Queen Noor of Jordan never aspired to be a royal, though she always dreamed of helping people. Her marriage to His Majesty King Hussein in 1978 launched her into a life of dedicated public service. An inspiration in the hearts of many, she continues to work tirelessly towards peace, disarmament, human rights, and environmental sustainability. kinghusseinfoundation.org
Gina Murdock: Hello, Queen Noor.
Queen Noor: Hello, Gina. What a pleasure.
GM: Are you feeling gratitude at the moment?
QN: I pretty much always feel gratitude. I thank God throughout the day.
GM: I heard a Buddhist monk say, “Gratitude is the closest emotion to happiness.” People who feel the most gratitude in life are the happiest.
QN: It certainly is a step to happiness. You can see that in people around the world who struggle to survive with little or nothing. Whether they’ve been inspired by faith or by loving relationships, or whether it’s just something innate that gives them that ability to shine and inspire others.
GM: Throughout your life you have been a public servant: as active queen of Jordan and in the humanitarian work you’ve done there with the Noor al Hussein and King Hussein Foundations, as well as all the different organizations you continue to work with. What is it that inspires the work that you do?
QN: My early childhood was spent living by the Pacific Ocean. I carry with me something imprinted by that wide, limitless horizon, which I learned connected us to different people and cultures, including my own family’s origins in the Arab World and Northern Europe. I understood early that my world was only a small part of a much larger one. That captivated me.
When my father began to work with President Kennedy, we moved to Washington, D.C. I was fortunate in my pre-adolescent years, as my social and political consciousness was developing, to live at the epicentre of that dynamic, idealistic, and inspiring moment in U.S. political history, with its ethos of personal and civic responsibility, summed up so succinctly in his exhortation: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”
There were other initiatives I have remained involved with in the U.S. and in the Middle East, like the Peace Corps, which might be summed up as, “Ask not that the world serve you, but ask what you can do to serve the world.”
The idea of public service was instilled in me by watching my father, who shared that he was far more fulfilled in his public service than by his former lucrative corporate jobs. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful, determined struggle for social justice, and Sargent Shriver, who launched the Peace Corps, were early heroes. A career of public service was the ultimate aspiration.
In fact, those influences were part of what drew King Hussein of Jordan and I together, though our backgrounds and roles were so different. I had never imagined myself, nor aspired to be, a member of a royal family. I wanted to be in the Peace Corps, not a princess! It gave me pause, I have to confess. We came together because of a shared sense of idealism, of the value of service to a community far greater than ourselves, and the conviction that each and everyone of us can meaningfully contribute to solving even the most seemingly intractable problems. He dedicated his life—I witnessed it in his sleeping as well as waking hours—to trying to break through the impasses keeping people apart. He understood that the security and prosperity of any one of us in this world depends on the security and prosperity enjoyed by others. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the Middle East, nothing could be more true.
GM: You started the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation in 1985 to improve lives of Jordanians; it’s now merged with the King Hussein Foundation. Tell us about that.
QN: I spent the first years working in Jordan trying to learn as much as I could about what was taking place in the country, about where there were gaps in the development process that needed attention. Inevitably, there were certain common denominators which are fairly common to all developing societies, perhaps to all societies: that quality education be accessible to everyone, not just a limited elite few; the sustainable conservation of natural resources; the full engagement of women in national development; and the value of cross-cultural exchange and understanding to international relations. Those were areas I began to focus on.
Of course, in our country, developing in a region with somewhat conservative traditions, women were desperately needed to be more engaged—socially, economically, politically.
The rights that Islam granted to women in the 7th century were revolutionary at that time. Even into the 20th century, women were still struggling in the Western world for rights that Islam had granted women in the 7th century: equal rights to education; the right to own and inherit property; to have a voice in the decisions affecting their lives; to be active, engaged, and valued members of society at all levels. Those rights didn’t seem to be reflected in many of the societies in the region. In some extreme cases, women are constrained by what can only be described as pre-Islamic, misogynistic approaches to the role of women in society. That continues to be a challenge.
I founded an NGO to encompass and develop integrated models in the areas of women, environment, education, and poverty eradication. The Noor Al-Hussein Foundation (Light of Al-Hussein) was created to complement my husband’s efforts to advance development in the country.
I founded the King Hussein Foundation after my husband’s death in 1999, to build on his humanitarian vision and legacy in the country and abroad, through programs promoting education and leadership, economic empowerment, tolerance, cross-cultural dialogue, and media that enhances mutual understanding and respect among different cultures across conflict lines.
GM: Your book, Leap of Faith, shows what a love affair you and King Hussein had. When you describe your work with the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation and the King Hussein Foundation, what strikes me is that you’re really honoring his legacy. Does it feel like you are expressing your love to him continually through that work?
QN: I did feel a sense of duty. His legacy is inspirational for so many, not just for me. I felt that it could be a great asset to the future of Jordan, and those continuing the process of building the country, to concentrate on that humanitarian, peace-building legacy.
He was extraordinary. He was a human being of indomitable faith in humanity, in God, his fellow man, in the possibility of building peace on all levels. That’s something he carried with him wherever he went. It wasn’t just something he reserved for his work in Jordan, but also for people he met any and everywhere in the world, and those who came to him asking for help in resolving problems. He would do whatever he could, he would turn himself inside out.
In the difficult times—when he was still alive and we were facing all manner of challenges in the region, but also since his death—I always remember that. In spite of all that he had to face—and he saw the worst of humanity—he was also able to see the best of humanity. He never lost his faith, no matter how difficult and unbearable and cruel the circumstances could be. I always remember that. It helps me get through everything. It’s a way of trying to keep that positive spirit alive for as many people as we can touch. I think that’s good for the world.
GM: What is the overall vision for the work you are doing with Global Zero, Ocean Elders, United World Colleges, Refugees International, etc.?
QN: I have been involved in my public service career with a range of different issues, including peace-building on the local, national, and regional levels in the Middle East, and global issues that affect all of us, such as nuclear nonproliferation and environmental conservation. All depend upon the engagement of as many people as possible on all levels, from civil society to national leaders, to advocate for the kind of national and international commitments, legislation, and public/ private partnerships that can make the difference. We have powerful films—An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove, Countdown to Zero, Budrus, My Neighborhood, and so many others—that really capture these important issues.
The film and media technology that’s available today is going to be the most potent weapon in our arsenal in tackling ideological intolerance and ignorance, as well as the kind of fear and stereotyping that can dehumanize the others as the enemy, as being somehow less entitled to the privileges and the aspirations that we have.
GM: Jordan has always been a safe haven for refugees. What is happening now with the current crisis in Syria?
QN: I have witnessed firsthand the anguish of this humanitarian tragedy—in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and other conflict and post-conflict zones. The destruction of lives and hopes, the emotional trauma, and the economic, social, and political marginalization of the displaced, the human insecurity, with real and potentially devastating consequences over generations, in ever-widening arenas of conflict. We can and must ensure the human rights of the displaced. That begins by making their voices heard. Refugees International is an advocacy organization whose mission is to be that voice at all levels of government, international institutions, and NGOs the world over.
I have been a long-time advocate for a just Arab-Israeli peace and for Palestinian refugees. Today, as you are aware, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and Iraq are being overwhelmed by those fleeing the conflict in Syria, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Many are severely tortured—abused women and their traumatized children whose husbands, fathers, and brothers have been killed or permanently disabled. To date, over half a million have fled and the UN estimates that figure may double by mid-2013. Up to 2 million have been displaced inside Syria. So far this has been one of the harshest winters in recent years, a blessing for replenishing our scarce water sources, but a catastrophe for those struggling to survive in the camps on our borders. I have launched an appeal with the KHF and UNHCR to try to increase the number of caravans available to immediately sustainably shelter the most vulnerable families in our camps and provide them with future shelter when they return home to rebuild their country, Insha’Allah.
GM: With all your work in all these different areas—education, women, environment, cross-cultural understanding—the final questions I have is, what keeps you up at night? What gives you hope?
QN: One thing that keeps me awake at night: I am a mother and, I have to confess with great delight, a grandmother of five girls, which gives me great hope for the future—girl power! Can I say that without alienating all of the men?
GM: Girl power is awesome!
QN: Just as anyone else, any other parent out there, what preys on my mind are a range of the issues we’ve just talked about, which are all critical to the kind of world our children are going to live in, and what we leave them, what our legacy to them will be. I don’t think we’ve ever lived in such a dangerous time, on a range of different levels. We also live in an extremely exciting time with a multitude of opportunities for each and every one of us to engage our individual voices, to engage more effectively collectively, to tackle some of these issues that would have seemed beyond our reach just a few years ago. Today, there is no excuse for any one of us to sit back and go, “Ugh! There’s nothing I can do about it.”Because there is always something that can be done. This magazine is obviously trying to be a platform for people to talk about what avenues there are to make a difference.
What keeps me awake at night is just, Am I making the best use of the time that remains for me, to both be as good an example as I can in my own daily life, and as compelling as possible a voice for the ways in which we can all work together to tackle these issues?
GM: That’s good. I like that. [laughing]
QN: What makes me happy and gives me joy and inspiration: You do. Your energy, your drive—and as an aside, your yoga instruction—give me great hope and peace and sense of limberness! The limberness, limberocity—what is the word?—that is needed, mentally and physically, to get on with it. I love the way yoga makes me feel. I work out on almost a daily basis wherever I am, but yoga brings into that equation something that is ideal for me to maintain a physical and emotional and mental kind of balance, and to stay healthy—I see it as a way of investing in my future. I also join all of you who are advocates telling others that they can improve their lives and the quality of their lives and others by taking a few moments, breathing, and allowing one’s whole being to become a vessel for positivity.
GM: I often think how different the world would be if everyone did yoga and/or practiced meditation. That is one dream I have.
QN: A more just world is possible. In most of the global issues, and also in so many of the development issues I’m involved in in our region, the young people that I am working with are seizing the tools at their disposal and trying to use them well, for issues far larger than their immediate personal benefit and concerns. That’s what gives me hope. I see it in my children. I see it in young people in Jordan and the Arab world. I see it in young people from around the world who are increasingly becoming journalists and aspiring decision-makers at all levels—working to stem the tide of nuclear proliferation, to mobilize their communities, to take action on issues that can have a positive impact on climate change,.
Maybe this generation is capable of blending a little more statesmanship in with the political decision-making that takes place at the highest levels of government in countries around the world. Young people themselves, with an informed and intelligent commitment to these issues, will determine whether they live in a peaceful world that is providing opportunity for people everywhere, or in an increasingly terrifying world in which one crisis follows another, all increasingly beyond our ability to reign in the damage inflicted by weapons or rising seas and extreme weather conditions.
It’s young people. And thank God for that.
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