On February 14, Jessica Ashooh ’06 was eating lunch at an outdoor picnic table at the American University of Beirut, settling in to life as an exchange student on the picturesque campus overlooking the Mediterranean. “It was a beautiful day,” she recalls, “seventy-five degrees and sunny.”
All of a sudden Ashooh heard—and felt—an enormous blast. At first she thought there’d been an accident in a chemistry lab or at a construction site.
“Then,” she says, “we saw the smoke rise.”
A bomb had exploded on a seaside promenade just five blocks away, killing former prime minister Rafik Hariri and at least seventeen other people. “There was just massive disbelief among everybody,” Ashooh says, “foreign students, Lebanese students. We’re all very aware of the dark, ugly, bloody history here. But it was a really odd juxtaposition of what our experience had been with the city.” The university, she explains, looks like a resort, and the city surrounding it seemed safe and cosmopolitan. “It looks like a Disney interpretation of what Beirut should be,” she says.
After the bombing, the entire city shut down. “It became like a ghost town,” Ashooh recalls. Most Lebanese students went home to their families to observe a three-day mourning period.
Ashooh, whose father is of Lebanese descent, is an international relations concentrator focusing on global security. She began learning Arabic during her freshman year and says she decided to study in Beirut because single women have as much freedom there as they do in the West. She also wanted to learn the Lebanese dialect, which she says sounds beautiful.
Although living so close to the site of the assassination of a former head of state may be nerve-racking, Ashooh has been taking advantage of the singular opportunity to witness the political aftermath of the bombing. “I’ve been taking notes every day,” she says.
Ashooh now avoids some areas of the city, especially at night, but says she mostly feels safe. On a recent weekend she embarked on a wine-tasting tour in the Bekaa Valley, which is known in the West as home to Hezbollah. She plans to stay in the country until mid-June.
“My mom is worried sick,” she says. “She always gets nervous when I go to the Arab world. But she’s nervous when I’m at Brown—that’s a mother’s job.”