Photographer seeks connection with namesakes of his homeland in the U.S.A.

When Fadi BouKaram arrived in Lebanon last month, his first impression of this city was favorable.

“It’s very green and beautiful,” he said. “I also love the small-town feel to it. “

BouKaram is from Lebanon, the country, and his visit to Lebanon, Ore. was his first stop of a five-month photographic tour across the U.S. that will include a stay in each town named Lebanon.

“When I was doing the research, I was realizing different Lebanons around the U.S. have a different pronunciation of it,” BouKaram said. “Even some of them are pronounced Lebānon. In Tennessee they pronounce it Leb-nin, with two syllables.”

He also has a particular interest in the search for seven specific cedar trees that were gifted from Camille Chamoun, president of Lebanon in 1955. One of those trees was given to Ralph Scroggin, Lebanon’s mayor at the time.

In 1955, Scroggin was among a group of representatives Lebanon, USA towns to visit Beirut at the invitation of President Camille Chamoun. Scroggins returned to his hometown two weeks later with memories and the promise of a true Cedar of Lebanon – cedrus libani – shipped from the country.

According to a news article at the time, the tree sapling spent two years in quarantine in Lebanon, Ohio before Scroggin could plant it. The tree was reportedly planted next to Lebanon Community Hospital’s then-new convalescent wing in 1958.

Even though more than 60 years have passed, BouKaram’s pilgrimage to Oregon is something of a personal exploration about connection and identity in a place called Lebanon.

Written on his arm in Latin are these words: “The righteous shall grow like a palm tree; they will multiply like the cedars of Lebanon,” Psalm 92:12 in the Bible.

Although BouKaram doesn’t consider himself religious, he finds identity in the verse because he’s from the Lebanese Republic and carries the nickname Cedrus.

Growing up in Lebanon

BouKaram was born during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. He lived more than a year of his childhood out of a bomb shelter. At 27, he was wounded when a car bomb led to the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The stress from living in a setting of war caused BouKaram to leave the country for a period of time, he said.

“You get these flashbacks you don’t want, so I said I need a break; I don’t want to live in this country anymore.”

He spent four years at San Francisco State University, studying business, then returned home to work in finance.

His artistic side, however, is expressed through the camera lens, BouKaram said.  He said he likes to photograph interesting people, but finds on a deeper level that the camera is a way for him to be able to approach an intimidating subject.

“When you grow up during the war, there’s a bit of a, how do you say? – you’re afraid of people a little bit, you kind of become doubtful of all people,” BouKaram said. “So on a bit of a psychological level, when you put this camera shield between you, you try to get closer to people in a softer way.”

A photographic journey

The idea to undertake a photographic road trip, with stops in all the Lebanons in the U.S., originated by accident.

While attending school in the States, BouKaram was looking for a map of his country online when Lebanon, Penn. popped up in search results.

“I had no idea there was a Lebanon in the U.S., and then, another time, one in Oregon popped up, so I kept wondering if there was two, how many more there are,” he said.Fadi Boukaram 4

Further research led him to more than 50 Lebanon municipalities across the States, 43 of which still exist. This piqued his curiosity, and he filed it away as a project to explore some day.

After graduation, BouKaram returned to Beirut, but the drive to explore a place called Lebanon prompted him to return to the U.S. for his cross-state journey.

BouKaram said he plans to spend a day or so in most of the towns he reaches, but will spend up to a week in the ones that sent representatives to Beirut in 1955. He said he’s interested in learning the history of each Lebanon, but he’s also interested in the people.

“It’s interesting to me to see people who say ‘I’m from Lebanon’ and not have this baggage of ‘I lived through a war,’” he said.

BouKaram will also be searching for the seven cedar trees shipped to each Lebanon from President Chamoun. The Cedar of Lebanon is the country’s national emblem, with its image sewn into its flag. As a result, the tree is an important symbol to the Lebanese that often represents their identity, BouKaram said.

He’s financing his trip from savings, which will likely be depleted by the time he’s done, he said.

“I’m hoping it’s going to be worth it as a life experience, and I think when I’m done I want to do a book,” BouKaram said.

Coming full circle

Lebanon, Ore., the westernmost with that name, was BouKaram’s first stop and it will be his last as well, four months from now.

“I’m still under the small shock of seeing the word ‘Lebanon’ all over the place,” he said during his stay here.

He spent his time searching for the cedar tree, learning it may have been removed during renovations at the hospital.

“I don’t want to say I don’t care,” BouKaram said in response to that news. “It’s the whole search for it that’s interesting; not the actual finding it.”

BouKaram also toured Scroggin’s Mill and visited with Mayor Paul Aziz, who, BouKaram pointed out, has an Arabic name.

“Aziz mean ‘dear ‘ or ‘darling’ in Arabic,” Aziz said. “It is also used as a term of endearment for children.”

Aziz’s grandfather lived in Jerusalem while it was under British Mandate in the 1920s, he said. He emigrated to the U.S. in order to escape persecution as a Greek Orthodox.

BouKaram is expected to return at the beginning of March, and has been invited to do a presentation at The Lobby on Main Street.

Those interested can follow his journey at www.LebanonUSA.com.

– Sarah Brown assisted Fadi BouKaram during his stay in town to search for the cedar tree.