A New Realm

updated 06/09/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/2003 01:00AM

Queen Noor spent months sitting on the sprawling balcony of her McLean, Va., home, poring over the journals she has kept since childhood. To the sounds of the Potomac River rushing nearby, she immersed herself in the flow of memories. April 7, 1978: "Hash. 12:30," her journal reads—the first time her future husband, Jordan's King Hussein, invited her to Hashimya Palace, his royal residence. Three weeks later: "I want to see your father"—Hussein's way of announcing his intention to propose. Looking back was painful for Noor, 51, still mourning Hussein's 1999 death at age 63. But her desire to pay tribute to Hussein by writing about their two decades together sustained her. Even in tough times, "he had so much hope," she says. "I draw strength from his example."

Noor's devotion to Hussein is at the heart of Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life, which traces her transformation from Lisa Najeeb Halaby—a Washington, D.C., native with a bachelor's degree in architecture and urban planning from Princeton—into Hussein's fourth wife and a devotee of Islam. The bestselling book (at the top of the New York Times list for the past two months) is an attempt at Arab-American understanding, says Noor—no small task in today's world. "She's got a tough sell telling Americans that the U.S. and Islam should have good relations after 9/11," says Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab American Institute and a longtime friend. "She really does embody this bridge between the U.S. and the Arab world."

Yet her memoir is more love letter than political tract. Says Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a close friend: "I know she misses her husband every single day." Although media reports have linked her to a number of eligible bachelors, including former AOL CEO Jim Kimsey ("He's a friend, like a big brother," she says), Noor says she has "no plans to remarry." Even serious dating is out for now, because her four children "don't want it. That would be a difficult adjustment."

So much about their lives has already changed. Hussein (who had eight other children by three previous wives before marrying Noor in 1978, when she was 26 and he 42) chose his oldest son, Abdullah, now 41, to succeed him. In turn King Abdullah named his own wife, Rania, 32, as queen, effectively leaving Noor as little more than a figurehead. With no official duties, Noor now travels to Jordan only about once a month, splitting the rest of her time between the U.S. and London. Of her decision to spend less time in her former domain, she says, "I have the impression that it might give [Abdullah and Rania] a little bit more space and ease."

But Noor is hardly ready to retire. Her humanitarian efforts include serving as an advocate for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (championed by Princess Diana) and sitting on the boards of Refugees International and the World Conservation Union. "She isn't interested in showing up at the latest big dinner in London," says AbiNader. "She'd rather go to an economic summit." Or discuss, ever so diplomatically, the recent war in Iraq. "In our region we have not yet seen solutions arise from military force," she says. "I was praying there was another way out."

When she isn't working, Noor spends time with her children—Crown Prince Hamzah, 23; Prince Hashim, 22; Iman, 20; and Raiyah, 17—all of whom are still students. (She is close to her eight stepchildren as well, though "some are closer than others.") Noor also relishes living near her divorced parents—Najeeb Halaby, 87, a Syrian-American and former airline executive, and homemaker Doris Lundquist, 84—and her two siblings. "She has an amazing spirit," says her sister Alexa, 48, a lawyer in Potomac, Md. "She stays steady."

And down-to-earth. "I try to live as natural a life as I can," Noor says, "so the people I'm with can feel natural with me." Her Everywoman activities include listening to Bruce Springsteen and U2 CDs and—since a broken wrist two years ago put her off in-line skating—going to the gym.

Her regal air, however, is hard to conceal. Noor gets recognized on the street even "when I have a hat on and I'm looking totally grungy," she says. But one nice perk of her new life is not always having to act the part. "On occasion people will say, 'You look so much like so-and-so,'" she says, "and I'll say, 'Thank you, that's a huge compliment'—and disappear really fast."

Galina Espinoza
Jane Sims Podesta in McLean

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