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Ms. Lee-Alison Sibley visiting a NGO in Kolkata with her two sons
The Asian Age / Mistress of Spices [ 22 Jun 2003 ]

As a teenager she marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. As a social worker she works to better the lives of slum children. She is a trained Opera singer and can speak ten languages. Lee Alison Sibley has cramped into one life that of many others. She speaks to Dipanita Nath about her life, her role as the wife of the US consul general, her book, charity works and love for avocados.

Ever since she can remember, Lee-Alison Sibley has always been in love. And the emotion is still far from spent. But few instances or people have tasted her love as much as the Arabs in Jordan and the slum children in Kolkata. The former is the subject of a yet-to-be published tome; the latter is the subject of an ongoing fight.

Even as the world evaluates the effect of the Iraq conflict and commentators compile hasty documents on war, Lee is preparing her own tome on West Asia. " And this book is not about war, it is about peace," she says. " It is also about love."

Titled They Called Me Miss Lee: Jordan's Jewish Dream Queen, the 30 something chapters long book is a flash back of 1997 when she joined as the head of the Performing Arts Department at the elite Amman Baccalaureate School. The roaster at the school where members of the royal family enrolled their children also included Libyans, Palestinians, and Iraqis besides Jordanians.

The Arab majority school and the absolute absence of any Israeli staff or student in it threw up a personal problem for Lee. "I'm Jewish," she says before adding, "With the political scenario between the Israelis and the Arab world becoming increasingly fierce, animosity towards Jews in the Arab world ran high. After a lifetime spent in the shadow the gun, Arabs treated Jews as political beings rather than individuals. It did not matter that one was a French Jew, an American Jew or of any other nationality. For them, any was the only Jew in the school."

Even as she developed an easy rapport with her students, Lee was unable to reveal her religion." Surprisingly when my students did find out, it created not the rancour I dreaded but a comfortable warmth of acceptance," she says. An urn presented by the students at the beginning of a Jewish festival was the first sign that showed love knows no boundaries. The gift occupies pride of place in the US consulate drawing room. "Once I realized that the children loved me, I could begin affecting the changes I wanted," she says. This included practical examples on the futility of hatred and the equality of human beings, a difficult in a society where political killings and suicide attacks were common. It took a tragedy to establish that Lee has been accepted, not just by her adoring students but also by the Jordanian society. "I was close to Jeina, a young girl student; she became the daughter I always wanted," recalls Lee. Shared confidence sealed their friendship. "Then one day, as she left the home of a cousin after completing homework a racing car put an end to her young life," remembers Lee as tears choke her voice. Friends, relatives, neighbours and teachers streamed into the dead girl's palatial house for the final farewell. Lee accompanied by a colleague formed part of the gathering. As veiled women brought the sobbing mother into the hall, Lee stood up to pay her condolences. In what will go down as her most poignant episodes, the bereaved mother hugged Lee before declaring before the packed hall, "Today, only you can understand my sorrow, for she was your daughter too." No Arab Muslim has given a Jewish foreigner a greater gift.

Maintaining mutual respect among traditional enemies was not always easy. The balancing was almost upset after Israeli military men killed a young Arab Israeli youth with whom Lee's students had struck up a friendship at Seeds of Peace, an amity camp for students of warring mid-eastern countries. "At the time they killed him, the boy was wearing his Seeds of Peace T-shirt," says Lee. This threatened to raise the Jew-Arab hatred again as Lee's students grappled with their hurt and anger. Ironically, she was the only Jew in the campus that they went for solace.

Lee's message to them remained same as before. "Even as we condemn the killing, let us be wary of slipping into hatred. If the cycle of hate is renewed, his death would have been in vein." The darkest time, of course was the Intifda 11 in September. "The book is aimed at the US nation which is currently torn with hatred towards Muslims. It proves a different insight into the Muslim world," she says before adding, "I'll be called a traitor by many people." But the story needs to be told and Lee is far from balking.

As a teenager, she marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr and ever since, taking the unconventional stand has come naturally. "I was opposed to the Vietnam War, she says. Injustice is a pet peeve for the lady who fought for civil rights of Black Americans. "If you grow up hating all your life long, you can never be happy. A life of hatred is bereft of joy and is filled sorrow. Skin color, creed, region and religion are poor scales by which to measure people," she says with clerical sincerity.

It was same felling of love that came to the fore and induced her visit a poverty stricken NGO tucked inside the underbelly of Kolkata's drug infested lanes, her present of 200 copy books, pencils and erasers was only the beginning of a long series of gifts. She has helped collect financial assistance and spread awareness about them. "We don't feel alone any more," say authorities of the NGO. The students now collect every news page featuring the American woman who became a friend.

In Kolkata where her husband George Sibley is US Consul General, Lee is defiantly treading where few others have. A page three regular, she has made plush drawing rooms her platform for social work. From befriending the Rehabilitation Center for Children, which perform orthopaedic surgery for children, to helping the Tijala shed working with rag-pickers get grants from the US government, her ambit is as wide a her methods. She presents musical programs to create awareness and raise money, mentions the NGOs in her personal conversations and plan to hold a ball at five star hotel to raise funds for the Calcutta foundation, which supports homes for leprosy sufferers' children. Even her morning walkers club of which she is designated "Hash Mistress" is required to make a weekly donation of Rs 100. "Thinking of ways to raise more money is a constant bother. But I'll have to get their for the people I love," she says firmly.

She is among Kolkata's most recognizable faces thanks to her frequent musical programs. A trained opera singer and a Pete Seeger fan, she has stretched her musical frontiers to the extreme.

I have always forced myself to improve everyday. I was among the best students, not because I competed with others, but because I competed with myself," she says. She is currently training to release a Rabindrasangeet album in Bengali.

Lee was selected for performing on stage as a seven-year-old and has never stayed away." In school it was a persistent regret that my mother could not watch me sing. Belonging to a middle class family, it was necessary for my mother to work in order to pay for my lessons in cello, guitar and piano and put my brother through medical college," she says. Her mother, now 81-year-old stays with her and fondly refers to Lee as the "Renaissance Woman," a salute to her multifarious activities.

Lee has cramped into one life that of many others. She has traveled through Mexico as a rock music performer, has managed a catering business, been a trek leader to the Annapurna base camp, is an artist with keen visual sense of colour, is an interior decorator, can speak 10 languages besides reading many others. She has also invented a structural method of teaching foreign languages using colored cards and Velcro. Among the more strange outings was that of delivering messages dressed as a gorilla when she was working for a company called "Eastern Onion," a spoof on the Western Union. "Dressed in a gorilla mask and paws and carrying a Helium balloon, I rang the doorbell of the recipient. Then I proceeded to sing them their message," she says. All the while her two young sons waited in the car.

Lee is widely reputed for her culinary skills. A specialist in North Indian, Italian, Chinese, French and Greek cooking, she imparts practical tips while scooping avocados, "An avocado is nature's perfect vegetable, containing more minerals and vitamins than any other vegetable in existence." At the moment, however, cooking has taken a backseat as Lee juggles music, charity work and her book. The later that should have been ready months ago is in its final stages. "My agent is having difficulties finding a publisher since I am neither Queen Noor nor Hilary Clinton," she says. But then in a world peppered with hate true love stories have always met with hurdles.