American in Beirut

American in Beirut

Joanne Nucho's view of the port of Beirut from the cargo ship that took her to Cyprus (All photos by Nucho)

UCLA Islamic Studies doctoral student Joanne Nucho went to Lebanon to study Arabic and a community in East Beirut. She ended up working to get out, a process that led her to new reflections on the region and her own family ties to it.

One day, [Lebanon is] a sovereign nation, has problems internal and external, but all of the sudden, everything is gone. Everything is destroyed, really overnight.

Not long before speaking with MSNBC from Beirut in the wee hours of July 15, 2006, Joanne Nucho saw an offshore blast that damaged an Israeli warship and, as was later reported, killed four sailors. From her dormitory at the American University of Beirut, she feared an expansion of the Israeli bombardment then confined to outlying sections of the city. Nucho told a U.S.-based reporter by telephone that she could hear and feel explosions a few miles off.

Nucho, a UCLA doctoral student in Islamic Studies who went to AUB this summer on a FLAS fellowship to learn Arabic and to see her extended family in Lebanon, says that in speaking with the cable news channel she wanted to do her part to pressure the U.S. State Department to evacuate her and other Americans stuck in an unanticipated war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters. At an emergency meeting at AUB, she had been alarmed to hear that the department had taken years to implement an evacuation plan for U.S. citizens following the outbreak of Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

However, by the time she got out on July 17—on a Norwegian cargo ship that a crew member said was not designed to accommodate more than 25 passengers, much less 1,000—Nucho felt compunctions about leaving behind her Lebanese friends and family, and ambivalence about the interview that ran on MSNBC. The news network also produced two follow-up articles based on e-mails from Beirut and then Cyprus, where Nucho arrived with SUVs and crates of luxury goods marked for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She traveled with four other Arab American women, one of whom was pregnant and would be hospitalized briefly in Cyprus. Nucho would return to Los Angeles by plane via Moscow within the week.

US, Lebanese Identities

The MSNBC stories identified Nucho as an American and a UCLA doctoral student taking Arabic at AUB, an institution accredited in New York. The description was accurate, she says, but not complete. Although her closest family members all live in Southern California, she has cousins, aunts, and uncles in Beirut and the north of Lebanon. Nucho's mother, now deceased, was a descendant of Armenians from the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood in East Beirut, and her father is of Palestinian and Lebanese origins. Her relatives in Lebanon are Christians, along with roughly 40% of nearly four million Lebanese. A few of them now have evacuated to other countries in the region. During the fighting, friends of Nucho's family escaped their southern Lebanese village before it was destroyed, seeing death as they fled.

By telephone, the MSNBC reporter on the July 15 story, Bob Sullivan, says that he did not learn of Nucho's family connections in Lebanon during the brief interview, which ran under eight minutes even before editing and focused on the situation in the AUB dormitory. According to Sullivan, a review of the tape reveals that the telephone line went dead, concluding the interview, just as Nucho was explaining that the relatives she'd been calling "can't do anything for me."

Apparently part of a misunderstanding abetted by technology, this detail bothered Nucho later on. Since the story didn't mention any Lebanese relatives, she says, U.S. television viewers had every reason to assume that she was speaking of her far-off American relatives' inability to save her. Far from asking for help, Nucho says she spent calls to California trying to calm her family members there. In the phone interview with MSNBC, she says, she meant to communicate that members of her Lebanese extended family were "a few miles away, but everyone's too afraid to get in the car and drive, or I'm too afraid to get a taxi to go stay with them, fearing I'll be cut off, or something will happen."

So a story that arguably helped her to get out of a war zone—by putting pressure on U.S. lawmakers and bureaucrats to arrange Americans' passage home—also had the unintended effect of reinforcing an imbalance in U.S. media coverage from Lebanon, Nucho contends. By leaving out the Lebanese.

A Lebanese baker north of Beirut on July 2

From the beginning of the Israeli bombardment, she says, Western tourists and students became an incessant story in the U.S. media, even though AUB in particular had its lights on, its Internet service, and even fast-food delivery "under the bombs." Meanwhile, civilians who were being killed on the roads and in their basements remained unnamed and were rarely described by age or occupation—they were numbers in a mounting toll. One thousand dead. More than half a million displaced.

"After a while, I felt guilty and disgusted with all of the reporters coming in to talk to us in the dorms, and even with us for collaborating with them, because I felt that compared to what everyone else was going through, we really weren't suffering at all."

MSNBC and other large U.S. media outlets have devoted some attention to Lebanese losses. Some outlets have drawn criticism precisely for doing so, or for alleged failures to report adequately on the roughly 160 Israeli soldiers and civilians killed in the conflict and hundreds of thousands reportedly driven into bomb shelters by Hezbollah rocket fire.

9/11 Echoes

A graduate of New York University's film school with an interest in anthropology, Nucho went to Beirut on June 26 to study Arabic at AUB and also to work on a documentary and possibly a master's thesis about one of the Armenian communities in Bourj Hammoud. The community was founded by former residents of the Ottoman village of Hadjin, survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Some who had fled the same village in what is now Turkey eventually settled in and around Pasadena, Calif. Nucho's film project involved a comparison of Armenian-American and Armenian-Lebanese remembrances of Hadjin, especially a ritual of commemoration held in both cities as well as Armenia.

In 2002, children in the tiny hillside village of Mesh Mesh

Nucho had been to Lebanon once before, for about four months, in 2002. In Beirut, there were new hotels and luxury apartments going up. There were also trees growing inside of abandoned buildings in the city's center, a no-man's-land during the civil war that was still not claimed. Nucho saw family members, several of whom she had met when they lived in or visited the United States.

On her clipped visit to Beirut this summer, she again saw bullet holes in old buildings and construction on new ones. The work had stopped, but cranes pointed around the skyline as Nucho took a tense bus ride from AUB to the port. Journalists, including one who "snuck on the bus," followed for interviews.

Nucho vividly recalls her thoughts during the two days between the telephone interview and the bus ride. She never got used to the bombing but wasn't afraid for the time, she says, except in the immediate aftermath of an explosion near AUB that destroyed a lighthouse. She mulled admonitions from her parents and from others of their generation that had once seemed not to apply to her: people who leave land don't necessarily return to it, she'd been taught, whatever their intentions.

"One day, [Lebanon is] a sovereign nation, has problems internal and external, but all of the sudden, everything is gone. Everything is destroyed, really overnight."

Images of destruction in places Nucho has visited affect her the most. As Israeli troops concluded an Aug. 2 night raid near the ancient Bekaa Valley village of Baalbek, warplanes bombed a three-story, Hezbollah-run hospital there. "I think about the long-term impact of that," she says.

Watching Lebanon crumble again reminds Nucho of nothing so much as the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001. She was living in Brooklyn then—in Flatbush, she adds, not too close.

"I remember feeling a similar kind of shock and disbelief at the enormity of that tragedy, and seeing these building that I had been in and walked around and sat in front of so many times just turned into these mangled, burning metal spikes," Nucho says. "And to think that the whole country of Lebanon is like that right now."

Published: Thursday, August 24, 2006