I’m sad to learn this morning of a friend’s passing. Elsa Marston was a talented writer, a caring person, and a wonderful human being. She had a life fully lived in which she made the world a better place. She’ll be sorely missed. My love goes to her family.
Elsa Marston Harik, 83, died at home on February 16 , 2017 after a brave two-year battle with cancer. At the end, as in life, she was surrounded by friends, family, her two cats, and many manuscripts.
Elsa was born in 1933 to Everett and Harriet Marston and grew up in the Boston area. Her father’s English students from Northeastern University would often come by the house, making a strong impression on her romantic spirit, particularly the dashing jazz critic Nat Hentoff. She attended Vassar and Iowa as an undergrad, and then did her Masters in International Relations at Harvard before packing up a steamer trunk and sailing alone to Beirut on a Rotary Fellowship. There she met her future husband, Iliya Harik, and began a life that revolved for 60 years around the Middle East.
After years in London and at the University of Chicago, the couple settled in Bloomington in the mid-60s, where they raised their sons Ramsay, Amahl, and Raif. Frequent sabbaticals took them to Cairo, Beirut, Morocco, Tunisia, and Ithaca (New York). She relished the encounter with the culture and politics of each destination, producing at every step works of art and literature that still adorn her Bloomington home.
A dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, Elsa nonetheless made a good home here in the Midwest, contributing to Bloomington’s civic life at many levels. She was a founding member of Citizens for Jail Improvement (later CJAM), and was involved in the Women’s League of Voters, the Arab-American Association, and Rotary. A fierce tennis competitor, she was active on the court until 2015. Most especially, though, Elsa was a writer.
Elsa’s published work ranges from whimsical picture books such as Cynthia and The Runaway Gazebo, to remarkably well-researched work on the pharaohs, to young adult fiction about the Middle East. Two books in particular gave her great satisfaction: the award-winning Santa Claus in Baghdad, which was made into a film in 2008, and I Just Kept Walking, about Bloomington’s own Morgan Scherer and his fund-raising walk to aid the Congo. Elsa’s great passion was to bring to young American readers some badly-needed understanding of the lives of their peers in the Middle East.
Perhaps somewhat quixotically, Elsa held dear the hope that by offering Americans a view of life in the Middle East “behind the headlines,” she would help disrupt stereotypical views of Arabs and contribute to a more enlightened engagement with that part of the world. She was particularly committed to publicizing the plight of the Palestinian people, whose warmth and humanity never failed to move her in her many visits to Palestine. Her writing, and her activism, continue to touch the lives of many.
Elsa leaves behind three loving sons, Ramsay, Amahl, and Raif, and two grandchildren, Savannah and Kahlil Harik. She is survived by her sister Lee, and her sisters-in-law Fadia, Laura, Ilham, and Angele. She will be interred in Dhour Schweir, Lebanon, alongside her husband, facing east toward Mount Lebanon.
A celebration of life will be scheduled later this year. Donations in her memory may be made to one of her favorite charities, Cat Lovers Against The Bomb (Nebraskans for Peace), an organization whose humor, feline inclinations, and deep humanity nicely capture the Elsa we knew and loved.