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Then & Now: Queen Noor

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Queen Noor on Lary King Live in April, 2005.

SPECIAL REPORT

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Jordan
Imperial, Royal Matters
Islam
Unrest, Conflicts and War

(CNN) -- In 1978 Arab-American Lisa Halaby left behind her western lifestyle, converted to Islam and married Jordan's handsome King Hussein. The king named her Queen Noor al-Hussein, " the light of Hussein." The fairy-tale romance endured for more than two decades, until the king's death in 1999.

Today, Queen Noor is a busy mother of four grown children, and she splits her time between homes in Jordan and the United States. She remains highly committed to humanitarian work and international women's rights issues.

" ... I've seen it around the world, in the poorest countries and in countries riven with conflict," Queen Noor told CNN's Larry King. "It is women who are the key to breaking out of poverty, breaking out of stagnation. ... It's women who can contribute to achieving real security -- not bombs and bullets and repressive governments."

Through the years, the wife of King Hussein has been seen as an outspoken, strong-willed woman in an Islamic society, where women are commonly expected to adopt a subservient role.

But Queen Noor long has been challenging stereotypes.

In 1974 she graduated from the first co-ed class at Princeton University with a degree in architecture and urban planning. And as queen she defied convention as an outspoken activist for banning landmines. But her choice to marry Arab royalty is perhaps the most controversial decision she's ever made, and it spun the polished young woman into the spotlight.

The whirlwind courtship between King Hussein and the 26-year-old American beauty, some 15 years his junior, raised eyebrows around the world. She was an architect working on an airport design project in Jordan when the two met, and when she decided to accept King Hussein's marriage proposal she relinquished her American citizenship and converted from Christianity to Islam.

It was not an easy decision.

"I pondered long and hard and really put off answering him, King Hussein, when it was clear that he was proposing," Queen Noor said. "He (King Hussein) was taking a huge leap of faith in proposing we share our lives together."

Her decision to become a member of the ruling family of an Arab nation was complicated by the image many in the United States and the West had of Arab-Israeli relations. Nevertheless, Queen Noor decided to dive headlong into marriage and was rewarded with a warm welcome from the Jordanian people.

"When I married, I was so touched and moved and heartened by the fact that I was responded to ... as an Arab returning, rather than as a foreigner coming in and setting up shop," she said.

During their marriage, the king and queen were nearly inseparable. She stood by his side at ceremonial events and political activities. She even accompanied him in 1998 to the Wye Plantation in Maryland, where King Hussein helped broker an Israeli-Palestinian land-for-security deal.

Queen Noor continues to sponsor many projects aimed at increasing educational and work opportunities for Jordanian women. She's also been very supportive of the arts, especially at the Jerash Festival, which each year draws thousands of people to the Roman provincial town north of Jordan's capital, Amman.

Internationally, she supports U.N. programs for women and children, in addition to her longtime campaign against landmines.

"(Landmines are) an obstacle to peace," she told CNN. "Its an obstacle to reconciliation.

Where people cannot walk over the ground that once divided them to make peace in fear of their lives; where children can't go to school without being blasted ... I've seen the devastation and the fact that it impedes the recovery from conflict, the process of reconciliation. And, therefore, it impedes our efforts to prevent recurrence of conflict."

But her biggest battle came when her beloved husband was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. At age 63 King Hussein died.

In her best-selling book, "Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life," Queen Noor describes the devotion she and King Hussein shared as "magic."

"You don't look for that (love); it finds you," she said. "And it found me through him, and I am very blessed for it."

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