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The Lost Girl

Experience has made Haifa Bale tough. She can speak about being beaten by her first husband, about being separated from her sick mother, about being denied access to her native country, and about the grim reality of living through an arranged marriage without any self-pity. She won't cry until she speaks about the last time she saw her daughter, more than three years ago, as Haifa was getting dropped off at Dillard's for work.

"I gave her a kiss, and then I thought, 'I'm going to give her another kiss,'" says Haifa, her eyes welling with uncharacteristic tears. "I just thought I may never see her again." The words are choked with a sob.

Seated next to Haifa in their Garland home is her second husband, Scott Bale. His hand slides out to her knee, providing comfort through simple contact. He was in the car that day, driving Haifa to work and returning home to baby-sit her child. June 8, 1997, is a day Scott Bale would be destined to replay in his mind like a child's favorite video, the day 4-year-old Bara'ah Jridi was taken from him by force, whisked to Jordan by her natural father before Dallas police even got around to taking Bale's statement.

The 29-year-old mother also replays the day her daughter was kidnapped, starting with the nightmares that have become in her mind eerie premonitions of the abduction: "I had a dream that he [ex-husband Ahmad Jridi] came to our house. He took a shower and told me he wanted to get something that belonged to him, some shorts or something."

The dream unbalanced Haifa, as did her daughter's reluctance to go to school that day. The children had been making fun of her hair, putting their fingers in the thick black curls and yanking. The little girl was crying, and Scott Bale decided to keep her out of class and with him that day. The day's centerpiece was supposed to be a walk in the park, one of the girl's favorite activities. Bale knew the child's upbringing and saw that she was parched for a father's affection; he overcompensated with doting.

Cheered up, Bara'ah dressed for a day with the man she had started to call "Daddy." The girl was becoming Americanized; her nickname, Sarah, was becoming more permanent.

Bale, a personal trainer, took the girl to play at the nursery in Gold's Gym on Royal Lane as he did his routine workout. The trip to the park would come later, and Bara'ah was looking forward to it. On the way out of the gym, Bale noticed two Middle Eastern men eyeing them in the lobby. He didn't think too much of the attention; the interracial pair often received once-overs from gawkers.

Bale stopped and tied Bara'ah's shoes, and they walked hand in hand out the front door. A white Corvette suddenly pulled up, and there was his girlfriend's soon-to-be ex-husband, Ahmad Jridi, with a can of Mace in his hand. The first words exchanged came with painful bursts from the can, aimed straight at Bale's face.

Bale says he pushed Bara'ah behind his body, but the two men he spotted inside were coming out to grab her. Bale landed a couple of punches and grappled with Jridi, who kept shooting the Mace into his eyes. Blinded and outnumbered, Bale dropped to the curb.

"Sarah was gone. I could hear her screaming," he recalls. "I had hair then. Before he left, Ahmad grabbed me by the hair and sprayed me again in the face."

As violent and wrenching as it was, the manner in which Bara'ah Jridi was seized has little to do with the status of her case today. Dallas police treated the case as a routine custody battle, viewing it as an irate father taking his child back from a new boyfriend. To this date, no one has been arrested or charged for the attack, a misdemeanor.

That the father might flee to Jordan and deny the girl's mother any visitation apparently didn't influence the Dallas police officers who handled the case, even after Haifa and Scott Bale warned them it could happen. When it did happen, both Dallas County and federal charges were filed against Ahmad Jridi. But by that time the child was gone, hidden away in Amman, Jordan.

In a legal system clogged with custody disputes that wander between criminal and civil courts, the case of Bara'ah Jridi stands out as an example of the kind of egregious disappointments of which that system is capable. Civil courts handle the bulk of ugly child-custody confrontations, making authentic criminal acts hard for authorities to spot. Police and criminal court judges can be cavalier in treating child-custody cases, so cavalier that a Dallas detective chastised Bale after he found out he wasn't Bara'ah's father, and so cavalier that Ahmad Jridi was able to waltz out of a Dallas courtroom, out of police custody, and out of the country scant days after being arrested in Houston.

 

Since she lost her daughter more than three years ago, Haifa has not spoken a word to her. Any information about her life and well-being comes from relatives, who glimpse the child from afar and report vague snippets to her anxious mother.

The abduction of Bara'ah has attracted the attention of two metropolitan police departments, the FBI, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, international child-welfare organizations, and the office of Jordanian Queen Noor. Yet the child is no closer to being returned than she was the day she was snatched away.


Haifa vividly remembers meeting her first husband, and while telling the story she'll often laugh at the absurdity of it. "I'm my daddy's favorite," she says. "He loved me too much, to the point he picked out my husband for me."

Time and a new life have allowed her to see the grim humor in her tale, but the laughs seem defensive. They come at awkward moments--when she describes her wedding night, beatings at the hands of her new husband, ostracism by her in-laws.

That sad future was hidden from the 21-year-old girl when a family friend invited Ahmad Jridi to her family's home in Amman, Jordan, to meet her and her sisters. He didn't come alone; his father and brother accompanied him in what Haifa later figured was an evaluation team. The second time the Jridi family came by, Ahmad's father popped the question: "We're here to ask for your daughter's hand."

Haifa's father accepted without asking his daughter, who was seated with the men as they discussed her future. The shock was extreme. "He just married me to someone I didn't even know! I didn't even know his last name," she says. "Three weeks later it was my wedding night, and I still didn't even know what he did for a living."

Her life was on hold. College had to be abandoned, and with it her professional ambitions. Even now, Haifa laments her lost chances. "I really wanted to be a teacher," she says, the words as much sighed as spoken.

There was another chance lost, a secret premarital relationship that, when it was exposed, helped ruin Haifa's reputation in the eyes of her new husband and his family. During college she had met a Jordanian police officer; she says the affair was romantic but platonic. "If I ran away with him, it would be a shame on my family," she says. Her culture and her family, her world, were pushing her to the altar.

Fights with her father, and even her admission that she'd seen another man, didn't stop the wedding. It was as bad as can be imagined: "My sisters kept asking me to smile, please smile. I was crying through the makeup. Goddammit, it was awful."

A couple of weeks after the wedding, the jilted officer tried to win back Haifa by exposing (and she says exaggerating) their relationship to the Jridi family and her own. The effort succeeded only in reducing her reputation to that of "a slut." The cop told Ahmad they had slept together in an attempt to sour her in his eyes. It worked, to a point.

"When he came home, there was fire in his eyes," she says. "I was beaten for like two hours, with his family standing there, watching." Haifa's mother, in a quiet moment, asked whether she wanted to leave. Haifa made a choice.

"I stayed. I did choose to stay with Ahmad and his family. I didn't want to be a divorced woman," she says, one hand moving absently through her hair, slowly stroking. "I knew my life was downhill, I'm just going to be their slave. They would never forgive me for what I've done."

Her husband left Jordan for the United States in September 1992. He left behind in the hands of his family what was, in his mind, an untrustworthy woman. They put her to work cooking and cleaning, imprisoned in a house in Amman with no heat. Haifa slept on the floor because they lacked enough beds. She says her husband's sisters kept the house locked during the rare times she was alone.

This Cinderella's stepsisters-type abuse is not rare in the Middle East, even in a relatively Westernized country such as Jordan. According to the U.S. State Department's 1999 Country Report on Human Rights in Jordan, "Violence against women is common...However, cultural norms discourage victims from seeking medical or legal help and frustrate an objective assessment of the extent of such abuse."

 

The report continues: "Abused women have the right to file a complaint in court against their spouses for physical abuse, but in practice familial and societal pressures discourage them from seeking legal remedies...Wife beating is technically grounds for divorce, but the husband may seek to demonstrate that he has authority from the Koran to correct an irreligious or disobedient wife by striking her."

Jordanian women also experience legal discrimination in matters of inheritance and divorce, according to the State Department. Married women do not have the legal right to transmit citizenship to their children. Even in Amman, the modern capital of Jordan, the eastern sections of the city where the Jridi family lives operate under traditional cultural standards.

"We're pretty much slaves in Jordan, and we don't even know it," Haifa says of most Jordanian women.

If things were bad with her arranged marriage, they were about to get worse. Haifa was pregnant. Ahmad returned to Jordan in December 1992 to make sure it was his child. He stayed three months, Haifa says, interviewing friends from college, neighbors, and anyone who could prove the baby wasn't his. Jridi beat his pregnant wife, even striking her in the stomach. Conditions became so deplorable, she says, that her sick mother maneuvered Haifa into her home to wait out the pregnancy there.

Ahmad returned to the United States in early 1993, leaving his pregnant bride behind while he waited tables in Dallas. Haifa's father returned to his native Saudi Arabia and left his sickly wife in Amman, appearing sporadically during the grim start of his daughter's marriage.

Bara'ah Jridi was born June 7, 1993. Haifa's labor lasted two painful days. When she called to tell the father he had a little girl, she says, his reaction was to say, "Oh, you mean a slut," and hang up the phone.

According to Haifa, Ahmad's mind took a cultural preference and turned it into pathology. In most Middle Eastern countries male children are prized; even Haifa's mother hoped her first grandchild would be a son. However, the level of disgust Ahmad displayed for his daughter cannot simply be blamed on religion or culture. Haifa theorizes that a cheating girlfriend, whom he dated before meeting her, bolstered his hatred of women. His jealousy and her acknowledgment of a previous relationship made Haifa a focus of his anger.

After months of wrangling, Haifa Jridi received her papers to emigrate to the United States and join her husband. Still feeling pressure to salvage her marriage, Haifa aimed to work out the differences with her husband, to prove that his low opinion of her was wrong.

No paperwork was available for her daughter, so the young mother left her behind with her sisters. She says she was feeling uncertain of Ahmad's reaction to the move and uncertain of how long she'd stay in the United States, making her decision to leave her 39-day-old daughter easier. Slightly.

"I thought she would be safer with my sisters," she says. "I knew I was coming to hell."

On July 13, 1993, Haifa Jridi set foot in America, coming to Dallas via New York City. Haifa may have reached "the land of the free," but it would be years before she freed herself from her husband's shadow. Her daughter still lingers there.


Getting beaten up by your husband in Garland, Texas, is a different experience than having it happen in Amman, Jordan.

On September 2, 1993, police officers from Garland were dispatched to 613 Hillcrest Drive, home of Jridi friends Mahdi and Eman Nammari. The officer found Haifa Jridi weeping in the street.

According to the police report, Haifa and the owners of the home told the same story: Ahmad got drunk, Haifa refused to give him the car keys, and Ahmad punched her in the face and stepped on her arm. The Nammaris could not be reached for comment, but according to the police report, "Mr. Nammari advised that his friend did nothing wrong by hitting her because it was OK to hit their wives in their country."

Ahmad Jridi was taken to the station, and Haifa was given a "family violence card." The experience was an eye-opener. "They sent like seven police cars. I said to myself, 'They take this seriously here,'" she says. "I didn't know I had the courage to call 911."

The incident may be the first on file with the police, but Haifa says it wasn't the first time Ahmad was abusive in the United States. The violent incidents at home were so common that Haifa kept her fingernails long to defend herself against attacks.

The Jridi marriage through Haifa's eyes was a nightmare. Her story shares the hallmarks of a typical domestic abuse case: frequent battles over money, a husband with an alcohol problem, spying, jealousy, and periods of peace, compensation for the violence. "One day he was a sweetheart, and the next day he was a big asshole," Haifa says.

 

To make ends meet, Ahmad waited tables and lived cheaply, refusing to buy furniture or kitchen supplies, preferring to take food and utensils from his employers. He was careful to keep his wife out of the finances.

When Haifa came to the United States, it became increasingly clear that she could free herself from the shackles of her marriage. The people she met and befriended reinforced this lesson. "I found so much support from Americans, mostly American women," she says. "I said, 'Oh my gosh. They have their own lives; they can do whatever they want. I don't have that liberty.'"

Before divorcing Ahmad was even an option, though, she had to get her daughter back. Since Ahmad was a naturalized U.S. citizen, the ability of her and Bara'ah to enter and remain in the United States was based on his immigration status, not hers.

Haifa Jridi played a touchy game with her erratic husband, using his bouts of guilty sweetness to push through her daughter's immigration paperwork. Even loving parents are exasperated with the INS bureaucracy; the task is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. "Ahmad didn't even want to look at pictures of her," Haifa says. "He thought it wasn't even his daughter."

Bara'ah stayed with her family in Jordan for 18 months before she was flown to Dallas. Even though Ahmad Jridi was a naturalized U.S. citizen, the child was only given the status of a legal immigrant. This small detail still works against her family; even if Ahmad Jridi wanted to return his daughter, the girl would not automatically receive U.S. citizenship.

To buy the plane ticket that brought Bara'ah to Dallas, Haifa used her husband's credit card without permission. Shortly afterward, Ahmad Jridi was arrested for assaulting his wife. Haifa was issued another domestic violence card. This time she pressed charges, he received probation, and she moved out in October 1994, though they would make several attempts to reconcile.

During one of those failed reconcilations in February 1995, Bara'ah arrived in the United States. But the little girl's presence did not keep Ahmad's rage in check. Haifa feels fortunate that the abuse was concentrated on her rather than on the child. But Haifa says she and her daughter spent several nights sleeping on the curb outside a 7-Eleven after being thrown out of the house.

Police reports and eyewitness accounts bear out or support most of her descriptions of her abusive husband; those with firsthand experiences with Ahmad Jridi agree he possessed an unstable personality.

The most convincing information comes from Raul Flores, the acting duty officer with the INS charged with determining whether Haifa's citizenship should be granted. Flores' job included interviewing friends, associates, and the major players in the drama to determine if the marriage was a sham. If it were, Haifa would be going back to Jordan. All citizenship-through-marriage recipients must go through this investigation after two years in the United States.

Ahmad Jridi waged a campaign with the INS to get Haifa deported, claiming the marriage was fraudulent. According to Flores, Ahmad would flash photos of Haifa in shorts, proof she had strayed from Islamic customs. He brought in Middle Eastern and American men, friends he had met in Dallas, to back up his claims. (Associates of Jridi's from these interviews did not return calls from the Dallas Observer.)

The more Flores heard from Ahmad, the more he believed Haifa. "He got pretty animated. It was an obsession. I was getting calls and calls," Flores says. "As it progressed, the vigor of his attacks grew. He said, 'I don't want my child to grow up in the U.S. with American habits.' He kept saying that, but he seemed very Americanized too. It was a double standard."

Flores listened to witnesses that Ahmad Jridi brought in to trash his estranged wife's reputation, but their stories fell apart under scrutiny. A theme emerged from Jridi's statements, one that chilled Flores. "He said he wanted to bring [Haifa] back to Jordan to 'take care of this matter in our own way.' He wanted blood," he says. "We weren't going to ship someone back to a country where she was going to be harmed."

As the case turned against Ahmad, he became more virulent; it reached a peak when Ahmad confronted Flores at his office. The encounter ended with Ahmad Jridi's arrest for threatening the INS agent. By that time, Flores had already made up his mind: Haifa Jridi was going to stay in America. Flores recommended that his agency grant her citizenship in 1998. Nothing has happened yet, but he estimates Haifa will receive the paperwork by early next year. The important thing at the time was to keep her from being deported.

 

"I granted her the case and gave her permanent residency," Flores says. "I saw that he was using that resident card to enslave her. That happens here all the time."

Without that leverage, Ahmad resorted to his trump card to get his wife back to Jordan, where he could hurt her most. That trump card was 4-year-old Bara'ah Jridi.


On June 25, 1995, Scott Bale and a friend pulled up at a light on LBJ Freeway and Preston Road. In the next lane, a Middle Eastern woman smiled at him and told him he was cute. He didn't know it, but the chance meeting changed his life beyond his imagining.

The woman was Haifa Jridi. She had moved out on her husband and was facing a slow, painful path to divorce. Haifa, now a single mother on her own in the United States, didn't have money for an attorney. It would be two years before she would file for divorce.

Meeting Scott Bale sealed the coffin of her dead marriage. For Haifa, who says she's attracted to light skin and outlaw looks, Bale was a catch dropped from nowhere. "He gave me his card, and I called him the next day," she says. It was a bold move, and a testament to her near total Americanization.

Only two months after meeting, they moved in together, sharing a Dallas apartment with Bara'ah. At first Bale tried to distance himself from his girlfriend's daughter, making sure she knew her real father existed. Gradually, he says, he fell as deeply in love with the girl as with her mother.

"She was spoiled by him and his family," says Haifa, clearly indicating that such spoiling was fine with her. "She didn't call him 'Daddy' right away. It took a year...She would wear jeans like Scott. I mean, he potty-trained her. He was a very important person in her life."

Any chance of rapprochement with Ahmad Jridi had long gone. The couple received intimidating late-night calls, and neighbors reported strange men sitting in cars outside the house. Scott and Haifa Bale are convinced from the voices on the phone and descriptions of the cars that it was Ahmad Jridi and his friends. He appeared at her workplace, alternately wooing her and threatening her while making mall security nervous.

His aggression culminated in what one Garland police officer familiar with the case, Mark Casteel, called "simple retaliation" for the divorce--the abduction of Bara'ah Jridi outside Gold's Gym.

But Ahmad Jridi's violent seizure of his daughter is not what made him a fugitive. His failure to appear with her in a Dallas courtroom after the act made him a wanted man.

The paperwork surrounding the divorce of Haifa and Ahmad Jridi depicts dueling custody proceedings in Jordanian and Texas courtrooms. In Dallas, custody was granted to Haifa after her daughter was in Jordan, impossible to reach. In Amman, custody was granted to Ahmad Jridi--not a hard task considering that Haifa was in the United States, that Ahmad had family witnesses to testify to her alleged infidelities, and that he played the religious card to the hilt.

"Her husband initiated a smear campaign," says Leila Ben Debba, international coordinator with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who worked on the Jridi case. "He flaunted pictures of her in Western clothes...It doesn't take much to disqualify her as a parent."

Scott Bale sums up his viewpoint of this religious squabble neatly: "If she's a shitty Muslim, she's a great mother."

Even Haifa's presence at the hearings, if she had known they were happening, would not likely have changed the outcome; a woman's testimony is officially worth half of a man's in Jordanian courts. "If she tries to petition the [Jordanian] court for custody of her child, she'll lose," Ben Debba says. "It's a very sensitive subject. It borders on religion and isn't considered a civil matter."

Since Ahmad Jridi's former attorneys in the United States won't speak about the case, it becomes necessary to rely on the court records from the divorce to reconstruct his side of it. In an August 1997 appeal of the judge's decision to grant Haifa temporary custody of Bara'ah after the abduction, attorneys argued that Texas didn't have jurisdiction to hear the custody action because it was already being heard in Jordan.

Ahmad's appeal claimed that granting Haifa custody of Bara'ah "was not in the best interests of the child. The mother is living with another man that is not the father of the child. The mother admitted in court that she had been with several men while still married to Mr. Jridi. This living environment is detrimental to the emotional and mental development of the 4-year-old child and is in direct and blatant violation of the religious beliefs of both parents."

 

Haifa denies dating any men in the United States besides Bale and says her admission of relationships with other men was the result of confusion on the stand. Mutual friends turned against her in court, she says, after she turned down their sexual advances.

In the end, the court case is nothing more than reams of paper. Ahmad's appeal failed, and custody was awarded to Haifa. But Jridi had already spirited his daughter to Jordan and received custody in his country, making the proceedings moot in any practical sense.

Over the years it became clear that prying the girl away from her father would prove near impossible, despite the efforts of then FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Garland police, and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions. The realization came with raised hopes and heartbreaks as bigger and bigger players professed involvement, then failed to deliver.


In a case in which domestic and international institutions proved incapable of delivering justice, Garland police detective Mark Casteel emerges not as a hero but as a professional who did his job with care and consistency. His efforts were ultimately nullified by a clumsy but routine courtroom snafu that allowed Ahmad Jridi to walk into DFW Airport and get away clean.

Casteel was one of three detectives in Garland's Domestic Investigations and Sex Crimes unit when he took Haifa Jridi's desperate call.

She was fortunate. One of the unit's focuses was domestic violence, and Casteel was experienced enough to quickly differentiate a criminal case from a civil one. He said that Haifa's case was one of only two cases involving the kidnapping of a child by a parent that his unit worked on in 1998.

Most child-custody calls to the police are routine and fall under civil court jurisdiction. "You wouldn't believe how many phone calls we get for those," Casteel says. "We find very few child-custody things we actually work. The majority come saying, 'He was late. He violated the divorce decree.' We have to say it goes back to civil court, it's not a criminal offense."

This reluctance of law enforcement to become involved in child-custody cases has left departments seemingly jaded about such cases. After the abduction of Bara'ah, Scott Bale received less than sympathetic treatment. He says that once a Dallas police detective (now retired) learned that Bale wasn't the biological father, he said, "If anyone committed a crime, it's you." When Bale tried to describe the complex custody situation and why the incident rated better than a class-C misdemeanor for using Mace, the detective said, "Don't tell me how to do my job." (If Bale had gone to the hospital for treatment, the crime would have been a class-A misdemeanor, police say.)

What made Bara'ah's situation different in Casteel's eyes was the fact that airline flight records showed that Ahmad took the girl to Jordan in violation of the court's custody decision. "He's taken the child with the intent of never taking her home again," he says. "It's obvious."

Another player was U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, who became involved in the case through a mutual friend of the Bales. Sessions met with lawyers and judges who outlined a strategy of having Ahmad Jridi arrested by requiring that he appear in a Dallas courtroom, which he was sure to avoid after taking his daughter to Jordan. "He was placed in contempt for not showing up in court," Sessions told the Observer.

At long last, Jridi was wanted by law enforcement; Session and Casteel's work generated a warrant for the arrest of Ahmad Jridi for interference with child custody. Casteel made sure Jridi's name was entered into computers at the National Crime Information Commission (NCIC), alerting all airports that he is a wanted man.

The computer net snared its prey: Ahmad Jridi was arrested in Houston while flying back from Amman. Casteel says he probably thought he could elude Dallas County authorities by flying into another city.

The Garland detective happily contacted Haifa and Scott Bale. "She was tickled," Casteel says. "We were going to work a deal through Pete Sessions, contact Jordanian officials, and do a swap."

Expectations were high, but there was also the fear of disappointment. "Scott just looked at me and said, 'Don't get your hopes up,'" Haifa says.

 

Any deal between the United States and Jordanian officials was a long shot, and the family remained nervous. Scott Bale's warning became prophetic as Ahmad Jridi slipped the noose, not from cleverness but by dumb luck granted through an overworked justice system.

There was no shortage of people advising Harris County judges that Jridi was a flight risk and should be denied bond. For those familiar with the case, Bara'ah's abduction was not a simple charge of interference with child custody, but an international kidnapping. But the effort, the urgency, went for naught.

Representatives from Sessions' office got hold of the judge, but it was too late. "He bonded out in the morning, and we got there in the afternoon," Sessions says. "We were just hours behind."

During the arraignment, which typically takes less than 10 minutes, the judge meted out a standard bond for the charge of interfering with child custody. Misdemeanors come with set bonds, while the judge determines the bond amount for felonies.

"The judge was not aware of the clause in the warrant that said he was a flight risk," says Dallas FBI Special Agent Lauri Bailey. Later she adds, "The fact he was bonded out really messed things up."

Bond for Ahmad Jridi was rubber-stamped for $2,500. When he was transferred to Dallas County, arrangements for his release had already been made. "His cousin posted it within 20 minutes, in cash," Casteel says. "It's just one of those things that happen. As a detective, it's not the first time it's happened to me."

After an arrest, a suspect's name is removed from the NCIC system, and U.S. Customs agents do not check every passenger's criminal history if he is leaving the country anyway. It was easy for Jridi simply to step on a plane to Jordan, where he remains today.

According to Haifa, who relies on sporadic reports from relatives, he doesn't live with his daughter, preferring to have her stay with his sisters. In a strange twist of fate, it is in the same grim home where Haifa lived as a regretful newlywed.

Once Jridi left the country, there was little anyone could do. The federal government wants him on charges of parental kidnapping, but even verifying the welfare of the child is impossible. "There is not a systematic way to do that. Jordan is without the formality of law enforcement," Sessions says. "There really is not a formal process."

It was detective Casteel who had to call the couple and break the wrenching news. For a police officer, bearing bad news is part of the job. Even so, Casteel says, "It was one of the hardest phone calls I ever had to make."


What began as a case of domestic abuse and parental kidnapping deemed so humdrum by Dallas police had sloughed into the diplomatic arena. The Bale family is looking for a miracle and seems to need one if they are ever to be reunited with Bara'ah. As in medieval times, that miracle is being sought through royalty. The truth is that this strategy bears all the hallmarks of another disappointment, the latest in a string of well-intentioned failures that has stretched for almost four years.

The Bale family never suggested a desperate pitch to Jordanian Queen Noor; personnel at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children professed to have an inside track on the queen, who was busy making an international celebrity out of herself by championing the human rights of children and decrying "honor" killings of women.

The story of Queen Noor is virtually opposite to Haifa Bale's. Instead of an arranged marriage to an abusive wretch, followed by a move to the United States and eager adoption of Americanization, Lisa Halaby married a king, studied Arabic, and converted from Christianity to Islam. At age 26, she was Queen of Jordan.

This was the influential woman, a multinational star who straddled two worlds with gracious ease, that the Bale family thought would hear their case and cut through the Jordanian legal system with a wave of her gloved hand.

"She could make it happen with a snap of her fingers," says Haifa Bale. The hope is not entirely irrational. The State Department and Middle East experts acknowledge that the Royal family can intercede in court proceedings.

The seeds of this plan were born in the mind of Leila Ben Debba, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. According to Haifa and Scott Bale, Ben Debba said the queen herself would hear the case.

That seems to have been an overstatement, at best. The plan was, in reality, little more than a letter-writing campaign to the royal secretary. No progress was made, and no face-to-face meeting was arranged. The Bale family waited, hearing nothing.

 

"I don't know if she herself has heard the case," Ben Debba says of Noor's involvement, telling the Observer what she still hasn't told the Bale family. "We have her signatures on letters, but we don't know they're really hers."

One letter, penned by the director of the queen's office, denies aid and coolly suggests that Haifa hire an attorney to represent her in Jordan. Attempts to get an interview with Noor and her office were unsuccessful because of the queen's "very tight schedule."

It seems that contacting Queen Noor now would be futile, because of the death of King Hussein in February. "We appealed to the new queen, and that's still in the works," Ben Debba says. "One problem is that she's pregnant and due to deliver. We can't get her attention."

These failures were not told to the Bale family, who waited in Garland under the impression that big wheels were turning. "I had been told that Queen Noor did hear the case," Haifa says. "I asked what her reaction was, and Leila said she was thinking about it."

Scott Bale sees it in a dour context: "It's a real disappointment if that's not what happened. But it goes with everything else that has happened." He feels overwhelmed and let down. The woman smiling at him from the left-hand lane is now his wife, and the little girl he loves has been taken to another nation. "This is completely beyond me," he says. "We'll get our hopes up, and then things you never imagine would happen, happen. He's managed to slip through the cracks."

Those disappointments have taken a toll on Haifa. She worries about the traumatic effects of the ordeal on her daughter, about the "brainwashing" to which the Jridi family is undoubtedly subjecting her, about the conditions in which she's living. She has not spoken a word to her child in nearly four years.

Sympathetic cousins in Jordan occasionally call with reports that they've seen Bara'ah, who is now 7 years old. One told her she was seen playing unattended in the street, barefoot. Another saw her at a nearby store, again unattended. These family members have no direct contact with the girl; any information Haifa receives just generates more questions to which there are no ready answers. One smuggled photo shows the pretty little girl standing before the dirty khaki-colored apartment buildings of eastern Amman, with a small grin on her face. Information is scant: They are not sure if the girl is even being schooled.

Reports of Ahmad Jridi's life in Jordan give rise to the hope that he'll return the child if U.S. authorities drop the charges against him. Members of Haifa's family in Amman say that he has operated two businesses--one a child-care facility--but that both have failed. By all accounts, Ahmad Jridi loved the loose ways of the United States, the multitude of liquor stores and available women. But he shipwrecked that life in America to gain vengeance on his wife.

Haifa is still here, happily married and working on having another child. "I am fully Americanized. I'm glad I'm here. I wake up sometimes from nightmares that I'm in Jordan. Then I wake up in happy tears that I'm still here."

So she has what he wants, a life in America. He has what she wants, her daughter. Arranging a swap is a long shot, and the Bale family has undergone too many disappointments to get their hopes up.

"I really lost a lot of faith," Haifa says. "I had really given up, big-time. Without Scott telling me to never quit, I don't think I could go on. I still have faith in God, that this is happening for a reason."

She pauses. "I'm still trying to find out what it is."


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