The thoughts tumble freely, a stream moving in a general direction but improvising a course.
The speaker is Queen Noor, widow of King Hussein, still shy of 50 and now trying to redefine her life inside the Arab kingdom where she has been a centerpiece for 20 years, a "resource and a sounding board" for the man whose decisions helped shape the Middle East.
The topic is her religion, and specifically whether, raised by Christian parents in an open-minded 1960s fashion, she converted to Islam primarily as a matter of convenience, to make possible her marriage to a man who was not just a Muslim monarch, but also a Hashemite, a descendant of the founding prophet, Muhammad, with all the weight of history and piety that entails.
The short answer is yes, but that alone sounds rudely shallow. So her thoughts spin deeper, and in spinning deeper run to a point where honesty, tact, the demands of her adopted culture and reverence for a departed husband collide, to a point that illustrates the constraints even queens face in defining themselves.
"How do I say this? Maybe because the world is constantly changing and therefore people, we are all constantly having to respond to changing circumstances. Islam provided a framework, a very clear, very enlightened . . . concrete framework . . . for understanding one's responsibilities and obligations in life, that, of course, depending on interpretation, has created, as you find in other religions, a variety of different perspectives. . . . I saw my husband--for me, I would not liken him to the prophet or any of the messengers that are part of the three Abrahamic religions, but I see him as someone who carried the message and made it real in this day and age.
"And it is really important that you not express that as badly as I did."
This then is the riddle: No longer Lisa Najeeb Halaby, an American-raised urban planner, and no longer the consort of a world-renowned leader, who is Noor? Full-time matriarch? Advocate, without portfolio, for world peace and a clean environment? Widowed queen of a land whose people don't look, talk or think like she does?
"It is different," she says of this new phase. "It is going to be very different. And it is going to take time to figure it out."
She is a queen still but not the queen, an honor that belongs now to Rania, wife of King Abdullah II.
Nor is she, as some mistakenly have said, the Queen Mother: Abdullah is the child of Hussein's English-born second wife, Muna, a somewhat reclusive figure.
But Noor is the mother of the popular crown prince, 19-year-old Hamzeh, a position that gives her a kind of derivative standing, particularly if Hamzeh emerges, as many expect he will, as a strong understudy for Abdullah. She has three younger children as well: Hashem, who graduated from the Maret School in Washington this spring, and daughters Iman and Raiyah, who were enrolled there but are likely to move closer to home to finish high school.
She also has shown an ability to stand on her own in Jordan, where she intends to stay. Viewed disparagingly by some here as an outsider, her bearing impressed Jordanians throughout the king's final days, especially during a public mourning period in which she seemed to be consoling the country as much as the country her.
She has pushed at cultural borders without offending, attending her husband's funeral, for example, even though it went against tradition. Likewise, she has been working quietly to ensure that "honor killings"--the murder of wives, daughters and sisters who have had affairs--are punished like any other crime.
After 20 years at Hussein's side, it may be, as she says, that her relations with Abdullah and Rania are good, that her relations with Jordan's political and social elites are good, and that she will simply operate as usual, giving moral support inside the family, offering advice if asked and sustaining a handful of outside projects.
She will, for example, be organizing a foundation in her late husband's honor. She may pick up a cause here and there that needs a face and a voice, as she did with Princess Diana's efforts to promote a global ban on anti-personnel land mines. And she is tying up the loose ends of her husband's life by honoring invitations he had accepted, including one to speak at Brown University's commencement recently.
But professionally, publicly, Noor is scaling back, telling some organizations she patronized over the past two decades that it is "time to disengage."
She also says she is economizing, laying off household staff and adjusting because her home is no longer a hub for the hundreds of dignitaries and staff passing through for business meetings or banquets or lunches or cups of tea.
She says she may be freer now to speak her mind but, concerned about upstaging the new king, she then has her staff ask a journalist not to publish anything about her during Abdullah's recent visit to Washington.
She utters an aw-shucks, I'm-the-same-as-I've-always-been reply to one question, then speaks of the job of being royalty as potentially "soul-destroying."
Again the thoughts tumble:
"The people of the country and the king have made it clear to me from the beginning, and it has been constant, and this is not by comparison to anyone else, and has little to do with the title, that they want me to continue, that they need me, and at the same time also now there will be more of a role played by the new queen, but there is no reason why that should be in any way anything but a very positive development and hopefully one that will bring us all closer together."
THE MODEST MONARCHY
The odd impression is that, despite a life amid regal trappings, despite the fact that she has given up her U.S. passport, the former Lisa Halaby has lived a very American success story. She just happens to have done it as queen of an Arab country.
Smart, attractive, idealistic, she graduated from Princeton University and pursued a career in urban planning and design. Her father, an aviation official in the Kennedy administration and later an airline executive, was Syrian, and she was drawn to the Middle East. In the 1970s, she began working with Royal Jordanian Airlines.
Lightning struck. In the small social world of a small country with a notoriously sociable king, she eventually met His Majesty, a widower since his third wife, Alia, died in a helicopter crash. He was smitten. She brushed up on the Koran. They were married in 1978.
One might imagine that this was the start of a life of privilege, but to hear her tell the tale it is much more complicated.
It is mid-May, slightly more than three months since her husband succumbed to lymphoma, and she is sitting in a parlor in the palace known as Bab al Salam, "the Door of Peace," the home she shared with Hussein. It is a modest building, as all of Jordan's palaces are, made of the same glittering limestone that characterizes much of the rest of the country's architecture. There are more ostentatious places in Montgomery County.
The lawn outside is golf-course green, the rooms full of memorabilia: the flag that was draped on Hussein's casket, Bedouin weaponry, portraits of the country's three previous kings.
She is wearing black slacks, and a black-and-white striped pullover, though she has forgone the locket with Hussein's picture she had worn during an earlier meeting. She looks more Swedish than Arabian, after her mother's side; talks the lingo more of America than the Middle East. She is gregarious, welcoming, self-assured. She is that rare item, a monarch who eschews the importance of her title.
"What is important about me is independent of all that. What is important of everybody in life is independent of all that. And what was important about my husband was also independent of that," she says.
Indeed, what was important about Hussein, she says, is also what made life as a Hashemite queen more of a job than a sinecure.
In his 47-year reign, he survived palace intrigue, assassination attempts, wars, civil strife and ostracism by other Arab leaders, particularly after signing a peace agreement with Israel. Other monarchies, regimes, ideologies came and went in the Middle East. Colonialism. Nasserism. Arab unity. Secularism. Political Islam. Hussein weathered them all to become a mainstay of pro-Western politics in the region, a stance that won him lots of U.S. aid and lots of good press in the West, but left him regarded as something of a poseur by other Arab leaders, a king whose country was invented by the British as a consolation prize when his forefathers were kicked out of Saudi Arabia early in the century.
Compared with Egypt, Jordan is a country without a past. To Saudi Arabia, whose leaders took their territory by conquest, it is a country with no logical historical or military reason to exist. To Saddam Hussein, Jordan's monarchy is of the same family line as the one his Ba'ath Party evicted from Baghdad. He once called King Hussein a "throne dwarf," in reference to his diminutive stature.
In surroundings like that, to survive is to succeed, and it is that context, Noor says, that made life in the Royal Court of Amman less a fairy tale than a daily struggle for balance.
Keeping the family together, keeping the country together, upholding what he felt was a moral mission as part of the prophet's line constantly threatened to consume Hussein and those around him, she says.
"He never fully let go."
Hussein felt he had a country resting on his shoulders, as well as a spiritual history spanning 1,400 years. It was demanding emotionally and financially. Oddly enough, though the idea of monarchy conjures images of commanding wealth, in a resource-poor country like Jordan, Noor says, her husband was perpetually overspending and forced to seek aid from the oil-rich monarchies in the Persian Gulf.
Renowned in Jordan for paying hospital bills, college tuition and other expenses for those who sought his assistance, Hussein "overextended himself financially on a regular basis, and the challenge was always to try to pay the accumulation of debts that would mount because of all these needs that he was addressing," she says.
Though she is rumored to have inherited hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, she laughs at the idea, saying that their budget was so stretched that Hussein delayed for years building the new, more secure, palace that his guards had pestered him to construct.
"I would not call him a spendthrift. This is part of our tradition--an Arab and Muslim tradition--you look after those in need. . . . My husband was the last resource for people who had no other options in a country of limited resources. So he tried never to turn anyone away and that is not always a sustainable position," Noor says.
A REDEFINED ROLE
The final days of King Hussein's life were writ large around the world, and the facts did make a compelling narrative, from his dramatic appearance, bald and frail from chemotherapy, at the conclusion of the Wye River peace talks last fall, to the tumultuous winter days in which he returned to Jordan from his cancer treatment, stripped his brother of his title as crown prince and successor, then flew back to Minnesota's Mayo Clinic with his disease in full rage.
The drama produced such a welter of sidewalk innuendo in Amman that it seemed almost certain that Jordan would disintegrate. The only question was whom to hold responsible--the CIA, the Israelis, some group of other Arab countries or some murky, Machiavellian in-house gang.
No matter how open and Westernizing Jordan may present itself to be, no matter how much Noor and others insist that the family dynamics are healthy and the transition of power seamless and untroubled, this country remains a knotty, tribal monarchy, a place where changing alliances and jealousies, blood ties and wasta--connections--are often more important than merit.
Noor was alternatively:
* The mastermind of a plot whose ultimate design, to have her son Hamzeh on the throne, is still unfolding.
* The mastermind of a plot whose ultimate design, to have her son Hamzeh on the throne, backfired.
* The unwitting dupe of a cabal of U.S. security officials who have co-opted Abdullah.
* The unwitting dupe of a cabal of Jordanian security officials who felt the king's brother, Hassan, would interfere with their perks.
After all, something deeper must have been at work. People don't just die, do they?
While gossip accompanies crisis in any political town, "it can be taken to extremes here," she says. Jordan "is very small and intense. The whole region can be that way."
From Hussein's bedside, from inside the family, however, what happened was a much more intimate and human event, she says. A man was worried about his family, worried about his country, decided after months of thought that his eldest son should replace him, and died.
There was little sense in those final days, in the hours the family spent praying and comforting each other, that they were in the middle of anything epic or more largely human than the simple fact of mortality.
"I tend not to stand outside of myself when I am in the middle of something that fundamental," she says. Despite the biting language Hussein used in dismissing his brother, despite the gossip that the royal family was split into camps, she says "there was a unity of love. A loving spirit that everyone was trying to share with one another for him, as an expression of him."
The days after the funeral were among the family's busiest. Abdullah opened one palace for the men to pay condolences, while Noor received women at another.
Day after day, the lines extended from Zaharan Palace, outside the gate and along the sidewalk of one of Amman's busiest roads.
It was then that she so impressed the people of her country, as if for the first time she was fully accepted as part of a society that at its root remains a touch superstitious and very traditional. The fact that this tall, blond American was their queen had always rankled some, particularly among those families who felt such an honor should have been reserved for one of the locals.
If the public mourning was her duty, it was in a sense her curtain call, too. If she had won full and final acceptance as Hussein's "light"--the Arabic meaning of her adopted name--it came as a bittersweet blessing, at a time when attention inevitably shifts to the new king and queen, the causes they promote and the people they favor.
The stream keeps flowing:
"It is more through my personal effort and involvement or accomplishments or projects--that is my pulpit. It did not come from the title. Now my ability to draw people together to get things going was in large part because of my role and my position. But the actual issues and the ways that we have gone about trying to effect development had to do with our own efforts and work, not with the Royal Court. That is not explaining it well.
"I first of all will be supporting the king and the queen in their work in the country. I see my continuing efforts in the areas that I have been involved in as very-- I see them as complementary."
If, as Noor says, titles don't matter, she has the prime of her life to prove it, on her own.
CAPTION: Queen Noor, shown above with King Hussein in 1993, and during a land mine awareness appearance in Boston this month.
CAPTION: Queen Noor, right, isn't the queen anymore. That honor is Rania's.