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The Jerusalem Report / Jordan's Jewish Drama Queen [ Jul 30 2001 ]

The curtain comes down on Lee-Alison Sibley's Four-year mission'in the Hashemite kingdom

Sarah Schaffer Amman

Lee-Alison Sibley is a drama queen. The door of her office at the high school where she has headed the Performing Arts department for the last four years proclaims it to be so.

Her students adore her. This was confirmed by their tears when, after the curtain fell on the students ' production of "The King and I" last winter. Sibley announced that she would soon be leaving.

When Sibley, a native New Yorker, came to Amman, Jordan with her husband George, assigned to the American Embassy as regional environmental officer, she had "no idea " that she would be teaching at the Amman Baccalaureate School, the most prestigious almost all-Arab school in the kingdom." But looking back, I feel I was meant to be there," she told the Jerusalem Report.

She probably also had no idea that she was soon to become Amman's most high profile Jewish resident. This, and her job at the ABS helped define what Sibley calls her "mission" in Jordan- a role that became especially meaningful with the eruption of the Palestinian intifada next door.

Sibley, née Blum, began her career in theater arts when she was 7, with a performance of "All I want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" for the Parent Teacher Association at school in Long Island. She is at home in foreign cultures, having started traveling at a young age. She "did" Europe on a Eurailpass at the age of 16. In 1971, she headed to Israel for a two-month stint on a kibbutz. She has since sung, acted and directed her way through Nepal, Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil. She met her husband while performing a musical in Mexico City in 1984.

Drama queen is a title she has adopted for herself, but it is an apt one. Little about Sibley is understood, from her hair, a wild waist-length mass of strawberry blonde curls, to her dress, which places squarely in the era of flower power. Her petite frame belies a powerful singing voice. She exudes confidence, love and commands the stage, and lives her life more or less according the whims of her heart.

But Amman, she says, is one act she wasn't sure she could pull off. Jordan was the first Arab country to which she had traveled. She says she was "nervous and scared" and spoke little about the pending move to her family and friends at home. "I just tried to come with an open heart and an open mind," she says.

She soon found work, but messages she was receiving were not entirely encouraging. "I was told to hide [my Jewish identity] by the school, because they were worried," she recounts. "They told me that if anything goes wrong with the school, I would be blamed if people knew I was Jewish. So I didn't tell anyone, and people just assumed that I was a Christian American. I was my normal self-upbeat and down to earth in the classroom, joking with students, very open. They got to know me and really liked me, and I got to know them, and I really liked them."

She tried to abide by the school's request that she kept religion to herself, but anonymity didn't last too long. "All of Amman, all of Jordan, the whole world knows I'm Jewish, but that was an accident," she recalls.

Sibley who lists "gourmet cook" on her resume as one of her special skills, had gathered colleagues- Jordanian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Russian and British- in her Amman home for a Thanksgiving dinner the first year she worked at the ABS. The Russian teacher turned to her and pointedly asked her what religion she was. In her own house, she says, "I wasn't going to lie. Everyone at the table turned to me and said all at once, 'You're Jewish? "

In the days that followed, the news spread like wildfire down Amman's famous gossip grapevine. "No one ever said anything to me," she says. "But although we didn't initially discuss it in the classroom, my students, during a certain Jewish holiday brought me gifts and they acknowledged through their gifts that they knew, and I was moved to tears by their acceptance," she remembers.

"What I realize now, because I've interviewed them all," says Sibley, who plans to write a book about her four years in the kingdom, "is that even though they had been suspicious of me when they knew I was Jewish, didn't like Jews , hadn't met Jews, thought Jews were bad people, they were surprised to find that they liked me, a Jew. And then it became a real exchange."

Sibley explains that, as a Jew she is not alone in Amman, but that others prefer to keep their identity confidential. Since hers had become public knowledge, she says, she decided to use it to make a difference. She could have left her post after the first year, having originally signed a one-year contract, but it became "a mission for me to teach children that Jews are not evil, that Jews could love them, that I could love them, and that I wanted them to learn from me and I wanted to learn from them."

Today, she says, "everywhere I go, Amman, Aqaba, Jerash it's 'Miss Lee, Miss Lee.' Former students call from around the world, send me e-mails , make a beeline for my office when they came back to Amman."

Sibley also became involved with wider Jordanian community. This past year, for example, she served as president of mostly Arab school board of the American Community School, where her youngest son, Gabriel, was enrolled. Her skills were sought by some officials in the Jordanian government- she won't disclose names for private tutoring in public speaking.

This spring, she found herself on stage at the Rozena Café Theatre, run by Nabil Sawalha, a founder member of the Nabil and Hisham Theatre of Political Satire. Sawalha became known in Israel after he came on tour with his partner Hisham Yanis, in defiance of the Jordanian Artists Association ban on normalization with Israel. (Sawalha has since sworn off normalization with Isreal after becoming disillusioned about Isreal's true intentions)

During Sibley's last performance, she and her husband bid a final farewell to Jordan with lyrics they wrote- "How are things in Amman, Jordan?" set to the tune of "How are things in Glocca Morra?" from Finian's Rainbow. "It's been just wonderful. Really wonderful," she says,"The outpouring of love is amazing.

There's another less rosy side, however. Her presence at the ABS landed the school on the 'blacklist" of "collaborators" with Israel published by Jordan's vocal anti-normalization movement. "I just laughed," she says. The school, like many others on the list, did not deign to respond to the accusation.

Personally, the only shadow over what has otherwise been a bright lesson in "human understanding" and peaceful coexistence, says Sibley was the eruption of the intifada last September. While Sibley condemns violence by either side, she was acutely dismayed by what she and the rest Jordan saw as Israel's excessive use of force to put down the intifada.

"The worst thing for me this year was to be a Jew and to experience a sense that we, who have suffered for millennia, would turn around and treat other people in such an awful way. It was the lowest point in my time in Jordan, that as a Jew, trying to be a good Jew, I could not accept what my fellow Jews in Israel were doing."

In the early days of the intefada, when the Jordanian street was calling for revenge, ABS students surprised Sibley by "piling" into her office. "They wanted to know how I felt and wanted to share how they felt. They were amazing."The intefada and the Israeli crackdown was, she said, especially devastating for her students. Some, through the Seeds of Peace program, had known Asli Asleh, an Israeli Arab 17-year old who was killed by Israeli police fire during riots in the Galilee. Others had spent months planning a global student peace conference for November that was canceled as the Intefada wore on."When [Asli Asleh] was killed - murdered - they were devasted," she says, "I cried with them, because I myself didn't know what to say to them. (The government appointed Or Commission is still investigating the death of Asleh and other Isreali Arabs killed last October). "This not the way we were raised. We were raised that we have suffered and we must not inflict suffering on others."

Of course, she says, the message should apply to both Arabs and Israelis. "I will never condone the killings, from either side, and I have no sympathy for all those fanatics out there, Jewish, Muslim, Christians or whatever who use and manipulate religion," she says. "And I tell my students that we must not hate, even when people are killed. We can't hate because it grows, just like love, and if we spread hate, it will make everything worse."

Sibley's own family traces a history of persecution. They left Portugal during the inquisition in 1492 for Hague. From there, the family moved onto Austria, Hungary, Romania and eventually, because of persecution, moved to the United States in 1899. So human and civil rights were a key theme in her family during her youth. Together, they marched with Martin Luther King, against Vietnam and for women's rights in the first Women's Liberation Day March in New York in 1969.

"We are not a family that is quiet if there is injustice. To sit quietly by is to condone it. We must speak out. And that's how I live my life," she says. "So I tell people, I tell my students too, what is peace without dignity for both sides? I lived in Israel and I understand Israelis' fear. And I lived here, and I understand the Arab's anger. So I tell my students, put yourselves in the shoes of an Israeli. I have put myself in your shoes, and I feel your pain. They know I understand."

This summer, Sibley is returning to the United States where her husband will take up a fellowship at Princeton University. She plans to take a year off to research and write her book, provisionally titled 'They called me Miss Lee- A Jewish life in Jordan.' She hopes to finish the first draft by January 2002.

"It's going to tell a story about a woman who fell in love with a country against all odds," she says - in spite of the advice of some " well-intentioned" people who told her now was "not the right time" for such an endeavor. The same goes, she adds, for this interview with The Report.

"I've often felt this year a plague on both your houses. But I must write the book, I must do this interview and I must go home to my country and probably be called a traitor by some of my old friends. I must, because it's the right thing to do."

And her parting message to her students? "I promised them I would never let anyone say anything against Arabs or Muslims. I told them I would educate people about their culture or their religion, if they promised that whenever someone starts speaking against the Jews, 'you would speak up and remember that you had a Jewish teacher whom you loved and out of respect for me, you will teach them what you learned.'

"I wish we could have Palestinian teachers teaching in Israeli schools and that we could ship a load of Israeli teachers to Jordan," she says. "Because what I've learned from this experience is that we can understand each other, love and accept each other, and learn from each other. Multiply that by millions, and it would be a great world."