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Her Grand Entrance

Glamorous activist Queen Rania of Jordan challenges the world's notion of what an Arab-born first lady can be.


The bomb squad sweeps the ballroom, and secret service men--Arab and not--cluster at the end of a hall on the ninth floor of Beverly Wilshire Hotel, wires snaking out their ears and into their collars.

"I think Britney Spears is here," says Her Majesty Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan with a playful smile. "She is much more important than I am."

Dressed in a sleeveless turquoise silk dress, a belt cinched around her exquisitely tiny waist, the queen of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is as glamorous, poised and beautiful as Americans, so deeply committed to democracy, always fantasize a queen should be.

In her two years as queen, following the death of her father-in-law King Hussein, she has challenged the world's notion of what an Arab-born first lady can be. Of course, it has helped that her husband has blazed an iconoclastic trail, earning an international reputation as a monarch with a populist streak, known for donning weird disguises to pass unnoticed among his subjects.

At 30 and still nursing a baby, Rania is the youngest queen in the world and certainly one of the most active first ladies in the Arab world. Most of the others, if they are not behind veils, are at least at home.


On this Monday morning, the queen sits in an airy Beverly Hills hotel suite, her slender legs crossed, a spread of dried apricots, dates and nuts before her. She has come to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., for less than 24 hours, sans family. The previous evening, the queen spoke to a prominent group of Arab Americans. In a couple of hours, at a luncheon in the Beverly Wilshire ballroom, she will address the ladies of the Blue Ribbon, the charitable arm of the Music Center of Los Angeles. One of the Blue Ribbon members, Ghada Irani, whose husband is the head of Occidental Petroleum, is a personal friend of the royal family and helped bring Rania to town.

The Los Angeles leg of her trip is just part of a working five-day visit that has taken her to three American cities, including Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Conn., to talk about human rights and her efforts to raise the financial and social status of women and children. On Tuesday, she was planning to meet with experts in the field of micro-finance on Capitol Hill.

She and her husband have three children--Prince Hussein, 6, Princess Iman, 4, and Salma, who is 6 months old. Because the trip to L.A. was too short, she left the baby in Washington. The king, slated to arrive in Washington on Tuesday to meet with members of Congress and the president, was to bring the other two children with him.

To their surprise, and that of the rest of the world, the couple ascended to the throne quite suddenly in 1999.

Although Rania's 39-year-old husband, Abdullah II, who claims to be a 43rd-generation direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, was King Hussein's eldest son, Hussein had altered Jordan's constitution in 1965 to allow himself to name a brother his successor. But two weeks before his death of cancer in 1999, Hussein told his eldest son he would be king.

"It was shocking," says Queen Rania. "It was a real transition. The circumstances were very, very difficult."

Under King Hussein, who ruled Jordan for nearly 50 years, the nation is considered to have become a modern state, with smoothly functioning modern institutions such as a parliament, a judiciary branch, and a military.

And Queen Rania, fittingly, is a modern woman, comfortable traveling alone. Her predecessor and stepmother-in-law Queen Noor (nee Lisa Halaby), Hussein's fourth wife, also took on a less traditional, more active role. But many expected her to; after all, she is an American-born Princeton graduate. But Rania is an Arab-born Jordanian of Palestinian descent and so her activism has come as something of a surprise.

Glamour of Royalty Enchants Angelenos

Although Americans profess to prefer equality and democracy, it is clear from the way people react to her that this is a country bewitched by royalty. As the queen enters the reception room the elegantly dressed ladies of the Blue Ribbon part to let her through, then rush up to her assistant whispering, "How do we address her? Do we call her Your Majesty? Your Highness?"

"In Arabic we call her 'Sitti,' which is like 'Sir,' " explains her right-hand woman, Rania Atalla. "But you can address her as 'Your Majesty.' "

Tripping off an American tongue, the archaic, multisyllabic "Your Majesty" sounds so stilted, so strange. But the very awkwardness merely creates a greater sense of awe.

The queen takes it all in stride.

Led by a procession that includes Rania's stern, mustachioed officer of protocol, security agents, and assistants, the queen enters the ballroom just before noon. From the back, she walks down the side, across the front, to a table in the middle of the room. Her turquoise dress radiates like a brilliant, exotic gem.

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