Jeanine Ferris Pirro, the host of a weekend program on American television's Fox News Channel (FNC), has earned a reputation for straight-talk on matters concerning the Middle East. What most of her viewers probably do not know is that the glamorous legal analyst is the daughter of first-generation Lebanese-Americans and therefore she is not afraid to take a stand against injustice in a part of the world that holds a special place in her heart.
"I am proud of my heritage. I have always promoted it and promoted in my own children, although their father was Italian, a sense of the subculture of Lebanon and the importance of maintaining that sense of who you are," says Pirro, who was born and raised in Elmira, New York, one of two daughters of Nasser "Leo" Ferris and Esther Awad.
Since her Fox News program, "Justice With Judge Jeanine", debuted in 2011, Pirro admits to being "very outspoken" on Middle East matters. The professional lawyer, former U.S. district attorney, and judge says she was "dead-set against Morsi"--Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood president who was ousted in July 2013 because shortly after taking office, he suspended the constitution, casting aside Egypt's judges in an effort to impose a religious state. She condemned the Obama Administration's handling of the September 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was brutally killed; and she has accused President Barack Obama of " indecision and dithering" over the Syrian crisis.
From her point of view, what is currently happening in the Middle East , and especially in Egypt, is an indication that the region is "going backwards and the idea of an 'Arab Spring' is such an oxymoron." The contradiction is obvious to her:
"What happened in the 'Arab Spring' was that religious fanatics ended up taking over under the guise of freedom, almost like a wolf in sheep's clothing."
Pirro's forthright views have been translated and rebroadcast on television channels across the Arab world, while excerpts from her more controversial programs are posted on YouTube. It has given her a media presence in the Arab world that she had not anticipated but she is aware of, especially as people learn about her Lebanese background, and ask themselves:
Who is Judge Jeanine Ferris Pirro?
Jeanine Ferris Pirro was born June 2, 1951 in the small town of Elmira in the south-western corner of upstate New York. Pirro's maternal grandfather, by her account, was a very successful businessman who encouraged Jeanine's father to settle there with his family. Her mother, Esther Awad, had been sent to live with relatives in Bsalim, Lebanon from a young age. There she learned to speak Arabic and only returned when she married Nasser. Pirro's father passed away back in 1978 but her mother is still alive and living in Elmira. To this day, Esther Awad has family in Lebanon but whether or not the great Lebanese poet, Maurice Awad, who shares her family name and is also from Bsalim, is related to her is something, Pirro says she'll have to "talk to her mother about." It is her mother who really introduced Jeanine to the culture, food and traditions of Lebanon. However, her memories of growing up as a Lebanese-American teenager in Elmira are not all happy. "I remember the kids used to make fun of me...called me 'Camel Jockey' and 'Fat Lips.' I am very proud of my lips..." but she adds jokingly, "...of course as you get older they get thinner..."
"We were Catholic and I went to catholic school and just about everybody there was Irish and so I looked different. You know it's so amazing today how the multicultural definition of this country is just so different from when I was growing up. I mean everyone was a blue-eyed blonde and I just looked different."
During her teenage years, Pirro recalls she was not ready to embrace her foreign heritage or to make the effort to learn Arabic, "Growing up was very different for me. I didn't want to learn the language and it's a shame that I did not and I am very sorry for that. My mother reminds me every day...or every chance she gets."
"It's my goal, maybe even part of my 'bucket-list' to speak Arabic." Pirro found that as she grew older she returned more and more to her Lebanese roots. "I wanted to cook the food, and I still cook it, and I love to cook. My mother was a good cook...you know the kibbee, the tabouli, and hummus, banganoush, the sheikh el-meshee, the kibbee nayeh, mjadhara. Do you like my funny accent?..and I'm a great cook, by the way. I am a decent belly dancer too, and I love the music. I took my bose speakers and my Ipod to my Mom and played the music for her and she was in tears. You know she said, 'I remember when you were a little girl and you know you didn't want to hear that music,' and I said 'Yeah, I know Mom, and I'm so sorry."
Why do you think you changed?
"I think that as I matured I understood the importance of culture. I read more and it wasn't about kids making fun of you. It wasn't about looking different from everyone else at church. It was more about the intellectual acceptance of your heritage and who you are. It's your dignity and in fact, I even talked about going to college at the American University of Beirut when I was in high school but my Mom didn't want me to go that far."
How has your Lebanese heritage directed you in your life?
It's kind of interesting. My mother to me is a microcosm... in a sense, imbedded in my mother are all of the values of the Lebanese people. That has become my core and my mother instilled in me a sense of right and wrong and justice. The need to fight for the underdog and to never remain silent when there is a wrong being committed."
Given these feelings, it comes as no surprise that after graduating with a BA from the University of Buffalo, magna cum laude, Jeanine Pirro headed for Albany Law School. She received her degree in 1975 and began an astoundingly successful legal career that included a number of "firsts."
In 1978, she started work as an assistant district attorney for Westchester County, New York, and was the first female to prosecute murder cases there. That same year, she set up the first domestic violence unit in a prosecutor's office in the nation. Then in 1990, Pirro became the first woman to serve, albeit briefly, as a Westchester County Court judge. Three years later, she was elected Westchester County's first female District Attorney and successfully won re-election in 1997 and 2001.The highlight of her ten-year tenure in the DA's office was, undoubtedly, her work with battered women and abused children.
In 1997, then-Governor George E. Pataki appointed Pirro to chair the New York State Commission on Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board whose research helped pass increased protection for domestic violence victims. Her interest in this ground-breaking work, Pirro also attributes to her Lebanese heritage.
"When I started the first domestic violence unit in the nation in 1978, I was very young...just a kid..a prosecutor for only a couple of years but that fight that I had was I think reminiscent of most Lebanese people. I think Lebanese people are fighters. They stand up for what they believe in, I mean I love it. It wasn't until I was older that I realized how much of that was a part of my heritage. And when I see relatives or friends who are Lebanese you know like get out when traffic is stopped and make the bus move or something...I don't know, I mean we do things...we make things happen."
Pirro preps for her weekend show from a wood-paneled library office in the upscale residence she owns in one of Westchester County's priciest suburbs. Above the fireplace hangs a huge painting, an original in oils, of her two children, Christi and Alexander, both of whom are now college graduates and busy working. She is a devoted Mom and remains very close to both of them. In fact, when Pirro made her first trip to Lebanon two summers ago, she was accompanied by her daughter, Christi. The two were guests of Pirro's long-time Lebanese friends, supporters and fellow Westchester residents, businessman Haleem Zihenni and his wife, Denise.
"We went everywhere. we went to Batroun and Jeita Grotto. We visited Haleem's beach house in Jounieh, and stayed for a while in Beirut. I saw Lebanon as this sophisticated, cultured, sweet spot on earth."
"Everyone there speaks three languages. The Lebanese people are so cosmopolitan. It's English, French and Arabic. When they say hello..they also say Bonjour and Ahla... It's so fabulous and to be admired and respected."
She has special memories of her trip to the Bekaa Valley. "I was a history major in college, so I remember reading that Mark Antony gave Cleopatra the Bekaa Valley because it was so lush and then when I saw it, I had like goose
bumps...So many people think that Lebanon is nothing but sand dunes because they just don't get it. They don't understand that it is a cosmopolitan area that unfortunately has been torn by the religious strife there and politics. It's very sad."
What are your lasting impressions of Lebanon?
"Look, all you have to do is drive around Lebanon or Beirut and see bullet holes or concrete barriers or you hear the prayers at certain times to known that there are several cultures there and you know it's almost as though it could be 1400 there, not in terms of the advancements but in terms of some of the religious strife that goes on."
Would you like to go back to Lebanon again?
"In a second...in a second. If anything there were so many good things about that first trip. From the nature of the people to the fact that, and this just cracks me up, that the Lebanese work all day and party all night. They don't need to sleep and that's me. I mean that's who I am. I don't know if there is any truth to it whether there's a DNA of a particular region but I'm all those things..and I say that with a good dose of humor."
Before leaving for her trip, Pirro prepared herself by reading From Beirut to Jerusalem by New York Times best-selling journalist, Thomas Friedman, who wrote a personal account of his experiences as Beirut bureau chief in the 1980s during the insanity of the early civil war years. One of the stories he told, which she really loved, was about the Gucci-handbag- shopping Lebanese women who when confronted by an armed gunman in their gourmet supermarket simply pulled out guns of their own from their designer bags, forcing the gunman to fear for his own life and flee, whereupon the women put their guns away and simply continued with their shopping. This story summed up perfectly the resilience and classiness of the Lebanese people, especially the country's women, who have earned Pirro's genuine admiration. "They were so accustomed to upheaval that they just took it in stride....They're beautiful."
Pirro, who likes to describe herself as "100 per cent Lebanese", has recently achieved well-deserved recognition for her long-standing dedication to that heritage. Last September, she was honored at the 3rd Annual Fundraising Gala hosted by the Lebanese-American University at its New York Headquarters. Pirro was among three prominent Lebanese figures in the United States who received LAU's 2013 Sarah Huntington Smith Award, named after the missionary who established the American School for Girls in Beirut in 1834, which later became LAU.
And what lies ahead for Judge Jeanine Pirro in 2014?
"I was in politics for 30 years and I ran for office 5 times and as you know, especially in New York, politics is a blood sport. It's not always easy on your family. So to answer your question directly, who knows what the future holds. All I know is that I am still a fighter and I can't get that out of me and I am passionate about the news and issues." To those in the Middle East, Pirro makes a plea for "...faith in the Americans. I know many are disappointed in us but we are freedom lovers."
Indeed, at 62-years-old, Jeanine Ferris Pirro conveys the style, vitality and personal warmth of a woman confident of herself, fully aware that her sense of self, of who she is, is a reflection of the rich and enduring presence of Lebanon in her life.