The Light Of His Life

AFTER 20 YEARS AS queen of Jordan, she still cannot speak Arabic fluently. She is more widely admired in the jet-set realms of fashion and society than among the Palestinian exiles and Bedouin tribesmen who inhabit her husband's dusty kingdom. Born in America and converted to Islam only on the eve of her marriage, she is known to some of her disgruntled stepchildren as the king's ""CIA wife.'' At 47, Queen Noor al-Hussein--a.k.a. Lisa Halaby, Princeton class of 1975--still enjoys the support of the only person who really matters in Jordan. But whenever her husband dies, she will be left almost friendless in her adopted land.

She seemed a bit clueless when she arrived in Amman in the late 1970s with a degree in architecture and urban planning. The daughter of Najeeb Halaby, former chairman of Pan American World Airways, she got a planning job with Royal Jordanian Airlines and lived for a while in the InterContinental Hotel. Employees remember how she hung out in cutoffs and occasionally transfixed everyone in the lobby by greeting a businessman boyfriend with a passionate public embrace.

Hussein was then in mourning for his popular third wife, Queen Alia, who died in a helicopter crash. Lisa brought light--that's what ""Noor'' means in Arabic--into his life. Lithe and lanky, with light brown hair and striking eyes, she was taller than he and 16 years younger: a trophy queen. They were married in 1978, and Noor quickly bore him two sons and two daughters.

Then she faded into the background, promoting worthy causes and staying out of politics. But she became a useful asset to her husband in 1990, when Hussein was one of the few Arab leaders who didn't join the coalition against Iraq (he had all he could do keeping his country at peace with its neighbors and itself). Noor improved the kingdom's image by taking Western reporters to the Jordanian camps for refugees from Kuwait and Iraq. She also opened the palace to journalists, even inviting some of them to dine with the king and the kids.

That helped make Noor a celebrity. She was profiled in Vanity Fair by Dominick Dunne, who also gave her a cameo role in his latest novel. She took over for the late Princess Diana in the campaign against land mines. She became a staple of the royalty-watching press and launched her own self-promotional Web site. None of that endeared her to her critics, who complained about her shopping and accused her of corruption. Some called her Jordan's Imelda Marcos.

Her marriage was rocky at times; the king has always had a weakness for nannies and other attractive women. But his latest illness seems to have brought them together. In the letter he wrote rebuking his brother Hassan, the king said Noor ""belongs to this country with every fiber of her being.'' Hassan's downfall was a blessing for Noor; she and his wife don't get along, and if he had become king, Noor almost certainly would have been forced into exile. It isn't known what kind of relationship, if any, Noor has with the new heir, Crown Prince Abdullah, who is only 11 years her junior. But if Abdullah formally designates Noor's older son, Prince Hamzah, as his own heir, that should give her at least a toehold on Jordan's uncertain future.