My book club's selection for October was Leap of Faith by Jordan's Queen Noor. I wasn't really sure what to expect. I remember hearing her name before, but that's about it. After finishing up A Tale of Two Cities, I plowed through this book in record time.
Queen Noor (Lisa Halaby was her birth name) was born in the United States. Her father was the head of the FAA under JFK, and she went on to become part of the first co-ed graduating class at Princeton University. After graduating with a degree in architecture and urban planning, she went on to work for a firm in Tehran. Due to her father's government connections, she met many dignitaries including Jordan's King Hussein. King Hussein's 3rd wife had recently died in a helicopter crash, leaving him with three children under the age of 5. Their whirlwind courtship included the children, and upon their marriage she took on the name Noor Al Hussein, meaning "the light of Hussein." A large portion of the book chronicles the political upheaval that occurred in the Middle East during the 1980s and 1990s, including Desert Storm. The book then takes us through King Hussein's battle with cancer and ultimately his death in 1999.
I enjoyed this book. I thought it was a good mix of the history of the region and personal anecdotes. I especially enjoyed hearing the stories that humanized the Queen---like their constant tardiness. I found a story of them being late for a meeting with the British royal family especially comical. They were so late that they completely missed lunch and arrived in time for afternoon tea. Queen Noor was so hungry that she took extra tea sandwiches and then even ate some of the vegetables out of the royals' garden while touring the palace grounds! There was also a funny tale of how their family dog would often swim in front of their vacation home and have near misses with Israeli gun boats. The dog would swim close to the Israeli border, and as the gunboats approached the King would speed out in their boat and pick the dog up.
I was most intrigued with the history of the region. I had no idea that the concept of creating the nation of Israel pre-dated World War II. I also had very little understanding of the level of bitterness the founding of Israel created in the Palestinians. I am very sympathetic to the discrimination and the pain the Jews have experienced. On the other hand, the idea of being forced out of my home and off my land to resettle elsewhere and have someone else move in because some other far off countries decided it was a good idea---wow. Yes, I think I would be angry.
While I found the book very interesting, the majority of my book club that met last night disliked the book. The consensus was that they were hoping for more memoir and less political history of the region. I understood their point of view, but I also understand that Queen Noor is still part of the Jordan political scene (her stepson is the current king) and needs to protect her country's interests and pride. I guess my expectations for how much would be revealed was lower. In addition, they felt it was very one sided. I thought --- of course it is! She's defending her husband's legacy!
I think I also felt different because I was ignorant about the time period covered because of my age (I was a child and teenager during the events in the book). I feel by reading the book I really learned quite a bit about the Middle East and why they are so leery of the United States. One instance that really shocked me was when the U.S. wanted King Hussein to change the location of where he signed their peace agreement with Israel from a city of the border between the two countries to the White House. King Hussein strongly felt it should be signed in his country. To get him to sign the peace agreement at the White House, the U.S. forgave a $700 million (you read that right --- $700 MILLION) debt that Jordan owed and gave Jordan a fleet of fighter jets. The debt forgiveness and jets were passed in the middle of the night attached to an agriculture bill while C-SPAN wasn't filming. Obviously, the King took the deal. The whole episode made me feel even more uncomfortable about my country's involvement in Middle Eastern politics.
The bottom line is Leap of Faith is an interesting read. If you go into it knowing that you're going to get a lot of political history and not so much memoir, you'll be just fine.