Washington Post, April 16, 2006

    Lebanon, My Lebanon
    By Anthony Shadid

    MARJAYOUN, Lebanon - There are not too many addresses in Lebanon, in the precise, ZIP Code sense of the United States; they tend to be anecdotal, albeit spoken with authority. Such were the directions to Jdeidet, Marjayoun, a small Christian village tucked in a rugged corner of Lebanon, nestled between the improbable borders of Syria and Israel.

    Go right at the larger-than-life portrait of Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, I was told by my friend Hikmat Farha. At the picture of Musa Sadr, an iconic Shiite leader, turn left, he said. Then pass the posters -- and there are many -- of Shiite militiamen killed while fighting Israel. A checkpoint, Hikmat said, and from there you enter the stretch of Lebanon once occupied by Israel.

    The Israeli occupation that ended here in 2000 cost lives. It forged myths that propelled the fight and created divisions that linger in its wake. In this part of the country, locking the region in the past, isolating it, the occupation preserved the spectacular vistas that elsewhere in Lebanon suffer from relentless quarrying and the scourge of cheap concrete.

    There is nothing masculine about the beauty here. It neither shouts nor declares. It is graceful and gentle -- hills rounded by age and terraces crumbling with time. Olive trees unfurl like a carpet through the wadis, and the Litani River waters sheer valleys. No peak is higher than the other; none is too proud or imposing.

    Jdeidet, Marjayoun sits at the end of one of those wadis, its stone houses, roofed with red tile, climbing a hillside.

    "Marjayoun is beautiful," resident Nabil Samara told me after I arrived that winter day, "but it needs people."

    He could have been more blunt. Picturesque as it is, Marjayoun is dying.

    In this forgotten corner of Lebanon, that wouldn't matter much. Not that many people have even heard of the town. It probably wouldn't matter to me, either, except it was once the home of my grandparents, and I suspect my grandchildren will never see it.

    As Marjayoun withers, so does a part of the Middle East. In a way, the village no longer makes sense, succumbing to the inevitability of urbanization and, more worrisome in the Arab world, the fading of its diversity as identity becomes defined by sect and ethnicity. Once brash, Marjayoun is now lonely; once confident, the village now contemplates its demise.

    The House of Shadid

    A green folder sits in my file cabinet. "Family records," it reads. There are citizenship and marriage certificates; discharge orders; the story of my grandmother's arrival in Oklahoma, written by one of her daughters; and an account of my grandfather's journey from Beirut to Boston aboard a ship called the Latso. They are the tangible records of a century-long wave of migration that has left millions more Lebanese as emigrants than residents of their homeland, populating the world from the Americas to Australia.

    Less certain are the occasional family stories passed down to my generation from Marjayoun. More dreamlike than descriptive, those memories are like the Arabic literature I read when I began studying the language in Cairo 15 years ago. Everything felt hazy back then, probably because I was understanding every fifth word of the text.

    But now I was in Marjayoun, for the first time, with a month to spend. I hoped to turn distant recollections into experience.

    Jabal al-Sheik, known as Mount Hermon in English, was one of those names that had flitted across time, and as I encountered it that first day, I realized it deserved its place in memory. Like a sentry, its snowy peaks keep vigil over the town. On a clear day, they are imposing and vivid, as though you could walk out your door and sit at their foot. On cloudier days, they become more distant, like a mirage. On this day, the peaks reminded me of an old man, the valleys of his face speaking to age, perhaps wisdom.

    Time is a constant in conversation in Marjayoun. It is often expressed through families, known as houses, that casually chart their histories back centuries, sometimes millennia. The houses whose names end in vowels -- Bayt Farha, Bayt Gholmia and Bayt Samara, the family of my grandmother -- trace their origins to the Houran in southern Syria. They are called Hawarna. The families whose names end in consonants -- Bayt Shadid, Bayt Tayyar -- are known as Baladiyya, or local, having been here when the Hawarna arrived 400 or so years ago. Some say they, too, came from the Houran, only earlier. Others point to their origin as Homs, in western Syria. Taken together, both Hawarna and Baladiyya claim descent from Bani Ghassan, an ancient Christian Arab tribe that predates Islam.

    Bayt Shadid was once such a presence in the town that a neighborhood had taken its name from the family, Hayy al-Shadadni. There was an Anis Shadid who was mayor of the town a generation ago. Like most of my family, he was short. He wore a tarbush, the once-popular Ottoman-style hat, and lustily appreciated the water pipe. But now many of the Shadids have left, for Brazil, France and the United States. Their greatest presence today in Marjayoun is in the cemetery I visited soon after arriving.

    No one insults another's family here, at least in their presence. But the Shadids have an unusual reputation. Smart, people would tell me time and again, and they would cite examples of their intellect.

    Then, after befriending me in those first days, they would smile and offer a little more detail. Crazy, they would say, especially so as they got older. They would smile again and offer more -- foul, foul tempers.

    Hikmat, knitting his brow, offered this advice: Don't cross a Shadid.

    Battlefield Amid the Springs

    In Arabic, Marjayoun means "field of springs," and they are plentiful. Al-ain al-kabira is next to the house where I was staying, and al-ain al-saghira is a short distance away. The field below Marjayoun watered by those springs is fertile, even in winter, and the town itself was long prosperous. Farming was frowned upon; wealth came through land or professions. When Beirut was a provincial capital at the turn of the century, Marjayoun was said to rival it in size. It once had four newspapers, and its schools -- with instruction in English and French -- remain the region's envy. For much of its history, it looked beyond modern-day Lebanon to Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Beirut was an afterthought; life revolved around trading with less-remote towns such as Haifa, Damascus and Quneitra nestled in the Golan Heights.

    Dictated by the French in 1923, Lebanon's modern-day borders changed that. Even more disruptive was the creation of Israel in 1948. New borders were drawn with Syria's loss of the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967. Centuries-old trade routes were severed, and land holdings were arbitrarily partitioned. During Lebanon's civil war, which began in 1975, Marjayoun was run by a local militia, somewhat vaingloriously named the South Lebanon Army; Israel later occupied it, turning it into a battlefield with Hezbollah.

    Perhaps 800 people live here today, a shadow of the more than 10,000 who once called it home. Work is scarce -- the young go to Beirut or abroad. House after house is abandoned, including my grandmother's, with two ancient olive trees at its doorstep. Even by Lebanon's standards, Marjayoun is neglected, so much so that many of its remaining Christian residents have a certain nostalgia for the occupation. Not for the Israelis themselves, but for the money they brought.

    Raah al-shekel wa ijit al-mushakil , one friend told me. "The shekel went, and the problems came."

    'Sandbags for the West'

    Life in a village, even without money, has a certain ease. Lunches last hours -- replete with spectacular dishes such as lamb, wild spinach and pickled green tomatoes. Marjayoun has a reputation for drinking -- arak, an anise-flavored liquor, most of all. (One villager was reputed to have finished a gallon of arak when his wife left for a weekend. He started with a glass of olive oil, to brace his stomach.)

    In these days, I held my own. It was during one of those sessions that a friend joked about being tambal , a bum. The story: Someone sprawls out under a date palm. To eat, he opens his mouth. If the date falls on his nose, he misses his meal. If it tumbles near his ear, he goes hungry. He sits, waits, until the date finds its mark.

    Nimr Musallam told me the story. With Hikmat Farha and Fahima, the elderly woman I stayed with, they became my closest friends. Nimr and Hikmat were lifelong khushbush , buddies, even if their politics were as divergent as they could be.

    Nimr spent the 1970s in Oklahoma, with my relatives. He left a part of himself there, and part of Marjayoun has left him behind. A predominantly Greek Orthodox village, Marjayoun in the past mirrored the politics that defined the sect. Before the civil war in 1975, virtually everyone was a leftist, either communist or an adherent of a pan-Syrian group known as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The divisions were fierce; especially after a few drinks, rival partisans sometimes slugged it out in the streets. These days, as elsewhere in the Arab world, ideology has faded; most of the old party cadres have passed away or given up politics.

    Instead, people in Marjayoun now identify themselves in more primordial terms. They are simply Christian, reinforcing their minority status, and for many Christians here, their leader is a former general named Michel Aoun.

    Nimr himself is not politically active, but, a rare exception, he retains the anti-sectarianism of the past.

    As we sat at lunch, he talked about his admiration for Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the senior Shiite Muslim cleric in Lebanon.

    "His goodness reflects Jesus Christ," he told me. "I see Jesus Christ in him. If there's a football game and Fadlallah on television, I'll watch Fadlallah."

    Hikmat is a strapping, proud man. "You must be the tallest man in Marjayoun," I said when I first met him. "The second-tallest," he corrected me. He identified himself forcefully as a Christian, but as an Arab, too, and he is very much an Arab man.

    "I'd never shake your hand and ask you for something," he once told me.

    And in Marjayoun's twilight, the future worried him. The Christians, he said, were disappearing, especially from his village.

    "We are the sandbags for the West," he said.

    We Are All Muslims

    It is Ashura, one of the holiest times of the Shiite calendar, commemorating the death of the prophet Muhammad's grandson in a battle 14 centuries ago. There are no Shiites in Jdeidet, Marjayoun itself, but the chants, soft and rhythmic, drift through the window from neighboring villages. It is a chorus, in a way, a refrain of the region's complexity, of that diversity now disappearing.

    Jdeidet, Marjayoun has one Sunni mosque, and a church for each Christian sect: Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, Greek Catholic and Protestant. Next door is Dibin, a mainly Shiite village. So are nearby Blatt and Khiam, across the valley and home to a once-notorious Israeli-run prison. Kfar Shoba, climbing Jabal al-Sheik, is Sunni, as is Kfar Hammam and Shebaa. Rashayya Fukhar, a long walk, is Orthodox and Maronite. Further away is Hasbaya with its Druze, Muslim and Christian inhabitants.

    Sectarianism tempers everything. Like the chants, it shadows life, a legacy of civil war and more ancient affiliations.

    Nimr told me a story of a Protestant friend whose car was stopped at a Muslim checkpoint during the war. The young militiaman looked at his identification and his religious affiliation. He grew confused.

    "What is a Protestant?" he asked his commander. "Should we kill him?"

    "No, no, let him go," his commander answered. "They're killing Catholics in Ireland."

    Ghassan Tueni, a Lebanese journalist and politician, once told me a line that I found memorable. Every Oriental Christian -- by which he meant those living in the Middle East -- has a part of Islam in him. On that, Nimr and Hikmat were in rare agreement.

    "If you cut me, you see Lebanon," Hikmat told me. Almost as if on cue, the call to prayer from the Sunni mosque began. "You see the prophet Muhammad, you see Imam Ali, you see the cedars. You see everybody in my country in my heart."

    He refilled our scotch glasses and grabbed a piece of paper. Three sons had inherited 17 camels from their father, Hikmat told me. The eldest son was to receive half, the second son a third and the youngest a ninth. The inheritance was indivisible. The sons fought, then took their dispute to Imam Ali, whom Shiites consider the successor to Muhammad. To solve their dispute, Ali gave them one of his own camels, making 18. The oldest son then received nine, the second son six and the youngest two -- in all, 17 camels.

    "Now give me my camel back," Ali told them.

    "How can you not respect such a man?" Hikmat asked me.

    Nimr shook his head. "Imam Ali was a great man," he said, and he quoted two lines in Arabic from Nahj al-Balagha, the collection of Ali's sayings, sermons and speeches, amounting to some of the most eloquent expressions of the Arabic language.

    "This happened 14 centuries ago," Hikmat said.

    A Tree Grows in Marjayoun

    There are two olive trees in front of my grandmother's house, deserted but still beautiful. Both are ancient, no doubt the same ones my grandmother glanced at before she left in the 1920s for Beirut, then America. The most ancient olive trees have enormous trunks, like loosely bundled ropes. Part is covered in bark, the rest is smooth like a scar.

    After a few feet, it ascends into a ball, spreading its branches low to the ground. The leaves are green with a silver tint, almost shiny. They're long and thin, like a feather. Before the eye, they look dull. From a distance, they reflect, as though giving off light. In a land of graceful beauty, the olive tree is the most elegant. Its height never speaks to its age. It is more modest. Its trunk suggests its years by its features, the same furrows of Jabal al-Sheik.

    "This tree is a blessed tree," Nimr said.

    He shrugged, at a loss for words, as though he were asked to explain faith.

    I turned to the task at hand. With a borrowed shovel, I started digging. The soil was old and crusty on top, ravaged today by the elements around it. As I dug further, the rocks turned to pebbles, and even deeper, the soil became rich and fertile. The olive tree cost me $4, and I probably overpaid. Its trunk was no thicker than a pen, and its branches arched no higher than my chest. But set in the hole, 10 feet from the trees my grandmother once knew, I suspected it would speak the same language someday.

    It would stay humble in its age, a vestige of another time.

    I sat in silence afterward on her porch, the snowy peaks on the horizon reflecting the languid Lebanese sun. In the distance I heard birds, then the sound of distant voices. It was a reminder, fleeting no doubt, that Jdeidet, Marjayoun was still alive.

    Anthony Shadid is a Washington Post foreign correspondent based in Beirut.

    Cecil Hourani's response to the above article