Visit to Lebanons an eye-opener for Lebanese traveler

Editor’s Note: Last November Lebanon Local presented a story about Fadi BouKaram, a photographer from the Republic of Lebanon who was beginning a planned five-month journey to visit every town named Lebanon across the U.S. He started here, in Lebanon.

BouKaram intended to return here, to his starting point, as his last stop, but an unfortunate event, which ended his journey, prevented that, as reported further below.

BouKaram’s journey attracted attention on a national level. He was interviewed on Public Radio International and National Public Radio and is the subject of a recent CNN report about his trip. His story has been picked up by news media in Canada and Europe as well.

Now back in his home country, Lebanon Local connected with him to review his experiences and ask what his next plans will be.

Your trip started out as a journey to explore all Lebanons in the U.S. and see the cedrus libani trees gifted from your country, but you also experienced some unexpected events. Tell us about that.

“It was definitely a unique time for me. I got to experience so many facets of the U.S. within five months. From San Francisco’s Folsom Fair (leather fest), to the inauguration, to the women’s march in Washington, D.C., to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and all the little quiet towns along the way that couldn’t be different enough from the events I mentioned.

“So in that sense I got to discover one of the biggest countries in the world through all its diversity and sub-cultures and it is beyond fascinating to me. But as soon as I got back home, I understood that I’ve only barely sampled what it means to be an American.”

What is the end result of your search for the trees?

“The search for the trees answered many questions, but it also raised some more.

“First, this all started with seven mayors or their representatives visiting Beirut in 1955 and coming back with cedrus libani trees.

“By accident I discovered that Lebanon, S.D. had a tree gifted to them from the Beirut visit, even though they weren’t on the list of seven who were from the Lebanons of Oregon, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Nebraska, and New Hampshire.

“I couldn’t find any information as to why they received a tree, but what I did notice is that their supposed cedar wasn’t a cedar at all; it was a juniper (juniperus virginiana). It was the same genus for the tree sent to Oregon and Nebraska.

“There were two possible explanations to the wrong tree: a) they were sent as such from Beirut, or b) a switch must have occurred in Lebanon, Ohio, where the saplings spent more than two years in a nursery before being sent back to each town.

“I was unable to find any tree in Missouri and New Hampshire because there were no records of where the planting happened. And I didn’t find the tree in Tennessee and Indiana because the original location of where they were planted got redeveloped in the past decades, and there wasn’t any information about whether the trees were chopped or relocated.

“In Ohio, I did find a cedar tree and it was a true cedrus libani. The nursery had closed from 1955 till now, but my question of what happened to the saplings was answered in Illinois. When I went to Lebanon, Ill., I found out that they also had a true cedar, but it wasn’t related to the 1955 trip. Rather, they were gifted a tree in 1967 by the Lebanese embassy.

“I met with Harry Church, the town historian, and he showed me records from that year saying that all the original saplings brought from Lebanon died after being fumigated. So to plant their tree, the Embassy acquired some cedrus saplings in 1967 from the Harvard Arboretum.

“The likely explanation for the fate of the 1955 trees is that, as with the Illinois tree, they all died after being fumigated except one, which Ohio kept to itself. Perhaps not wanting to leave the other towns empty-handed, they sent them ‘juniperus virginiana’ trees, colloquially called ‘red cedar’ in the U.S.”

What would you say is your biggest take-away from the trip?

“My biggest take-away from this trip is that I now know why so many people love road trips and RV life. It’s addictive to the point of wanting to do it over and over again.

“On a more serious note, I got to see the American heartland in a way that is stripped from all stereotypes and pre-conceived notions. The warmth and hospitality I encountered were unparalleled. In more ways than one, I got to see, firsthand, the cultural divide that was often discussed following the presidential elections; rural America is so different from urban America that they are essentially two different countries.”

So what now? Are you going back to a suit and tie job, or do you have other plans? Do you expect you’ll return to the U.S. for another photographic journey?

“I’m back home now and I’m working on editing all the photos and stories I’ve compiled from my trip. The first goal is to publish a book.

“Initially, I had thought I’d work on a photo book, but after so many great encounters I’ve had along the way, I revised my plan and will be working on a book that encompasses both photos and stories. For the time being I’m holding back on getting back to my suit-and-tie job, and that’s because of my second goal.

“As I’ve mentioned, this trip was life-changing for me, to the point where I want to do a repeat. But given that I wouldn’t (be able to) afford to fund it myself, I will be trying to get a job with the Lebanese embassy in Washington, D.C., where they would fund my second trip.

“The purpose of the trip will be different, of course. The 1955 trip to Beirut was originally planned to coincide with the centennial cele-bration of the first Lebanese immigration wave to America. I want to see the history of these first immigrants from 1855 until 1975, those who came to the U.S. before the Lebanese Civil War started.

“According to a local newspaper in Oregon printed in 1958, the tree in Lebanon was planted at the Lebanon Community Hospital (now Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital) near the new convalescent wing built that same year. The fate of the tree is unknown since that time. If the tree remains on the property, the only possible one is a juniper species found near the convalescent wing.”

BouKaram is still processing all he witnessed during his sojourn in the U.S. and writing about his experiences on his blog at LebanonUSA.com.

Following are excerpts from his travelogue, which show the connections he made between each stop and his home country.

Starting out

After BouKaram left Oregon last October, he headed east toward his next stop in Lebanon, S.D.

“Even though I had lived in the United States for four years when I was going to graduate school in San Francisco, I had mostly visited the West and East Coasts, and I wasn’t really prepared for what was waiting for me once I started driving towards the middle of the country,” he wrote.

BouKaram recalled pitch-dark highways and large potholes between Washington and Montana.

“It made me regret all the complaining I’ve done about the roads in Lebanon being a ‘sign’ of the third world. There were even places where there was no phone signal, no station picked up on the radio, and I would drive for hours, disconnected from the world.”

BouKaram said he was apprehensive about talking to strangers, but, by the time he arrived in North Dakota, he knew he needed to get past that.

“My initial hesitation came from all the warnings my friends in San Francisco and on the East Coast gave me. Americans were going to vote for a president in less than two weeks, one of the most contentious elections the country has known. And people in the middle of the country, as opposed to those on the coasts, were mostly pro-Donald Trump conservatives, and the stereotype I was warned about was that they were xenophobes, given their candidate’s inflammatory rhetoric.”

South Dakota

As BouKaram entered South Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe was in the midst of a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline construction that threatened the tribe’s water supply and burial grounds.

“The videos I later saw of the protest were incredibly violent,” he wrote. “The way the demonstrators were being beaten and shot at with rubber bullets would not seem out of place close to home (in the Republic of Lebanon). I was only an hour away from the town, so I decided to head there, perhaps out of the selfish feeling that participating in a civil disobedience movement would be a reminder of Beirut.”

Along the way, signs warned travelers to take a detour, but BouKaram continued until he was stopped by a blockade.

“I still regret not having taken a picture of the soldiers with their weapons blocking the road, but I was still behaving the way I do in Beirut, where one would never point a camera at a policeman or a soldier lest the camera be confiscated and you risk going to jail.”


In Lebanon, Wis., BouKaram parked his RV at a church and stepped out to the welcoming smell of cow manure, a scent that elicited feelings of happiness for him.

He recalled that while growing up in a bomb shelter in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, his family took a reprieve from the intense bombings. They escaped for a week in the peaceful village of Terbol where he and his siblings ran through cow pastures and beet fields, playing games in the ceme-tery and stealing grapes off vines.

Almost three decades later, the odor of manure could still hold a powerful memory for him.

“The smell of cows had a different meaning. It was the smell of being free and unafraid, as opposed to the terror and screams inside a shelter and the stench of gunpowder and charred remains. My road trip across the Lebanons of the U.S. always had another goal other than it being a leisurely photographic adventure. It was a simple search for what it meant when people say ‘I am from Lebanon’ and not know what war or its horrors were. I stayed in that church parking lot — alone — for three days for fear of leaving this peaceful remembrance behind.”

New York

Of all the Lebanons in the U.S., BouKaram said the one in New York reminded him most of home, due to its religious history.

In the late 1700s, Shakers, members of a Christian sect,  settled on Mount Lebanon in New Lebanon, N.Y. In 1975, the Shakers sold part of the land to Sufis, an Islamic order.

“The Sufis, who conjure images of whirling dervishes, similarly to the Shakers and how they danced in circles during their services, believed the grounds were blessed as they felt the Shakers’ kind spirit imbedded in them. Ironically, in that same year, in the other Mount Lebanon in the Middle East, the 15-year Civil War between the Christians and Muslims started.”

BouKaram was invited to attend one of the Sufi meetings, and there he reflected on these parallel cultures.

“There I was, in a Lebanon that calls itself New, sitting among people celebrating religion as a matter that united them instead of dividing,” he wrote.


On the way to – and in – Lebanon, Mich., BouKaram met three people whose stories particularly stuck out to him.

Rob owned a campground, and everything about him, except his bright blue mohawk, seemed fitting for a man in his position. Rob explained to BouKaram that he worked in IT for 27 years, but one night his 4-year-old daughter called to say good night. He yelled at her for interrupting his meeting, and later realized that wasn’t the kind of father he wanted to be. So he quit his job and moved the family to the country.

Tom used to work with impoverished youth in Detroit, but lived with a sense of frustration as he watched the kids spend their parents’ hard-earned money on expensive sneakers, BouKaram wrote. After some prayer, Tom moved his family to Haiti to help farmers grow exportable fruit that helps them rise out of poverty. He returns to the U.S. regularly to find donors of those fruit trees.

Annette also shared her story with BouKaram. Her alcoholic parents were abusive, and she spent the last three years of her childhood in an orphanage. Married young, Annette’s husband was also abusive. One day, Annette heard Kathy Lee Gifford on television say that if you settle for what you have, then you deserve what you have. So she left her husband and changed her life.

Today Annette has a large family of children and grandchildren, and lives with her dog and horses on 80 acres of land.

“The coincidence was not lost on me,” BouKaram wrote. “The three people I had met during those two days were all at one point unsatisfied with the way their life was going. And they made a conscious decision to change it for the better. I found solace in their stories and it made me feel better about the decision I had taken months before to quit my job, leave everything behind, and go about my quest. Rob, Tom, and Annette were happy now. And so was I.”

A rude finale

Nearing the end of his journey, BouKaram was set to complete his trip with one last Lebanon to tour, but a woman altered his course when she stole his RV in Albuquerque, N.M.

She had possession of his vehicle for about 12 hours before police located it in a gated residential community. In that time, BouKaram said, she’d already begun transforming it into her own home and meth lab.

“Everything was upside down,” he wrote. “The dashboard was removed and loose wires were dangling from it. The cabinets were emptied and debris was all over the floor. One of my suitcases was half-filled and lay open on the couch, as if someone was interrupted while filling it up. I gathered all of what I could find into two suitcases and hurried out.”

BouKaram recovered most of his possessions, but lost his souvenirs. In return, he found the thief’s journal and heroin kit.

“Ashley was extremely organized,” he wrote of the woman arrested in the case. “The needles were perfectly lined up next to each other, the inventory of my equipment so methodically written, and strangely, when I had opened the suitcase that was half-filled in the RV the night before, I found that she had folded each of my t-shirts and underwear into neat squares and lined them up in a row next to each other.”

He read her journal entry dated the day of the theft, and learned she lost her motorhome that same day she stole his.

“Despite the awful past days I went through after discovering the theft, I can honestly say that I bear the woman no ill will. Perhaps it’s the thought that she lost her home, that she has a young son, and that she might not have been dealt the best hand in life. Hopefully, she’ll find her way and be rehabilitated in jail.”

While BouKaram did experience a few unfortunate events during his trip, his attitude toward Americans changed, he said. Instead of finding the stereotyped pro-Trump xenophobes he was warned about, BouKaram said he instead discovered people who were kind, regardless of their political beliefs.