Born in Egypt, Elham Manea is of dual nationality – Yemeni and Swiss. She earned her Bachelor degree in Political Science from Kuwait University in 1989, and worked for three years as a teacher assistant at Sana’a University, Yemen. She won a Fulbright Scholarship and, in 1995, received her master’s degree in Comparative Politics from the American University, Washington. D.C. She then moved to Switzerland where she worked as a Radio and on -line journalist at the Arabic Service of Swissinfo/Swiss Radio International. In 2001 she earned her PhD in Political Science from Zurich University with a thesis titled “Regional Politics in the Developing World, the Case of the Arabian Peninsula”. She is now Associate Professor at the Institute of Political Science at Zurich University, Switzerland.
How did you first find out about the International Student House? What attracted you to stay there?
It was thanks to my AMIDEAST coordinator that I found ISH. I came to the United States as a young woman, who lived all her previous life with her parents. I had no idea where to stay in Washington D.C. During my orientation program, which took place in Buffalo, I was asked by my AMIDEAST coordinator where I would like to stay. I had a choice between staying at the campus of the American University or at ISH. ISH was different. I am glad I opted for ISH.
When did you live at ISH? Your Fulbright scholarship was a great honor. I know you studied at American University but what exactly did you study?
I lived at ISH between 1993 and 1995 and studied Comparative Politics at the American University. And yes, I am honored to be a Fulbright scholar. It opened future paths for me and allowed me to pursue my life as I wanted it to be. Knowing that not many women in my country had this opportunity, I do appreciate this fact tremendously and try to give back from what I was given.
Why, and how, was ISH a good fit for you? And what were the challenges, if any?
In ISH I felt at home. That was a new feeling for me. Before that I always felt that I am a stranger. I was a global nomad traveling with my parents in different countries and regions. Everywhere I went, I was considered ‘different’. Well, in ISH everybody was ‘different’. That was such a relief. I did not have difficulties adjusting to ISH. Not at all. It was as if ISH has been always the home that I was looking for all my life.
What memories do you have from living at ISH?
Well, ISH has been always to me the vision of a world made new. In my book, Breaking the Wall of Silence: Islam, the West and Human Rights, which was published by Herder Verlag in German in 2009, I mentioned ISH using exactly this phrase: the vision of a world made new. I said, and I am quoting: “ISH is the only place where I felt home from the moment I set my feet on its door step. Home! Home for someone who in fact never knew what the word ‘homeland’ means. 80 students lived there, males and females, coming from 32 countries, with their different colors, religions, languages, and races. In ISH everybody was a stranger. Everybody was a stranger; and if everybody was a stranger, the sum of all strangers was strangely one identity: the human identity. We were humans first! This is how we related to each other. We were different but equal! And it did not matter where you came from, which color your skin had, or which religion you professed. The main factor was how you behaved to others.”
When you think of the House, what rooms or specific places do you remember as special?
I think the most important places in ISH were the Garden during summer time; the cafeteria, where it became our meeting point during the day; the activities room in the basement, with its ping pong table and the alternative TV, where we watched our crime series; and of course the Great Hall, where we organized ISH activities.
What social or cultural events at the House were highlights?
I loved the Halloween party that ISH organized for us each year. It was a big event for many of us. I also liked the national nights, which some of us organized. I still remember the Japanese night organized by a group of Japanese ISH students. We were all impressed by their sophistication and sense of discipline.
What did you do on the weekends?
We used to spend our free time together: friends of ISH. Depending on which part of the month the weekend took place – end of the month meant meager financial resources and the necessity to enjoy our company at ISH – we would go to the movies, go for dinner and dancing in Adams Morgan. We would walk together and see the main monuments of Washington DC. Sometimes ISH offered us free tickets to the Kennedy Center and we would attend musical events there. It was certainly a busy time.
Do you remember any specific cross-cultural experiences?
In ISH I had my first Jewish friends. Sylvia, from Peru, was one such friend. She was my neighbor – a roommate in the same floor. When the official public ceremony of the Oslo agreement was held in Washington DC, in September 1993, ISH organized a symbolic celebration, and Sylvia and I shared a piece of bread. Certainly, we became disappointed and then disillusioned with the peace process. Yet that piece of bread still holds us together. I still carry the keychain she gave me in my birthday with that simple sentence inscribed on it ‘there is nothing like a close friend.’
Please talk about other friends you met at ISH.
I met my husband, Thomas, at ISH. I came one morning to breakfast in the eating hall of the students’ house, and Theodora Welch, a Canadian close friend of mine who is now an Assistant Professor at Boston University, introduced me to this tall man: “This is Thomas Knecht, he is from Switzerland. He is staying here for an internship at the World Bank. He lived in Yemen.” He lived in Yemen! Imagine! I did not think anybody would really know who I was until he or she visited Yemen. And this person, not only visited Yemen, he had lived in Yemen!
I looked at him, bowed my head in greetings, and looked at his hands, and thought “Oh. What a relief!” I trusted him! Just like that! I think I knew from that moment that this man would be my partner. Even before he realized it, I knew it. And it did not take long in fact. Three months later we decided to marry. A year afterward, on May 10th, 1995, we married in Washington. DC., and held our wedding celebration in the great hall of ISH.
I’m still in touch with other ISH friends to this day on Facebook: Ramine Bahrambegi, an American of Iranian roots, who is the Regional Health Delegate at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; Markus Scheuermaier, from Germany, who works at the International Finance Corporation; Marjolein de Laat, from Holland, who works at Sykes Enterprises; Izumi Kurimura, from Japan, who is married and has two gorgeous children; Junko Katada is also from Japan and is married and has one child; Lauren Giniger, American, who works in different fields, including activities planning.
In what ways did your experience of living at ISH enrich your life?
Well it showed me the possibility of how life and the world could be. Many people think that the national and religious differences set us apart. ISH showed us in real terms that this should not be the case; we are humans first. And that this identity is what all in fact matter. It unites us.
What work are you currently doing?
I am an Associate Professor at the Institute of Political Science at Zurich University. In addition, I work as a Consultant in Politics, Religion and Gender in the Middle East for governmental, non-governmental and international organizations. I have published several books both in Arabic, English and German. My latest book will be published this July by Rutledge in London and is entitled The Arab State and Women’s Rights: the Trap of Authoritarian Governance.
Thanks so much, Elham, for sharing your memories!
It was a pleasure answering your questions. It brought me back to the beloved ISH – this place was home to me.