"HOW'S JOYA?" Beirut to Haverford, 2006-7
After the $700, eight-hour taxi ride from Beirut to Damascus last August 12, the Israeli-shelled truck wrecks on the battered roads, the bridges dangling like tinker-toy shards, Hezbollah fighters in civilian rags brandishing Glocks and Sig-Sauers and popping crazily at Israeli Defense Force surveillance planes droning above them, Joya Manasseh, her mom Jocelyne and her 16 year-old brother Philip, finally cleared customs. Then they climbed the steps to the Middle Eastern Airlines flight to take them to Paris.
She should have been relieved, happy to leave Lebanon and the Shia war...her dad Tony, a financial adviser (and writer on the war), had gotten the family out during a cease-fire day brokered on the Israeli side by Condi Rice. After the awful news photos of villages like Qana , where 28 Lebanese civilians, 16 of them children, had been bombed to death, world opinion abruptly switched from sympathy for Israel – which had lost two soldiers to kidnapping and five more trying to rescue them from Hezbollah – to horror at its “overreaction.” On July 12, when Israel’s massive retaliation began, normal life across all of Lebanon evaporated. Eventually, 1,200 people were killed by bombs and groundfire; electrical and water services were destroyed; 975,000 Lebanese and 300,000 Israelis were displaced; the Beirut airport and harbor closed; and much of southern Lebanon was polluted with unexploded cluster bombs, which seemed designed to turn ordinary Lebanese against Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, the Shia sources of Israel’s fury. For bringing all this down on people who still remembered the destruction of Beirut in the first Israeli occupation 25 years ago...
But climbing into the Middle Eastern jet, Joya couldn’t breathe. She kept seeing whorls of fire. Bloody pools on shrapneled macadam. Dead animals. Worse, the human corpses and sheep carcasses, when they began to bloat, started to seem indistinguishable – obscene caricatures of life...and then a kind of guilt would hit. For getting out. For losing focus.
Joya had been in Paris’ Orly airport before, en route to New York, where her uncles lived, but she’d never gotten to the Rive Droit shops and the Left Bank clubs that an 18 year-old ordinarily thinks about. Now, Jocelyne tried to get her interested, while they waited in a hotel near the Champs D’Elysee to arrange for visas and an Air France flight to New York. Her brother kept watching the war on plasma, and her mom kept telling him to turn it off. Tony was still in Beirut. So was Jocelyne’s mother Agnes, living relatively safely in the mountains outside Beirut, in the village of Baabdat. That was where the family had gone when the bombing became intense.
Joya’s best friends, Natasha Ghantous, Soraya Tabet and Randa Eid, all from the same comfortable Beirut neighborhood, also had family houses in the mountains, and they’d try to keep in touch via cell. But reception was poor, and frustrating, and the girls would all end up crying. Joya’s girlfriends hadn’t wanted her to leave. They’d all just graduated from College Louise Wegmann, “a good French school” and “much more strict than here,” and “had made plans for all that we’d do all summer and next year too,” Joya said. It would have been their first year of college together...
When Tony first mentioned that the family should take advantage of its Quaker roots (“We’ve been Quaker for three generations,” Joya declares), she was horrified at the thought of leaving: “My friends are like sisters. Even when we moved to Baabdat when the war started, I missed our house in Beirut. I missed my bathroom, my bedroom, all my things...” Even though she couldn’t sleep, anticipating the IDF bombers rolling in at 4 a.m. to begin blasting Beirut airport and the Shia neighborhoods and outlying villages where Hezbollah fired Katyusha rockets from, she wanted to stay. At 18, it’s hard to leave your country and friends, even with your family...By 6 a.m. when the roaring usually stopped, the sort of long moaning whistles followed by whumps!; the little fearsome pauses between; the thrum of the engines; the white and black smoke and eddies of screaming – was it real? – scratching against the windows...you couldn’t tell what was there and what was in your head, Beirut was so far away – even with that, she’d wanted to go home. So that later, in France, when Tony’d call Paris from Lebanon, and talk to Jocelyne and Philip, he’d always ask: “How’s Joya?” And sometimes she’d beg him even then, to let her come back.
Joya Manasseh arrived at Haverford the week before school started late last August. Dean Kannerstein and Associate Dean Donna Mancini, who handles International Academic Programs from her office in Chase, arranged her status as a “guest student” — like the many LSU and Tulane transfers displaced by Katrina a year-and-a half ago. Kannerstein actually met Joya’s plane at Philly International and ferried her out to the Main Line: “They were sooo nice, but I was like freaking out!”
There was no one around. She didn’t know anybody. Her English is good, but she’s more comfortable in Lebanese and French. (When I asked her how she was doing she’d sometimes reply in French: “ce qui ne te detruit pas te rend plus fort”—“what doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger.”) The green swards of Haverford were beautifully empty. The freshman class was yet to show up. Joya wandered, tried to settle into Barclay, talked on her cell phone to her mom and brother, tried to plan her course of study: Political Science with an emphasis, naturally, on the Middle East. Edward Webb teaches her main class, and was able to fill her in on context: The Shia War within Islam is a fundamentalist reaction to Western influence which began in T.E. Lawrence’s time, and has spread recently to pit poor and disenfranchised Muslims (Shia) against the more contemporary, “westernized” Sunni Muslims (and in Lebanon, Christian Arabs). Organizations like Al Queda and the Taliban, Hezbollah and Hamas, in concert with the governments of Syria and Iran, among others, fund and arm independent militias and splinter groups such as the Mahdi Army in Iraq . Regional plans to destabilize Lebanon, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are based on free-floating, ever-changing coalitions, that aren’t necessarily orchestrated by Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld axis used to spin it; therefore they’re difficult to address by conventional warfare – as the American debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan are sho
Lebanon, with its traditionally strong Christian population, perpetually in conflict with fundamentalist militants, who’d been using the southern part of the country to attack Israel since long before the 1982 war, had largely failed to control militancy within its borders. Having lost out in Israel/Palestine and in Jordan to the IDF and the late King Hussein’s forces, Yassir Arafat’s PLO had moved its operations to southern Lebanon. With Arafat’s rout there in 1982, the post-modern phase of Lebanon’s political ordeal began. Christian Arabs allied with Western Europe and the U.S. were facing off with Shia fundamentalists. Many were bombed and assassinated, most recently and significantly Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others in Beirut, two years ago, and Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, last November: “You could see it was getting worse,” Joya remembers now, “but you hoped it would stabilize...even when the recent trouble began, they would close the schools for a week, but then open again...the electricity would go off and on, but you sort of pretended it would be all right...”
In Haverford, she tried to cope. She’d visit her uncles in New York, where she could taste true Lebanese food again – “real tabouli salad with tomatoes and onions, real falafels – the ones at the DC are trying, but they’re not supposed to be green inside...”
Philip had an easier time adjusting to the high school he’d transferred to (he’s 17 now): “He’s a little macho, you know, ‘Whaddaya so upset about?’ – a boy thing.” Jocelyne moved around, visiting family and friends. Tony stayed in Beirut for a while, tending to business. After most Israeli troops withdrew by last October, it wasn’t as dangerous, but in November, he’d come to the States, too, writing and lecturing here about the situation at home.
Joya talked with Natasha, Soraya and Randa as often as she could. When she got the blues, her roommate Julia Bravin tried to cheer her up: “Sometimes, I was just impossible,” she admits. “I’d just bawl like a baby. I was making plans to go back to Beirut for Christmas break. At first, my father was against it. But he left it up to me. He said ‘You know it’s expensive, especially since we’ll all have to go back...You’re not traveling alone. And it could be dangerous. You never know what’s going to happen there. What if they close the airport again? Do you remember that taxi ride?’
“Of course, I’ll never forget it. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. And a girl I knew had been riding in her car when one of those Hezbollah crazies stopped her. He wanted to see her papers. He had a gun! What if she’d had like a Christian name? In Lebanon, you can tell by the given names whether you’re Christian, Shia or whatever...Thank God he let her go! She had a Shia name...Before, when I was little, Muslims and Christians got along, but it’s dangerous now.”
When Joya told her friends she might not be able to visit, they all began wailing. They wanted to see her so badly. No one in her family seemed anxious to make the trip, she explained, but they wouldn’t let her rest. Finally she went to her dad again.
“I’ve explained it all to you,” he said. “I leave the decision to you.”
But Joya knew Jocelyne really wanted to see Agnes, and that maybe Tony was testing, to see how she’d react. She told him she’d thought it over, and still wanted to go home.
Beirut was “working,” but bizarre. Hezbollah, trying to pressure the Christian moderates, had filled the place with “wild” Shia and others, whole families of country poor who were living in tents with their animals around them in the chic downtown streets, cooking on fires and giving fierce looks when you walked by in jeans and sunglasses, window-shopping. The men never threatened you, but ne pouvait se vanter d’etre propre – they couldn’t brag of being clean, either. It got to the point where Joya felt most comfortable at home, or with her friends’ families. As it turned out, her parents and brother were more easy in Beirut than she was: “We had a good time, it was great to see each other [friends] again, but Lebanon is changing. It’s already different from when I left.”
“Do you think you’ll go back?” I asked. She paused:
“It was very hard to leave. My friends acted like I was betraying them by not just staying...
“But it’s different now, like I said. I don’t know what will happen.
“I love my home, but we just don’t know now...”
— John Lombardi