we are their family. And they are part of our family. It's not as secure as it would be if we were living in clearly defined bubbles of security . . . But if one lived that way, one would miss so much. And when our time is up, our time is up. It's in the hands of God."
In the folds of her dark green satiny blouse hangs a thick gold-and-diamond pendant: "An Islamic shape; it says Allah." It was a gift for the birth of her youngest son. On her right wrist is another gift, a diamond bracelet. On her left wrist, she wears a gold watch and a gold chain-link bracelet -- "what every woman wears," she says.
Noor spends some days in her office on the grounds of the Royal Court. She drives there in her small blue BMW. She receives and sends off new ambassadors and their wives, meets with people who are concerned about education, and delivers commencement speeches and talks to visiting groups.
"For example, I addressed a group of doctors who came to Jordan," she says. "His Majesty was leaving the country and he asked me to stand in for him."
These speeches she gives in English. "My Arabic is not fluent enough for speeches, but I can carry on an entire conversation in Arabic," she says.
She also visits rural areas by car or helicopter. Three years ago, she came upon a small rural community, Hai, with no electricity or other basic services. She talked to the prime minister and Hussein about relocating the community. Several months ago, she inaugurated their new town. "I think they tried to name it after me," she says. "I encouraged them to keep their old name."
This, she says, is one reason "why I don't feel upset about other things."
"As time goes on, I will gain more credibility. Just because I came from America, from Princeton University, from working in architecture and planning programs, shouldn't mean they have to drop everything and listen to me. I have to establish credibility."
That, she says, will come. "I think my role, my position in the country has evolved. People understand me more and more now."