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The fine art of royal diplomacy

Times Staff Writer

Two mothers of a certain age -- both citizens of foreign lands by virtue of marriage; one Christian, one Muslim; one divorced, one widowed; both dressed in trendy black -- chatted recently about the universal challenges of raising children.

“Four children, eight stepchildren -- you make ‘The Brady Bunch’ seem like a bunch of pikers,” said Arianna Huffington. “Having to deal with teenagers! As the mother of an 11- and a 13-year-old, I can’t imagine what it must be like.”

Her majesty Noor al Hussein (the Light of Hussein), queen of Jordan, responded, “You take a leap of faith in every relationship that you have, and that means also children and parents. You have to rely on faith to a great extent especially during adolescence.”

The queen arrived in Los Angeles the day before the war with Iraq began to promote her book, “Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life” (Miramax). She canceled several events during her four-day stay, but appeared at a small event with U2’s Bono sponsored by the Landmine Survivors Network; she serves on the board. She also spoke Friday evening at a sold-out Writers Bloc program at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles.

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“Before we move to the personal, I want to start with the political, because our minds are so full with what’s happening in the world,” began Huffington, who was invited by the group to interview Noor. “How is it for you watching CNN?”

Very difficult, the widow of King Hussein answered. She can’t watch without thinking “of all the lives at stake on both sides.”

She knows both sides. The queen lives in Jordan, which shares borders with Iraq and Israel, and is home to many Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.

She grew up in the United States. A Muslim, she talked with Huffington, who is Greek Orthodox, before a largely Jewish gathering.

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It could have gotten ugly.

Noor spoke of “the Palestinian tragedy,” and criticized Israeli leaders, ignored U.N. resolutions and failed peace accords.

It didn’t.

Huffington, who said she was “prepared for anything,” lightened the conversation with references to the queen’s run-ins with other first ladies, tabloid rumors of an affair with a dashing movie star, and that list of 54 grievances compiled by the young bride’s teenage stepchildren.

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What could their stepmother possibly have in common with their father?

A lot.

Lisa Halaby, the shy, eldest child of a Swedish American mother and an Arab American father, and born in Washington, D.C., in August 1951, bounced from school to school as her father’s aviation career took the family to New York, L.A., Washington and, after her graduation from Princeton, to Jordan.

Then 26, Halaby was wooed by the country’s most eligible bachelor, the widowed king, 41, a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. During private dinners, she learned their shared truths: Both were the oldest child, shy, and survivors of a succession of schools (she five, he seven) and of difficult relationships with their fathers.

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When he proposed, she wavered for nearly three weeks (who says no to a king?) before agreeing to become his (fourth) wife in a marriage that lasted until his death in 1999.

My husband, she said, “worked long and hard for peace.”

Without success.

“With each conflict,” she said, “there has been a resurgence of instability, extremism and reduced resources, which have been spent on military budgets, that should have gone into critically needed developmental priorities.” Like food, and medicine.

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Judging by the applause -- and the few questions allowed by Huffington, who kept control by calling on people she knew -- most in the audience, like Noor, opposed the war.

Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and Talk magazines, asked about the “overwhelming resentment” against the U.S. and how to stop “the bullying culture.”

Better find those “weapons of mass destruction,” Noor said, emphasizing the role the U.N. must play after the bombing.

Another questioner asked if Arabs know that “we make great efforts to show ourselves as being not particularly behind the American administration.”

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Noor responded, “They know a lot more about you than you know about them.”

The queen prays, she said, that the war “will end as soon as possible, that there will be minimal casualties on all sides, because they are all innocents.” Among them, Noor the mother explained, are her two sons, who left school and are in the desert commanding divisions of the Jordanian army to prevent foreign nations from using their country as a base for attacking others.

“It’s easy to win the war,” Noor said. “It’s absolutely critical to win the peace.”


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