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Jordan Finally Embraces Light of King’s Life

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The newly widowed queen of Jordan threw open the doors of Zahran Palace on Tuesday to accept the outstretched hands and tearful embraces of thousands of women who lined up to share their common grief.

Queen Noor al Hussein--"Light of Hussein"--had just lost her husband, the king of Jordan, yet it was she who consoled the women who came calling.

“We rejoice in his life,” she said to one visitor. “His spirit makes us strong.”

King Hussein died Sunday, losing a battle with lymphatic cancer and leaving behind an American-born widow who must now redefine her role. The monarch was buried Monday at the Hashemite royal cemetery in an elaborate state funeral that Noor could not attend because of Muslim tradition that orders the segregation of the sexes during important religious rites.

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Instead, Noor, who was Hussein’s fourth wife, and other female members of the royal family will receive female mourners for two more days. On Tuesday, she stood composed, graceful and solicitous as, one by one, she greeted the flood of women from Bedouin villages, Amman mansions and foreign capitals.

Wearing a white chiffon scarf and bereft of makeup, in accord with Muslim tradition of mourning here, she patted elderly peasants on the head and kissed fur-clad socialites. She uttered words of encouragement to every woman who passed by.

It was a display of dignity and strength that earned her plaudits from many Jordanians and underlined a position of newfound honor for a queen who has more often been the target of spiteful criticism. Suddenly, as they cope with the trauma of losing a ruler whom many revered, Jordanians are embracing their tall, blond queen as never before.

“She is a piece of our lost king,” said Fardos Nasri, a writer in dark sunglasses who offered condolences at the palace. “She had his love and is the mother of his children. People respect her. She was very close to him at the end.”

But even if that perception changes over time, as the immediate, emotional impact of Hussein’s death fades, Noor’s status in Jordan appears secure.

In one of his final acts, the king himself ensured that by asking his eldest son and heir, Abdullah, to name Abdullah’s half brother Hamzeh as Jordan’s new crown prince. Hours after his ascension, King Abdullah II did just that.

Hamzeh, 18, is Noor’s eldest son, and she clearly has been grooming him for regal greatness. He is said to have been Hussein’s favorite son. Many Jordanians believe that Hamzeh, as a result of Noor’s considerable influence, would have been chosen instead of Abdullah were it not for his age.

Her starring role in what was portrayed as palace intrigue and a bitter power play in the weeks before Hussein’s death could again tarnish her image. She has told friends that the portrayal was inaccurate and unfair. In a remarkable, final letter to settle the succession question, Hussein defended her against idle gossip and “slander,” saying jealous “parasites” were out to get her.

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Noor will retain the title of queen and is expected to continue to maintain a home in Jordan. Abdullah’s Palestinian wife, Rania, remains princess unless Abdullah names her queen.

Abdullah is the son of Hussein’s second wife, the British-born Princess Muna. Muna, whom Hussein divorced 28 years ago, made a rare public appearance Tuesday by standing in line with Noor and the other female family mourners. Tuesday was the 22nd anniversary of the helicopter-crash death of Hussein’s third wife, the Palestinian Alia. First wife Dina, whose marriage to Hussein also ended in divorce, now is married to a prominent Palestinian legislator in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Now 47, Queen Noor was born Lisa Halaby to a prominent Arab American family and raised in Washington, D.C. A Princeton-trained architect, she married the king in 1978, converting to Islam and receiving her new name from her new husband.

Associates describe her as a perfectionist with a quick laugh and casual manner. She heads several foundations, including one that promotes handicrafts made by women, and has a Web site.

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She has attempted to serve as an informal lobbyist for Jordan before American audiences, appearing on talk shows and pitching Jordan’s positions to U.S. Congress members, especially when Amman supported Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.

But she was never fully accepted by a large segment of Jordan. Elitists saw her as an outsider. Common folk noted that she barely spoke Arabic and spent a great deal of time jet-setting around the world.

During the last few months, as Hussein battled the cancer that ultimately claimed his life, Jordanians were aware of Noor’s evident devotion to her husband. She spent long hours with him at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Making their final trip home to Jordan last week, the queen followed her husband’s usual custom on the royal jet. As he lay unconscious, she greeted all those on board. Then, maintaining her own composure, she invited each person to enter the king’s sickroom to pay respects.

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“She was like a pillar,” Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s ambassador to the U.S. who accompanied the entourage, said in an interview Tuesday.

Noor slept in a side room of the Royal Suite at King Hussein Medical Center during the final 48 hours, as the monarch lay dying and family members gathered at his bedside. She left him only briefly on Saturday when she waded into the crowds of Jordanians who maintained a vigil outside the hospital. Stepping into a cold rain, her head covered by a white scarf, she clasped hands and inclined her head in an Arab gesture of gratitude to those who swarmed around her.

After Hussein died on Sunday, the queen kept vigil in the room at Bab al Salam Palace where his body lay, the Jordan Times reported. She slept in the room alongside his body on Sunday night, then on Monday washed his face before his sons arrived to prepare the body and take it off to be buried.

Not until Tuesday morning could she visit the grave site, where she and Princess Rania reportedly prayed and wept.

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For the rest of Tuesday, Noor spent the hours of formal mourning alongside all the women of the royal family--sisters, daughters, in-laws, aunts and others related to Hussein. All were dressed in black, even the 12-year-old daughter of Noor and Hussein.

No men are allowed in this ritual. For an identical three-day period, King Abdullah, his brothers and other male royals are receiving condolences from the nation’s men at a separate palace.

Before Hussein died, Noor spoke openly about his disease and the relationship they had.

“I fail miserably every time I try to find words to describe what he is for me,” she told Life magazine in editions that appeared this month. “I think I am a much better person for having known and loved him.”

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