Friday 27 January 2012

The cost of gagging Beirut (Part V)

Janet Lee Stevens:
American Arabist in “Slaughterhouse Lebanon”

“We are ordinary people from around the world standing up for humanity and human rights,” Amnesty International declares on its UK website. “Our purpose is to protect individuals wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied.”

That’s what Janet Lee Stevens was all about, which explains her long association with the human rights watchdog.

She had two halves to her life. One half was championing humanity and human rights. In the other, she was a rebel at heart.

Humane, talented, self-reliant, ambitious, fearless, rebellious… Those are adjectives I would use to describe Janet who joined my Monday Morning staff in Beirut as a journalist in 1981.

She resigned two months into Israel’s June 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its occupation of Beirut.

She was killed with 62 others in the April 18, 1983, truck bombing of the U.S. embassy in the Lebanese capital, where she was lobbying for U.S. aid to war-torn Lebanon.

In the words of her partner, Franklin Lamb:

“Janet Lee Stevens was born in 1951 and died on April 18, 1983, at the age of 32, at the instant of the explosion which destroyed the American Embassy in Beirut.

“Twenty minutes before the blast, Janet had arrived at the Embassy to meet with USAID official Bill McIntyre. She wanted to [urge] more aid for the Shiites of South Lebanon and the Palestinians at Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh camps...

“As they sat at a table in the cafeteria… a van stolen from the Embassy the previous June arrived and parked just in front of the Embassy, almost directly in front of the cafeteria.

President Gemayel at the disaster scene
“It contained 2,000 pounds of explosives. It was detonated by remote control. Tons of concrete pancaked on top of Janet and Bill, killing 63 and wounding 120.

“Janet worked with Amnesty International until the time of her death.

“She moved to Lebanon two years before her death from Tunisia and her passion was to become a successful investigative journalist. She worked in Lebanon at Monday Morning magazine and she left the magazine following the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. She also worked during this period as a freelance reporter and as an assistant to Japanese journalist ‘Arata,’ a reporter for Asahi magazine in Beirut.

“During this same period she wrote reports for the news agency al-Quds Press as well as for European and American journals. Janet was hired by al-Kifah al-Arabi magazine to write in-depth reports a few days before she died. The magazine describes her as faithful to the Arab cause and especially the Palestinian struggle as is clearly shown in her reports published in the German and American media. Janet became the inspiration for John Le Carré's lead character in the book, and later movie, ‘The Little Drummer Girl.’

“Remains of Janet's body were found two days following the Embassy explosion, unidentified in the basement morgue of the American University Hospital by the author. She was pregnant with our son, Clyde Chester Lamb III…”

It was on one of my trips to London in mid-1981 that Janet was recommended to me for employment in Monday Morning by Randa (“Randoush”) Yammine.

Randoush, my alter ego before becoming Mrs. Astley-Cooper, worked for Monday Morning until the Yammine household joined the Lebanese exodus from Beirut shortly after the outbreak of civil war in 1975. Following a spell in Saudi Arabia, Randoush settled in London, where she did volunteer work for Amnesty and got to know Janet, who she described to me as “a talented American Arabist eager to work in Beirut.”

In fact, on her graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, Janet first went to Egypt, where she learned to read and write Arabic. It was in Cairo that she met and married Taoufik Jebali, now the luminary of Tunisian theater.

When she moved with Jebali to Tunisia, where she spent nearly five years, she kept up her learning of Arab and Islamic culture and the Arabic language at Zaytouna University.

Beirut and Monday Morning came next.

Janet with the lottery ticket vendor
The features she wrote for the magazine reflected conditions in the country. Her first, published in December 1981, was titled “Behind the [TV] Screen” and focused on readers’ queries and TV companies’ answers about poor reception and programming. In February 1982, she wrote about “Lebanon’s Lady Luck,” focusing on the then 40-year-old National Lottery and the blind lottery ticket seller she chose to interview on Beirut’s seafront boulevard.

A month later, Janet turned the spotlight on “The End of Asfourieh,” writing: “Years of controversy and war have finally closed the Lebanon Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders. This is the story of the developments that led to its closure last week, and of the plans that will hopefully get it started again.”

Janet’s 10-page news feature titled “The Lebanese Survival Manual” appeared in the week preceding the invasion.

The "Survival Manual"  illustration
Three weeks into the invasion, her piece – titled “Help!” – noted: “Hundreds of Beirut volunteers rush to help the wounded and the refugees, as the western half of the capital braces for more death and misery.”

“Slaughterhouse Lebanon” was Janet’s farewell piece for Monday Morning. Published on July 12, 1982, it focused on the “thousands of civilians who were maimed and wounded” in the invasion.

According to The Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “Janet Lee Stevens was a doctoral student of Arabic literature in the Department of Oriental Studies (now the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) who became devoted to the language and culture of the Arab world. She expressed her affection by setting for herself the highest critical standards of learning and by her deep commitment to promoting tolerance and understanding of the peoples whose literature and civilization she grew to love.

“Janet spent the last few years of her life immersing herself in the region, conducting important scholarly research, writing honestly about events she observed, arguing for compassion in human affairs and tolerance of ideas in the realm of the intellect. She took great personal risks in her constant efforts to mitigate the harsher qualities of life she encountered.

“On April 18, 1983, on the eve of returning to Penn to complete and defend her thesis [‘The impact of popular literature on the Egyptian theater’], Janet was killed in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut while interviewing embassy staff about the use of American aid in Lebanon. Her family, professors, fellow graduate students, and many friends created [The Janet Lee Stevens Award] to honor her memory and spirit.”

The Janet Lee Stevens Award is “given annually to two graduate students in Arabic and Islamic Studies who, in addition to showing exceptional merit in his or her academic performance, fulfills the spirit of the Award by working to improve relations with and understanding of the Arab world… Eligibility is open to U.S. and non-U.S. citizens alike.”

My last post in this series will be about the sixth victim, Krikor Ohannes, aka Coco.