The Great Escape
07/31/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
On the night of their great escape, Meriam Al-Khalifa got cold feet. Shortly before her planned rendezvous with boyfriend Jason Johnson, Meriam, then 18, told him by phone, "If I'm not there at 11, you'll know I'm not coming." Johnson, 25, fell silent a moment, then said, "It's all up to you, but I'll wait." For 40 agonizing minutes on that night last November, the U.S. Marine waited and wondered. Would his beloved, a princess who is a cousin of Bahrain's ruler, Emir Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, have the courage to defy her family and flee her homeland to make a less glamorous life with him in America?
Meanwhile, Meriam sat beside her mother, staring at the television and thinking, "I can't do it." As 11 p.m. neared, she went to her bedroom. "I thought, 'What am I doing?' " She'd known for years she didn't want to go on being a princess. "My whole life was planned out for me," she says. "I wanted to know other people." Impetuously, Meriam changed into her American-style getaway clothes—cargo pants, a flannel shirt and a blue New York Yankees cap—stuffed three pairs of pants into a backpack, then climbed out her window. Under cover of darkness, she fled across the lawn of her father's home outside Bahrain's capital city of Manama, scaled a fence and ran down the road—into the embrace of her future.
Or so it seemed that night. Over the next two hours Meriam and Johnson successfully navigated seven layers of airport security. Johnson had forged a Marine ID for Meriam; he'd also forged orders for her to return to the U.S. "Everything worked really well," says Johnson. Until they landed last Nov. 2 in Chicago. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, alerted by Bahraini police, were waiting to take Meriam into custody. Since then the two have become unlikely players in an international melodrama involving the U.S. and its Persian Gulf ally, the island nation of Bahrain. Her family wants Meriam back. She wants to stay. Now it's up to a U.S. immigration judge to decide if she can.
Two weeks after their perilous journey, Meriam and Johnson did one thing that might improve her chances: They married, in the Candlelight Chapel in Las Vegas. (A wedding supper followed at Taco Bell.) INS hearings, which began July 17, are expected to stretch over several months, and Meriam's attorney, Jan Bejar, intends to make a case for political asylum. "We know that she would suffer—who knows what?—if she returns," says Bejar. Adds Meriam, who is Muslim: "I did the worst thing I could do: I have married a white man, an American and a Christian. All are forbidden to me." Until she's 21, Meriam is also a minor under Bahraini law.
Laurel Fletcher of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley observes, "She has brought shame on her family. There may very well be retribution." Middle East expert Richard Dekmejian of the University of Southern California disagrees. "The greatest priority of the Bahrain ruling family is their relationship with the U.S.," he says. "They will not punish [her]."
The Al-Khalifas' lawyer, Qays H. Zu'bi, says that Meriam's parents are "loving, understanding and forgiving." He says that they have been in touch with Meriam—the princess denies any contact—and insists that "nothing will happen to her" upon her return. As for Johnson, he says, "I don't think at present he's welcome."
But to Meriam, now 19, it would be sore punishment if she were separated from her Marine. "This is my home and my family," she says of her new no-frills life at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, where she lives in a house that is smaller than her bedroom back in Bahrain. That may soon change. On June 13 Johnson was court-martialed and busted from lance corporal to private for forging military papers. Now he plans to petition for a humanitarian discharge from the Marines before his tour ends in 2002. "I think I should be with my wife and protect her," says Johnson, who aspires to become a child psychologist.
His relationship with Meriam began in November 1998, soon after Johnson, a Mormon, was assigned to a security force in Manama. Cruising the town with Marine pals, he spotted Meriam at the Seef Mall. "She was just like an American, in her jeans and stuff," he recalls. "She sounded like a Spice Girl." Meriam, an A student who had been educated at a private girls' school, says she found Johnson "funny, but [acting] kind of dumb."
Though Meriam did not mention her heritage, Johnson figured it out from her name. "It was kinda cool to him," says a friend, ex-Marine Jason Wells, 20. Wary of the attention they might draw, the couple conducted their courtship in glances and whispers. He would stroll behind her in the mall, pull up to exchange a few words, then fall back again. They talked by phone and even ventured out to a movie.
That proved their undoing. As they sat watching The Faculty the following May, they exchanged what would prove to be their first and last kiss for many months to come. Spotted by undercover police, their meeting was reported to Meriam's mother. "She was really angry and crying; she accused me of not being a virgin," says Meriam. "But she didn't tell my father—yet." Instead her mother demanded that Meriam phone Johnson and break it off. "I told him it was over," says Meriam. "I told him then, for the first time, I loved him."
"I went ballistic," says Johnson. "I threw furniture all over the room." Then he began hatching a plan. Over the next six months, as the pair exchanged more than 100 letters, Johnson paid nightly visits to the airport. Noticing that military personnel were rarely stopped, he decided to disguise Meriam as a Marine on leave.
While the couple were aloft, Meriam's father, Sheik Abdullah Al-Khalifa, questioned the absence of the third of his five daughters. Learning from his wife of the illicit romance, he alerted officials. Upon arrival at O'Hare, Meriam was detained, then held at the airport overnight. "[Officials] tried to tell me my boyfriend had left me," says Meriam. "But I knew he never would."
Though a Beverly Hills production company has already offered to put their story on the screen, a happy ending is not assured. For the moment, romance seems to be trumping politics. Their story has received sympathetic coverage in the U.S., and California Sen. Barbara Boxer has written to the INS, urging that they give Meriam a break. Meanwhile, Meriam is learning to drive and do housework. "I've been showing her how to iron," says Frances Johnson, Jason's grandmother. If fate works in their favor, says Meriam, "we'll have a real wedding" next November.
Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles and Liz Corcoran in Bahrain