Janet Lee Stevens died in Beirut at the age of 32, in the United States Embassy bombing on April 18. More than anyone that I knew, Janet had an extraordinary sensitivity toward the people and cultures of the Middle East. Since the early 1970s she had lived in Tunisia, Egypt and most recently in Lebanon. Her deep understanding of the region came from total immersion and participation in the lives and struggles of the people among whom she lived. Her fluency in Arabic gave her an access to Arab culture that few Westerners share. She mastered the language in all its nuances, through hard work and constant practice. In the end she spoke spontaneously, as if Arabic were her native tongue, and she understood the subtleties of Arab thought and humor.
I first met Janet in Tunis, where she worked with an activist group of dramatists. They wrote and performed plays for working people. They acted in homes, streets and markets. Janet contributed sketches and ideas to this collective effort, and rejoiced each time that they played before Tunisians.
Her vitality was infectious. She was one of those decent people whose humanity and heart went out to the oppressed without sentimentality. Injustice caused her obvious pain. When she confronted it, she worked out ways to obtain more information, to get something published, to pass it on to people who could publicize and protest.
During the late 1970s, she assisted international human rights organizations to research conditions of political prisoners in Tunisia. She invariably led their representatives quietly and persistently, breaking through official silences and lies, and putting the human rights investigators in touch with lawyers and family members of the imprisoned. Her work contributed significantly to the freeing of several people by the government of President Habib Bourguiba, and to the amelioration of the conditions of imprisonment in Tunisia. On more than one occasion I have met former political prisoners who claimed that Janet’s work helped them gain freedom.
She had stayed with me in New York City on her trips to the United States and we met often when I visited Tunis. We corresponded frequently, and I owe much of my up-to-date knowledge of workers’ conditions, labor unions and strikes to her detailed letters. Only a small portion of her writing ever was published. Some of this was in MERIP Reports, where she wrote under the name of June Disney as well as her own.
After Tunis, Janet worked in Cairo on her doctoral dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania, from which she received her M.A. In 1982, she moved to Beirut, where she began work as a journalist for Monday Morning, then the Japanese daily Asahi, the Arabic weekly al-Kifah al-‘Arabi, and the Guardian (New York).
My last letter from her was dated June 1982. In it she described herself standing on the roof of her apartment building, watching the bombs fall and cursing those who so implemented death. She was not afraid, she wrote, although she knew she might die at any moment. She felt that her place was there and she would not leave Beirut.
After the massacre in September 1982, she toured Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and recorded detailed interviews with the survivors. Her unpublished reports show that she was consumed by their grief, but never paralyzed by what she saw and heard.
Janet was in the Embassy on April 18 to interview US staff about how American aid was being used in Lebanon. She had intended to travel south after these interviews to see what the US was doing on the ground.
Janet always worked in the background, eschewing publicity or credit. In a selfless way she did what she felt had to be done. Her role, as she saw it, was to document the effects of US policy and expose its consequences for the people of the Middle East in particular. Her work in Beirut was part of this commitment to justice and a more humane world. She was an idealist who was firmly rooted in the here and now.
Those of us who knew Janet mourn for her. We have lost a dear friend, and a rare human being who constantly put herself on the line at the risk of great personal danger. A bomb finally killed her, but her memory remains as an inspiration for those of us who knew her. The Lebanese paper al-Safir noted in a tribute that Janet had “planted in our memory the face of the beautiful American which we have missed for a long time in Lebanon and the Arab world.”