Welcome to Lebanon … in the United States

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Photographer Fadi Boukaram spent 5 months visiting places in the United States called Lebanon. His trip in 2016 coincided with President Donald Trump's election campaign.

His trip in 2016 coincided with President Donald Trump's election campaign

CNN  — 

On Valentine’s Day 2005 when Rafic Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated by a huge blast of TNT in Beirut, Fadi Boukaram was just moments from the bomb.

Having already spent part of his childhood living in a Beirut bomb shelter during the final years of the Lebanese Civil War, Boukaram, now 38, expected the explosion, which also killed 21 others, to spark a second conflict. He decided it was time to get out.

That was February. In March he applied to a state university in San Francisco. In April he was accepted. By August he had left.

America was, naturally, a culture shock. “I didn’t expect to go there and see students burning flags, and drawing swastikas on them,” he tells CNN, of the campus protests against the Iraq war.

What did Americans have to be angry about? he thought back then.

Pining for home, Boukaram called up the just-launched Google Maps, intending to fondly gaze at road maps of his country from afar.

He typed in Lebanon. But he wasn’t taken to familiar streets in the Middle East.

Lebanon, Oregon, was the first suggestion.

A  pool game at the Bottoms Up trucker bar in Lebanon, Indiana.

Boukaram stayed on Google Maps for hours. “I found out that there are tons of them,” he says – 47 Lebanons in America, by his calculations. Some ghost towns, others cities, most small communities in Middle America.

Visiting the Lebanons

“I just wanted to visit them,” he says, “find out what they would look like.”

Back in 2007, money was in short supply for him. But by 2016, after nearly a decade of working in banking and as a tech consultant back in Lebanon, he had enough savings to swap “all the boring stuff” for a career in photography and take a year off work.

In October 2016, just as Trump’s campaign trail was sweeping the nation, Boukaram embarked on his own trans-American tour of the Lebanons – his route devised by an algorithm he had programmed to calculate the shortest way round.

Lebanon, Oregon, was his first stop.

“It’s pretty much the only Lebanon they have in west America,” he says.

Initially, the novelty factor was high, with signs for the road to Damascus, games of “Lebanopoly” for sale, and priests who wanted to baptize him all providing entertainment.

“The first Lebanon was the funniest, because you see signs everywhere saying Lebanon this, Lebanon that. But after the first one, the initial joke – the shock factor – wears off.”

Why Lebanon?

The first thing Boukaram would do in any Lebanon was head to the archive or library and pose a key question: why was this American town or city called Lebanon?

The answer, he says, was invariably the same in each place.

“The word Lebanon is mentioned a lot in the Bible,” he explains, “and when the Puritans from England landed in America in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were pretty religious people.”

In the Old Testament, the “cedars of Lebanon” are a recurring theme – “The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree, He will grow like a cedar in Lebanon,” for example, is from Psalm 92:12 – and, indeed, today the Lebanese national flag bears the cedar tree.

“So these people, the settlers, would see a forest and think: ‘Those are cedar trees,’ even though the cedars of Lebanon didn’t exist in the New World. But they’d see the ‘cedars’ and say: ‘Let’s call this place Lebanon’.”

For that reason, most of the Lebanons are clustered in the eastern side of the US, where the Puritans first made their homes.

“By the time they started settling on the West they’d grown less religious and didn’t care that much,” he only half jokes.

Throughout his journey, Boukaram says he didn’t meet a single other Lebanese person, but when he divulged his nationality he was often pleasantly surprised to discover residents of the various Lebanons were aware of his country, and its chequered politics.

“They’d say: ‘Oh you’re the country without a president!’ That was shocking. We hadn’t had a president at that point in two years.”

A cowboy in McDonald's in Lebanon, Kentucky.

Trump towns

When Boukaram embarked on his 17,800-mile road trip, he – like many others – did not think Trump was going to win the presidency. But as Boukaram tracked east crossing state lines in Oregon, Dakota, Wisconsin, the Republican candidate’s campaign gained momentum.

“It changed the whole course of the trip,” he says, referring to the mood not the route.

Boukaram is Catholic – Lebanon being a multi-faith nation, with considerable Islamic and Christian populations – but he is often presumed Muslim, even in other Middle Eastern countries.

In March that year, Trump had famously declared: “I think Islam hates us.”

Given that climate, what was Boukaram’s experience encountering Americans in exactly the sort of Middle American towns, some of them entirely white, that were a stronghold for the property magnate from Queens?

“The people they were talking about in the news, Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables,’ I was actually interested in talking to. My main purpose wasn’t to see if they would discriminate against me. I just wanted to see why (they wanted Trump).”

The Lebanons that Boukaram visited were often simply too small for locals to discriminate against or avoid residents different to themselves, he says. Everyone had to play nice. As such, Boukaram says his ethnicity virtually never brought him any trouble.

“Trump supporters were some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. “In Kentucky, Birmingham Alabama, Kansas, I was bought drinks and dinner.”

Take Lebanon, South Dakota. Population 47.

“They have one bar and it’s owned by the municipality. Every Thursday they go there to play darts, apart from two people who are under 18. There are three barmaids, all in their 70s. As soon as I walked in, one barmaid yelled, ‘Hey hey, stop, this is Fadi!’ Everybody yelled, ‘Hey!’ like in an episode of ‘Cheers’.”

Boukaram had been in town four days.

As to why people voted Trump, it was understandable, he says.

“I went to Nebraska where it’s all farming communities that are being taken over by big agri companies. Farmers all have second jobs because farming doesn’t make money.

“Or in Lebanon, Virginia, it was people who used to work in coal, who had been out of a job for years.

“So even though Trump promised them things he’ll never be able to do – coal isn’t coming back – he was the only one who promised them anything.”

Islam, he says, was beside the point.

Seeking the cedar trees

While his main mission was to capture America’s Lebanons on camera, Boukaram also had another assignment.

In 1955, the then Lebanese President Camille Chamoun invited delegates from seven towns called Lebanon – those in Oregon, Nebraska, Indiana, Tennessee, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Ohio – to visit his country for two weeks. As a parting gift, Boukaram says, each visitor was given a cedar tree sapling.

Boukaram wanted to locate the trees, and so went through the local newspaper microfiche archives from 1955 to 1958 in each of these towns looking for reports about the gifts, apart from in Nebraska where he met a woman who had been present at the planting ceremony.

In the end, he was only able to locate one, in Ohio, where all the saplings had initially been sent.

“When you import trees they have to be fumigated and then stay in a nursery for a couple of years,” he explains. All but one of the trees died in the nursery in Ohio. The other towns were sent a replacement Virginia juniper tree, also referred to as a red cedar.

That single surviving cedar tree still stands today. A symbol of friendship between Lebanon, a country of 4.3 million people in the Middle East, and the United States, a global powerhouse with a population of 321 million in the West.

For Fadi, though, the two places today have much in common.

“In rural America, all the villages reminded me so much of the villages we have in Lebanon. In Beirut and other big cities, people are individualist.

“But the sense of community in the rural Lebanons was the same as the village where I grew up.”