Kilims & brass

Eleanor Johnson’s journey from Beirut to Istanbul to Egypt to Easthampton

  • Eleanor Johnson sits beside an inlaid tea table from Damascus at her home in Easthampton, Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A land grant from Istanbul hangs on a wall. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • This Persian painting was originally a page in a book. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Detail of an inlaid tea table from Damascus at the home of Eleanor and Richard Johnson, of Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An inlaid chest from Damascus and a Caucasian kilim at her home of Eleanor and Richard Johnson in Easthampton, Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. Part of a loom from Laos is supporting the kilim. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eleanor Johnson sits beside a prized inlaid chest from Damascus at her home in Easthampton. The Caucasian kilim is supported by a loom fragment from Laos. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A foul pot from Damascus that was used for cooking was made into a lamp in Beirut, part of a collection of Middle-Eastern items at the home of Eleanor and Richard Johnson, of Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The living room is filled with Middle-Eastern rugs, tables and other collected treasures from Eleanor and Richard Johnson’s life in Lebanon, Turkey and beyond. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Of a prized inlaid tea table from Damascus, Johnson says, “It took me three years to convince the vendor to sell, but here it is!” STAFF PHOTOS/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A brass ewer from Istanbul rests on a table at the home of Eleanor and Richard Johnson, of Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carved screen at the home of Eleanor and Richard Johnson, of Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Detail of a Caucasian kilim at the home of Eleanor and Richard Johnson, of Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Detail of a rug from Istanbul at the home of Eleanor and Richard Johnson, of Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A prayer rug hangs on a wall at the home of Eleanor and Richard Johnson, of Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A rug from Turkey hangs in the front hallway at the home of Eleanor and Richard Johnson, of Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 2/8/2019 11:04:01 AM

“I miss living in the Middle East: the language, the food, the mountains, our friends, the resilience and humor of the Lebanese, which is their way of coping,” says Eleanor Johnson, 73. She and her husband, Rich, 82, have lived in a spacious two-story townhouse in the Lathrop Retirement Community in Easthampton since 2013, and before that, they lived and traveled in Beirut, Istanbul, Egypt, Thailand and Swaziland.

Entering their home is like stepping into 1,001 Nights. Or maybe 1,002. Lovely carpets, Middle-Eastern brass work, inlaid tables from Syria, a carved screen and colorful Persian paintings decorate their space. Of sentimental — though not monetary — interest to them is a framed Turkish land grant drafted during the Ottoman Empire, in smallish Arabic script with a Sultan’s huge, ornate seal on top, for which they paid less than $2 as documents such as this were very common.

Eleanor was born and raised in Lebanon but has deep local roots. “My story begins in New England, where my great-great grandmother met a young man from Amherst College who was preparing to become a missionary. Despite the disapproval of her family, but with the support of her close friend Emily Dickinson, she married him, and set off for adventures she could not have imagined,” she explains.

As Eleanor tells it, Abby and Daniel Bliss went to Syria (what is now Lebanon) in 1856 and remained there for the rest of their lives. Daniel eventually founded the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut in 1866 and served as its first President. He modeled it on Amherst College, with which he remained in close contact, and in 1920, under the presidency of his son Howard (also an Amherst College graduate), it became the secular American University of Beirut (AUB). Abby and Daniel Bliss’s children, grandchildren and a few of the fourth and fifth generations of the family continued on in Lebanon as missionaries, educators and doctors.

Eleanor is among the fifth generation. “I was born and raised in Beirut,” she says, a place with many layered civilizations. She and her siblings thought nothing of finding Roman coins on the beach after a storm, picnicking in stone sarcophagi in gardens or visiting Crusader castles on Sunday outings.

Eleanor grew up speaking Arabic and was sent to what was then the Northfield School for Girls at 14, followed by Wilson College in Pennsylvania, and Bryn Mawr, also in Pennsylvania, for a master's degree in Philosophy.

“It was hard being so far from home. I compensated by trying very hard to be American,” she says, adding that she’s happy she went to all-female institutions, and eventually she became accustomed to navigating between two or more cultures.

She met her husband, Rich, in 1968, when they were both teaching at the Beirut College for Women, modeled after Mount Holyoke College. Rich was originally from Walnut Creek, CA, “back when they still had walnuts and a creek,” Eleanor observed wryly. They returned to the U.S. in 1970, married, and had three children, two of whom are also globe-trotting: Betsy is about to move from Qatar to Tanzania; Katie is in Kenya. Son Peter lives in Maine.

Their careers — Rich taught math and Eleanor worked in admissions, often traveling abroad to recruit students — took them from the Loomis School in Windsor, Connecticut, to Robert College in Istanbul, to Northfield Mount Hermon in Gill, to the AUB in Beirut. They also worked in Egypt, Swaziland and Thailand.

“I was privileged to work at the American University of Beirut in my last professional role — Assistant to the Provost — before retirement, overlapping with the period in which my brother, Peter F. Dorman, was the President of the University.”

The couple was in Lebanon in 2006, during the Israel-Hezbollah war. That summer Eleanor and Rich — along with their two daughters, sons-in-law, and two grandchildren — had all arrived for a visit at the Johnson family home in the mountains behind Beirut, where it is significantly cooler than in the city. The setting had special meaning for Eleanor, dating back to her childhood: “We spent the summers in the mountains, in a village high above Beirut. When you looked way down, from our balcony, you could see the city in the distance and tiny ant-like airplanes crawling down the airport runways [and] the sea spread out below.”

In 2006, however, the political situation quickly deteriorated, and steps had to be taken to get Eleanor and Rich’s children and grandchildren out of Lebanon. There were thousands of stranded Americans in Lebanon, but the Johnson family relatives were evacuated out to Navy ships via helicopter with members of the AUB faculty and staff. Eleanor and Rich stayed behind, and after a month of war, a cease-fire prevailed.

The Johnsons returned to the U.S. in 2013, partly because Eleanor had contracted Multiple Sclerosis. They knew the Valley well from their many years at Northfield Mount Hermon and their children encouraged them to move into the Lathrop community. As Eleanor is mobility-impaired, living on one floor is optimum, but so is having a spacious basement for visiting family, who come from far away and often stay for a month or more.

She looks around fondly at their mementos. “We began to buy carpets in Turkey. Since we didn’t know what we were doing, we asked the carpet sellers in the bazaars: ‘Show us what you like,’ which pleased them, and they taught us how to appreciate what we saw,” she says.

“I look around this room and remember the fun we had bargaining to get certain objects,” she says. “That Syrian inlaid table over there — it took me three years to convince the vendor to sell, but here it is!”

Nina M. Scott is a Professor Emerita of Spanish from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of Five College Learning in Retirement. Originally from Germany, Scott is profiling a series of foreign-born Valley residents for the Gazette.

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