May 8, 2003
"Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life" (Miramax, 2003), the autobiography of Noor Al Hussein, Queen of Jordan, has been on The New York Times Best-Seller List for six weeks now. This week it was number one. More Americans might get their news from ABC, but these days many Americans are getting their history from Queen Noor.
And that's too bad.
Alongside languorous accounts of various holidays in England, Austria and Wyoming (Gee, it's good to be queen), the book is threaded with a grossly inaccurate version of Middle East history. By the end of the last chapter, readers will have ingested a negative, one-sided view of Israel.
This is a particularly dangerous brand of propaganda. The queen, staring back at readers from the book's cover, looks sincere and caring, with clear green eyes and her blonde hair cut network anchorwoman style. Why would Jane Pauley lie?
Between the covers, the queen constantly recites her progressive credentials, and they're solid. Born Lisa Halaby and raised part of her childhood in Santa Monica, she earned a degree in architecture and urban planning from Princeton in 1974 and devoted her early adulthood to do-gooderism. After marrying King Hussein in 1978, she worked hard on behalf of women and children's rights, against land mines, and for, as she writes, building "bridges between cultures to promote constructive dialogue."
Her husband, who inherited his throne in 1952, was more supportive of the Oslo peace process than any other Arab ruler. The king and queen wept at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, and though she doesn't mention the fact in her book, both were card-carrying members of the Museum of Tolerance -- really. These, in short, are the good guys.
All of which makes it more depressing to read her autobiography. I don't expect Queen Noor to be a Zionist, any more than I expect the memoirs of notable Israelis to be pro-Palestinian. Memoirs are politics by other means, and for Noor to be anything less than anti-Israel would, given the anti-Western mood back in her adopted homeland these days, seriously threaten her family business. But if her aim is to promote dialogue, why tell lies and half-truths about the people you need to be speaking with?
Noor accuses Israel of undermining international intentions for a Palestinian homeland in 1948. In fact, it was the Arabs who rejected the 1937 Peel Commission decision to grant them 80 percent of the land in Palestine. Israel has killed, dispossessed and oppressed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, according to Noor. The fact that her husband's country occupied the West Bank for 19 years, itself suppressing Palestinian nationalism, goes unmentioned. She writes that her husband did everything he could to avoid war in 1967, but "one fact is indisputable: Israel struck the first blow." Somewhat closer to the truth, as historian Michael Oren writes in "Six Days of War" (Oxford, 2002), is that King Hussein's capitulation to a militant Egypt and Syria compelled Israel to strike. Later, she writes, her husband disapproved of any peace that infringed upon Jordan's "historic guardianship of the holy sites" of Jerusalem. Historic? How about ignoble? Jordanians barred Israelis from entering those holy sites from 1948-1967, destroyed Old City synagogues and built latrines from Jewish tombstones.
These are just a few examples of Noor's "Zionism for Dummies."
Sadder than the fact that she thinks sowing such falsehoods (and that is just a sample) helps any bridges get built, is the fact that she just may believe her own book.
The Arab elite's obsession with Israel has crippled their good sense, writes Tunisian intellectual Al-Afif Al Akhdar, a former columnist for the influential Arab-language daily Al-Hayat, in a recent essay translated at memri.org. To a shameful extent, Noor's book carries echoes of this obsession. She can recount Yasser Arafat's venality and blame the PLO for almost toppling the Hashemites, but somehow she expects Israel to yield to him. She spends page after page trashing Israel, but spends two brief paragraphs at the end of her book addressing Jordan's legal practice of honor killings, which enables Jordanian men to kill with impunity a female relative they suspect of having immoral sexual relations. Nor does she address the suppression of political opposition and free speech in Jordan. Israel, for all its faults, is a democracy, not a dynasty.
"The intellectual class has only itself to blame," writes Fouad Ajami in "The Dream Palace of the Arabs" (Pantheon, 1998). "It had not looked reality in the face; it had not sought to describe the political world as it was."
Ajami goes on to note that the Hashemite dynasty paid a significant price for stepping out of the dream palace and acting pragmatically toward Israel. Noor doesn't need to be told this.
But her book was an opportunity to back up such actions with words. That, unfortunately, is one leap of faith the queen couldn't make.