Queen Noor of Jordan

At The Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts - March 4, 1996

Queen Noor of Jordan
March 04, 1996— Washington, D.C.
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Thank you, sir, for that kind introduction. I would also like to thank the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives for inviting me to participate in their annual 'distinguished speakers series'.

Few of the challenges I have faced in my life have put me to such a test as this. While I am well aware of the extent to which Americans pride themselves on their ethnic and cultural diversity, but, the diversity of the speakers in this series is uncommon, to say the least -- from perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev, to the White House and George and Barbara Bush, to the charismatic show-biz energy of that other Queen, the reigning Queen of the talk shows, Oprah Winfrey, to my very personal view from the Middle East about war and peace. What an array of speakers, and a great poker hand! A full house -- 3 aces and 2 queens!

A little over 35 years ago, this country heard president John F. Kennedy give the first Peace Corps recruiting speech: 'ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' This past week-end, the Peace Corps celebrated its 35th birthday, by honoring ambassador Sargent Shriver, its first director, and so many others. Thank you Sargent from this child of the 60s. Growing up in Washington while my father worked in the Kennedy Administration established my ideals early in life . It was not my dream to be a movie star or even a Queen, but to join the Peace Corps. I did not achieve that dream -- my life has moved in rather a different direction -- but what I have tried to achieve reflects the same concerns and owes a great deal to that early inspiration.

Over the past 18 years, I have often been asked about my life in Jordan. From the outset, the Western media seemed to decide that their audiences -- whether readers, viewers or listeners -- were only interested in what I wear, what I eat, and what I do in my leisure time. Often finding the reality of our lives rather dull in contrast with the sensational gossip frequently surrounding royal courts, they have exaggerated, invented stories, or fallen back upon commercially successful stereotypes of Arabs, Muslims and women.

The press' devotion to these determined preconceptions has been comic at times. They even manage to turn the lack of a stereotype into a stereotype. I am of Arab descent on my father's side, but my mother is of Swedish extraction, which means I do not fit reporters' notions of what the Queen of Jordan should look like. There seems to be an unwritten law that every press report about me must contain the phrase 'mane of blonde hair.'

From time to time, particularly in the midst of another Middle Eastern crisis, I am questioned about current events, the more serious aspects of my life, priorities and work in Jordan and abroad and about stereotypes of Arabs, Muslims and women.

My husband's first and most precious gift to me was my name, Noor, which means light or illumination in Arabic. I have struggled at length to determine how I might, tonight, faithful to its spirit, shed some light on the tumultuous events that I have witnessed over the past two decades from my vantage point in the Middle East, and on the extraordinary global and regional transformations that have changed the course of history in our region.

From my dual perspective as a catalyst for national development in Jordan, and a bridge to foster understanding and mutually beneficial relations between our two worlds, I hope to be able to provide some insight on the lessons of the recent decades that may enable us, at this momentous and challenging juncture, to realize the long-sought promise of our collective peacemaking efforts. Those efforts will only succeed if they reflect a truer understanding of the needs and aspirations of all the peoples who must build this peace. We must begin -- and in fact, we have already begun -- to look together at long-term common goals, and break the historic cycle of conflicting, narrow, nationalistic self-interests which, until now, has made Arab-Israeli peace and American-Arab cooperation such elusive goals.

My life journey among American and Middle Eastern cultures has taught me that the foundation for constructive partnership already exists, embedded in our common moral heritage -- in the teachings of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. We must be aware, however, that Arabs and Americans express common moral values with different cultural voices and vocabularies. The relationship between the United States and the Arab world includes some of the oldest and most durable relationships of the 20th century; but also, has been plagued by some of the most recurrent misperceptions and intemperate violence of modern history. Enhanced mutual understanding is particularly important for defining the new relationships among Arab countries, Israel, and the United States, as we move from making peace into building that peace into a strong edifice of shared progress and security.

Looking back over the past two decades of my life in the Middle East, decades which were among the most troubled of any period in its modern history, many memories capture the conflicting emotions -- the hopes and fears -- that have defined the Arab world and its relations with the West. The most vivid, perhaps, is of a period whose drama and trauma we all shared and is still with us --the period from the early morning call to my husband from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, shocking us with the news of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces five years ago, until another late night call informing us that the U.S.-led coalition had begun to bomb Iraq. During those stressful months, my thoughts raced in time and place: from my student years in the U.S. as a young activist in the Civil Rights, Antiwar and Environmental movements, to my Arab-American journey to the Middle East, and especially to my anger and frustration about the gulf of ignorance and fear separating both worlds.

Every day of my life, I could see in Jordan and throughout the Middle East, the ravages of decades of warfare, in unmet human needs, in fear, hate and uncertainty as people's daily companions, in the constantly growing new belts of urban poverty, in the politics of extremism and religious activism sweeping the region, and, above all, in the plight of the Palestinian refugees and their increasingly permanent camps. Western public opinion was not aware of the human face of this tragedy. It did not have the information. And so did not seem to care. The Middle East has the most refugees of any region of the world. It also sets a record in another area: it has the highest ratio of military spending per capita income of the entire developing world, and also the highest ratio of military spending to gross national product of any region of the world.

The Gulf crisis, war and their wider political context encapsulated the underlying problems that had plagued the Middle East for almost a century, and the costly consequences of poor communication and lack of understanding between cultures -- severe socio-economic disparities among countries and within societies, autocratic governance, a lack of popular participation and respect for human rights, and inequitable and often exploitative relations with foreign powers. These were the very same issues that had defined my own work and priorities at home and abroad since my marriage.

I had first arrived in the Middle East in 1975, prompted by my desire to explore the roots of my Arab-American family and heritage. The mid-70s appeared to be a moment of hope for many people in the Middle East. Oil-fueled economic expansion was promoting regional integration and development, international efforts were gaining momentum in the search for Arab-Israeli peace, and most people thought that the 1973 war would be the last major Arab-Israeli military clash. Yet my urban planning work in Iran and later extensive working visits from a base in Jordan to countries throughout the region exposed me to a sense of growing unrest. I detected serious problems brewing beneath the surface. Secular-religious divides were already forming in countries like Iran, income gaps were growing in all countries, and tensions were developing between indigenous and western cultural patterns.

The combination of political frustration, social alienation, and economic disparity created a volatile landscape; the West largely overlooked this because of its almost single minded focus on assuring access to oil through regional security arrangements. Moreover, the tendency toward instability was actually further exacerbated by trends toward a Western style and pace of development. I recall images of Iran in 1975-76 of bellbottom jeans and platform shoes under filmy chiffon chadors, of BMWs and Mercedes in the face of glaring poverty. The gulf between rich and poor was growing almost to the point of cultural schizophrenia.

Some countries, like my new home of Jordan, minimized the pressures of rapid modernization by adopting a more culturally sensitive approach to national development. This was necessary in part because we are a country of limited natural resources. Also, one of the benefits of that was the absence of extremes in our society because we had not the ability, nor I would like to feel, the inclination, to develop at such a pace.

Among the most frequent and frustrating interview questions I am asked, reflects the prevailing stereotypes of the Arab world: how could I as an independent, well educated working Western woman, adjust to life in the Arab world? In fact, my first impressions of Jordan were formed by my women friends, who were involved in many aspects of life, who were working, running family-owned factories, teaching ... I had impressions of a hospitable, pluralistic, balanced and family-oriented society, and impressions that were formed by coming to know that in the field of education, men and women were entering universities in equal numbers, some years there were even more women than men. This was the product of a constitutional guarantee of equal rights for men and women and a general availability of equal opportunities, though in our conservative society, women have become involved gradually in the work force and other areas which were not traditional.

It was the field of aviation that brought me together with my husband first at Amman airport and then we met frequently while I conducted research in the region for the preparation of a master plan for a Pan Arab aviation training facility.

I recognized the familiar free spirit of the aviator in King Hussein -- a spirit I had grown up with in my father, highlighted during his time as F.A.A. administrator, here, during the Kennedy Administration -- a gravity-defying spirit, transcending constraining and narrow boundaries of convention and political strife, to reach for a higher and larger view and perspective.

As my professional and personal relationship with King Hussein developed, we discovered common ground in our political and social interests and our personal values and priorities. I was fascinated by his unique and constantly evolving role as a monarch who saw his responsibility to promote social justice, political participation and economic progress in a manner that was faithful to Arab cultural traditions. He constantly sought to institutionalize a political ethic of participation and consensus-building, while also personally providing opportunities for mediation --- values that are shared with western democracies but expressed in a different vernacular tradition.

We shared a belief in the role, unique for our region, of monarch as steward of affairs of state and compassionate servant of the people. I was inspired by his vision of the role of the monarchy in Jordan, a vision influenced strongly by his sense of his unique blend of spiritual and temporal responsibilities as descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, and as heir to the great Arab revolt for independence and freedom earlier this century, which was led by his great-grandfather and grandfather, by role as a leader and father-figure of a largely tribal society in transition, as well as role as a modern, senior statesman.

The period of our courtship and engagement was, perhaps as is ordinary for most couples, among the most serene and hopeful of my life. For the first time, I, who had spent my life reaching out of the world I had grown up in for meaning and understanding, felt certain about the direction of my life. Little did we know, though, that this was also the beginning of one of the most extraordinarily turbulent periods in modern Middle Eastern history, and one of the most trying times for Jordanian-American relations.

The mid 1970s and early 1980s would prove to be only another interlude of economic progress between the crises that had regularly staggered the region since the 1940s. Every time the Arab region began to generate real economic momentum, once again the frustrating pendulum would swing, and the genuine progress that had been made would be lost in the waste of war, and the emotional ravages of post-war despair.

For most of the people of the Middle East, especially of the Arab world, much of the decade between 1975 and 1985 was marked by a dizzying roller coaster ride of recurring hopes and dashed expectations. Almost every president and leading political figure floated initiatives for Arab-Israeli peace settlements; all ultimately foundered and failed to achieve a comprehensive peace.

In fact, another indelibly significant and personal memory is of our honeymoon period which coincided with the Camp David negotiations. These produced the first stunning crisis for my husband and country after our wedding and illustrated, in many ways, the yawning gulf of perceptions and of political and cultural understanding.

The Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel were seen by Washington as a great success, but the Arab world received them with stupefied disbelief. They were denounced as a calculated fragmentation of Arab ranks, as a unilateral abandonment of the collective Arab commitment to peace, and, as a failure to secure the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and the return of all occupied Arab territories.

The worst of Arab fears were confirmed when the Camp David accords coincided with an intensive outburst of new illegal Israeli settlements and annexation of occupied Arab territories, followed by Israel's formal annexation of Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. Such Israeli actions in the wake of the Camp David accords and the inevitable Arab reaction further diminished chances for comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

During that same period, the Middle East suffered a series of violent shocks: the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of political Islamism which were to have far-reaching consequences for the Muslim world, the assassinations of President Sadat and President Gemayel of Lebanon, the Israeli invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon, the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres in which around two thousand Palestinian men, women and children were killed in Lebanon, the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq, and the resurgence of terrorism, such as the bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and Marine barracks which killed hundreds of American servicemen.

Our first daughter was born in 1983, during this period of tragic hopelessness and terrible waste. My husband and I broke with the family pattern of traditional Hashemite names and named her Iman .....Al Hussein - the faith of Al Hussein. Her life and her name reflected our struggle, alongside so many others in our region, to hold tight to our faith in humanity, in ourselves and in our ability eventually to influence the direction of events in the Middle East for the better.

As Islamist extremism proliferated in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and other countries throughout the late 1970's and the early 1980's, Western countries tended to view it only as a threatening phenomenon that had to be confronted and contained. Many appeared to ignore the different factors that fuel Islamism in our region and still do today, among them poverty and socio-economic inequities, fears of cultural and economic dominance from abroad, and frustration with undemocratic political systems.

I found myself, a once aspiring journalist desperately concerned about accuracy in reporting on the Arab world, when I first arrived in the region, unexpectedly given an opportunity to pursue similar goals on the other side of the firing line. I began speaking to Western audiences on political, cultural and humanitarian issues concerning the modern Arab world. I felt a strong responsibility, almost a moral obligation to try to correct grossly distorted Western stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, especially women, for I had seen how media stereotyping could set the emotional and political stage for policies that resulted in chronic misunderstanding, suffering and conflict.

This unique role for a wife of a head of state developed somewhat accidentally, when I received an invitation to speak at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Affairs in 1982. My husband asked that I use the occasion also to convey a political message -- stressing the need for the United States to play the role of an honest broker to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict -- that he was unable to deliver personally because of strained Jordanian-American relations at the time.

Public speaking in this country had its drawbacks though and I was soon able to empathize with the frustrations of women around the world whose activism for public well-being commonly their generated attempts to define them primarily in material rather than intellectual terms -- in terms of gender and domesticity, their hairstyles and clothing. It was clear that the audience for my Georgetown speech, one of the first in the U.S. since my marriage, had no idea what to expect from me. The Washington Post ran the story in the style section and zeroed in on what I wore rather than what I said.

How ironic it was that as a spokesperson from the Arab world, I was always having to wrestle with the sexist attitudes of the supposedly enlightened Western media. In fact the irony extended further as just prior to my marriage, I had deferred my acceptance to the Columbia School of Journalism where I had hoped to develop skills to enable me to communicate more accurate facts and images of Arab society and culture to the West.

Just as my role on the international level was unconventional, so was my approach to work at home in Jordan where I pursued a non-traditional approach to my role as Queen -- not surprising for one of the pioneering first class of women at Princeton! There were already a multitude of charitable activities and endeavors undertaken by members of the royal family and others in society and I decided that the issues of my concern -- some of which I have already referred to -- should guide and define an innovative and what turned out to be an integrated approach to development challenges in the country.

I was determined not to seek, as might have been expected from someone of my background, to impose Western criteria and values through my work for, I had learned from my previous work and travel throughout the region not to measure progress and security relative to the degree of Westernization of a society but to the degree of self reliance and participation of its people in meeting its needs.

My work evolved to complement public and private development efforts in Jordan and to fill gaps in our socio-economic policies. By 1985, the projects that I had initiated since my marriage in 1978 had expanded and become diversified enough to require the establishment of an umbrella organization to oversee their implementation and progress. I founded the Noor Al Hussein Foundation (NHF), named for the meaning of my name, light of Al Hussein in the hope that its work would transmit and give meaning to my husband's vision, our shared vision, for Jordan.

The NHF focuses on equal opportunity in education and culture, women and children's health and welfare, and integrated socio-economic community development. We have sought to combine innovation with respect for tradition through the design of equitable, participatory model projects, which build upon our country's heritage to advance and modernize development thinking. This integrated approach, I believe, is the only way to achieve sustainable development especially in developing societies with limited resources by empowering communities to assume ownership and management of their development process, and to promote a more equitable distribution of resources and development benefits.

Strengthened by increased self reliance and confidence in themselves, local communities are enjoying a measurable improvement in the quality of life, productivity and stability and will be more effective and successful in establishing partnerships on a regional basis in the future, and more able to participate in the peace-building process in the era of peace.

In the empowerment of women, especially at the grassroots level, we have tried to set an example for other development organizations by moving beyond traditional ineffective social welfare schemes, with the introduction of modern business management concepts into training and income-generation projects oriented towards both local and international markets. As these women become active participants and decision makers in the social and economic affairs of their communities, they also become genuine economic forces, increasing their status and influence, as well as the overall quality of life and stability of their community. The foundation's programs work to safeguard their essential role as the anchor of the family -- one that has allowed our society to remain more cohesive and more stable.

These projects are considered national and regional development models by several U.N. and international agencies, and we are cooperating to support their implementation in other Arab countries.

This democratic community participation foresaw and now reinforces Jordan's wider political liberalization and democratization process. This was revitalized in the late 1980's and has demonstrating clearly during recent regional crises, that security and progress emanate from our people's sense of self-respect and participation, not from force of arms or foreign support.

I like to think that our NHF models for sustainable economic growth and political participation have contributed to reinforcing social stability and cohesion in Jordan, and that they are an essential component of a larger quest for justice, peace and understanding in the region.

Education will be such an important element in our peace-building efforts and will contribute to more accurate and realistic outlooks global and regional issues.

The Royal Endowment for Culture and Education, one of my earliest projects, established in 1979, conducted the first development research on the country's specific manpower needs. The R.E.C.E. provides scholarships for students, with special emphasis on outstanding women, to pursue their graduate studies in the fields which are vital to Jordan's future development.

The Jubilee School, now in its third year, is an independent co-educational secondary school for outstanding scholarship students from throughout the country, with special emphasis on less developed regions. The school's philosophy is to foster human talent, and educate new leaders grounded in democratic values, tolerance and community service.

Through the priorities of the Noor Al Hussein Foundation, we are emphasizing that women and children are the most important pillars of the new peaceful Middle East. Long-lasting peace requires long-term strategies and new generations that are free from the legacy of painful conflict. As mothers and educators, women in our region can play a vital role in reconciliation and in building peace by shaping the perceptions of new generations of Arab and Israeli children about their neighbors, and by fostering new outlooks and attitudes towards the issues of our region. The new generations of the children of Abraham now have the chance to heed the wisdom of our collective spiritual heritage, to build upon the process of reconciliation that has been initiated and to consolidate it into a true and mutually beneficial partnership.

As His Majesty King Hussein said in his address to the joint session of the American Congress on 26th july 1994, "it should never be forgotten that peace resides ultimately not in the hands of governments, but in the hands of the people. For unless peace can be made real to the men, women and children of the Middle East, the best efforts of negotiators will come to nought."

We have worked hard in Jordan to promote a vision of the single human family. Thousands of years of civilization have shaped the basic principles which guide our national development and which distinguish us in our region: the open flow of people, ideas and trade, and political, religious and ethnic pluralism. We value moderation, regional cooperation and cross-cultural interaction. These principles have enabled us to play a supportive and stabilizing role in our turbulent region -- by consistently promoting the peaceful settlement of disputes and through mediation and peace-keeping efforts.

But true peace is not merely the absence of hostility. Rather, it requires bonds of cooperation to nourish the acceptance and appreciation of coexistence. To this end, the articles and annexes of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty deal with the establishment of regular relations between the two states which have begun to take form, in such areas as commerce, science, culture, navigation, telephone and postal communications, transportation, tourism, energy, the environment, health and agriculture. The treaty also outlines joint projects to develop the Jordan Valley and the Aqaba-Eilat region.

Today, Jordan remains committed to a comprehensive and thereby enduring peace in the Middle East -- a peace that enables human and national resources to be channeled into development rather than military priorities; a peace sustained by popular participation that assures the rights of all the peoples of our region and promotes political pluralism and the full guarantee of human rights in all our societies.

I have dwelt tonight on recent Middle Eastern history because of the tremendously important role that historical memory plays among the peoples of our region. Most Arabs, in fact most Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Middle East largely define their identity in historical terms. Americans, on the other hand, attach less importance to history, preferring to emphasize their founding national principles such as freedom and democracy.

Yet, the ancient and recent past, both offer examples of the common goals that we all pursue via slightly different means. Our common values and aspirations are also becoming more evident today, as Middle Eastern and American cultures both, gravitate towards a pool of shared principles; and national well-being.

If we are to forge a mutually satisfying relationship of cooperation and trust between Americans and Arabs; if we are truly to build on the dazzling allure of Middle East peace; if we hope seriously to replace resentment and war with respect and solidarity, we must build more fruitful future relationships on the lessons of our past encounters.

Copyright 1996 by Queen Noor. All rights reserved.

Speech from http://gos.sbc.edu/n/noor3.html.