Aug 20, 2020

Lebanon, USA

This is a story of a road trip. After a particularly traumatic Valentine's Day, Fadi Boukaram was surfing google maps and noticed that there was a town called Lebanon... in Oregon. Being Lebanese himself, he wondered, how many Lebanons exist in the US? The answer: 47. Thus began his journey to visit them all and find an America he'd never expected, and the homeland he'd been searching for all along.

This episode was made in collaboration with Kerning Cultures, a podcast that tells stories from the Middle East and North Africa.  The original "Lebanon USA" story was reported by Alex Atack with editorial support from Bella Ibrahim, Dana Ballout, Zeina Dowidar, and Hebah Fisher. Original sound design by Alex Atack. 

The new update of the story was produced and reported by Shima Oliaee. 

We had original music by Thomas Koner and Jad Atoui.

Be sure to check out Kerning Cultures at their website www.kerningcultures.com, instagram @kerningcultures, or twitter @kerningcultures. You can read more about Fadi’s trips and see his photographs at lebanonusa.com or on his Instagram at @lebanonusa.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate. 

Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this episode, we inaccurately described a grain elevator. We have updated the audio to reflect the correction.

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If you would like to donate to Beirut at this time, we have links here (from NYT):

The Lebanese Red Cross dispatches every ambulance from North Lebanon, Bekaa, and South Lebanon to Beirut to treat the wounded and help in search-and-rescue operations. You can make a contribution here

The United Nations’ World Food Program provides food to people displaced or made homeless after the blast. Lebanon imports nearly 85% of its food, and the port of Beirut, the epicenter of the explosion, played a central role in that supply chain. With the port now severely damaged, food prices are likely to be beyond the reach of many. You can donate here.

The NGO Humanity and Inclusion has 100 workers in Lebanon, including physical therapists, psychologists and social workers. They are focusing on post-surgical therapy in Beirut following the explosion. You can make a contribution here.

International Medical Corps is deploying medical units and will provide mental health care to those affected in Lebanon. The humanitarian aid organization also provides health services to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and vulnerable Lebanese. You can donate here.

Islamic Relief, which specializes in food aid and emergency response, is helping to put a supply chain in place for emergency aid in Beirut. You can donate here.

Save the Children have launched a Lebanon’s children relief fund, to which you can donate here.

UNICEF, the United Nations agency specializing in aid to children, is providing medical and vaccine supplies in Beirut, and supplying drinking water to rescue workers at the Beirut port. Its on-the-ground team is also counseling children traumatized by the blast. You can donate here.

Impact Lebanon, a nonprofit organization, has set up a crowdfunding campaign to help organizations on the ground, and is helping to share information about people still missing after the explosion. The group had raised over $3 million as of Wednesday and donated the first $100,000 to the Lebanese Red Cross.

The health care organization Project HOPE is bringing medical supplies and protective gear to Beirut and assisting the authorities on the ground. A donation page is available here.

Over 300,000 people in Beirut were displaced from their homes by the explosion. Baytna Baytak, a charity that provided free housing to health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic, is now raising funds with Impact Lebanon to shelter those who have been displaced.

For those in Beirut, here is a list of urgent blood needs. Several social media accounts have also been set up to help locate victims.

 

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Unnamed Speaker: Our reading today incoming from Psalm 92:12. "The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God."

Fadi: I have a brother called Jad, by the way.

Jad: No way.

Fadi: Yes, and he's a stand-up comedian and actually pretty famous in Lebanon.

Jad: What's his name?

Fadi: Jad Boukaram.

Jad: Oh, wow. I got to look him up.

Fadi: He has his like--

Fadi: He's on a TV show. His handle on all the social media has always been Omyjad because its oh my God.

Jad: Yes, I get it. This is Radiolab, I'm Jad Abumrad. We start this episode, just for kicks, with two Jads, but really it's about 47 Lebanons. Lebanon, of course, Lebanon the one on the country has been in the news a lot recently in the most heartbreaking way.

Newscaster: On this Tuesday night an enormous explosion blasts through Beirut. Horrific disaster, rubble everywhere. Buildings blasted open. The Red Cross has put out an urgent appeal for blood donors.

Jad: My family comes from Lebanon and to be Lebanese is, I don't know, to be in a constant state of vertigo where you never know when the floor's going to drop out from under you.

Newscaster: Lebanon has a history of conflict and of bombings, but the scale of this is like nothing else.

Jad: As we were watching this latest horror unfold, we happen to be simultaneously working on a story about Lebanon, a very different story that, in its own way, kind of explores that feeling of dislocation, and it actually wasn't our story, to begin with. A year ago I was listening to this wonderful podcast.

Hebah Fisher: I am Hebah Fisher, and you're listening to Kerning Cultures.

Jad: Called Kerning Cultures.

Hebah: Radio documentaries from the Middle East.

Jad: And heard a story called Lebanon USA.

Hebah: In 2005, a Lebanese man--

Jad: I immediately called Hebah Fisher, who runs the podcast, and asked if we could air it too. She very graciously said yes and the main character of the story.

Fadi: My name is Fadi Boukarram.

Jad: Is the guy with a brother named Jad.

Fadi: I'm a photographer.

Jad: You also work in finance, right?

Fadi: Yes, I do US tax law. [laughs]

Jad: It's a growth industry or--

Fadi: Yes, but I'm on the good side, not the bad side. I help the IRS catch people who don't pay their taxes. [laughs]

Jad: Oh, right on, right on. Now Fadi's story, the one I heard on Kerning Cultures, the one that we're going to quote from now, deals with a road trip, a road trip that, frankly, I've been wanting to do my whole life but have never gotten around to but that he actually did, and it began, for him, on an ordinary day in Beirut about 15 years ago with an incident that eerily mirrors recent news.

Fadi: I was in my office.

Jad: You were working.

Fadi: Yes, I was working. It was in the [unintelligible] area by the beach.

Jad: This is downtown Beirut.

Fadi: Yes, it was there. Even though it took like half a second, that whole thing, but in my mind, it always plays in slow motion.

Jad: He says he was sitting in his office, third floor of the building, just typing away at his computer when all of a sudden--

Fadi: The electricity went off and then you started feeling the earth, the floor rattling, and then I found myself just thrown off my chair and just landed on the other side of the office. Then when I got there, I remember it's like, "Oh crap, there's glass on my face." I remember feeling that blood is dripping on my neck and I'm thinking, "Oh my God, please let it not be my head." The only reason I was thinking that is that I hate going to the doctor to get sutured. When I feel, I was like, "Oh, thank God, it was only my ear that was slit, not my head." That's the kind of thing you think. [laughs]

Jad: Before the bomb went off, were you looking out the window and seeing the-- I don't even know, what was happening outside?

Fadi: His car was just passing. That's it.

Jad: This was February 14th, 2005 when the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated. His car had been driving a few blocks away from Fadi's office.

Fadi: It wasn't--

Jad: You didn't even know? You didn't even know.

Fadi: No, no, I had no idea. No, no. His car was passing. Apparently, there was a hotel where some guy was standing with a remote thing. They were waiting for him to pass through the spot and then boom.

Jad: Whoa. Oh my gosh. That was the moment for you where you thought, "I need a change"?

Fadi: Yes, I needed a break.

Jad: Fadi had basically grown up during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 15 years, destroyed the country many times over.

Fadi: When I applied to university, I didn't even care what I was applying for. I applied for a master's in math, a master's in French literature. These are the things that didn't require any standardized tests because there was no time because I needed to get out as soon as possible. The assassination happened on Valentine's Day, I still remember that, 2005. By March, I had applied, by August, I was accepted, September I was out.

Jad: Wow, so you really were just hitting the eject button, basically.

Fadi: Yes.

Jad: Fadi moved to San Francisco, goes to school, studying, first, math, and then business. A few years pass, that memory of Valentine's Day 2005 hovers over him. One day, he finally decides to stare at it. This is really the sort of genesis moment. He decides to think like, "What exactly happened that day?" He heads to Google and starts doing some searches.

Fadi: I was looking for the exact spot where the prime minister was assassinated because Street View was new, relatively speaking. I'm talking 2007, 2006. I just wanted to see how the area looked from above and where my office was, and all that.

Jad: I see.

Fadi: I was typing Lebanon, and it said Oregon. It's like [crosstalk]

Jad: Oh, it autocompleted? It autocompleted Lebanon, Oregon?

Fadi: Yes.

Jad: That must have been weird.

Fadi: My first idea I was like, "Why the hell would they call their place Lebanon?" [laughs] I just thought it was funny. I had no idea. It's was like, "Why would there be a Lebanon outside my Lebanon?"

Jad: His next thought was, "Are there more than just this one in Oregon?"

Fadi: I found a database of all the names of towns in the US. I downloaded it and did some data mining or whatever you call it. Then there was over 40 of them. It's like, "Jeez."

Jad: He found 47 Lebanons in the United States.

Fadi: Lebanon Oregon, Lebanon Ohio, Lebanon South Dakota, Lebanon Kansas, Lebanon Nebraska, Lebanon Kentucky, Lebanon Junction Kentucky, Lebanon New York, New Lebanon New York, Lebanon Waupaca County Wisconsin, Lebanon Connecticut, Lebanon Indiana, Lebanon Tennessee.

Jad: Wait, Tennessee, I grew up next to Lebanon Tennessee or Lebanon, as they say. I always thought some Lebanese must have just settled there at some point and just decided to call the town that, but I know that's not true. Why are there so many American towns named Lebanon?

Fadi: Oh, Bible. [chuckles] One word, Bible.

Jad: Is it that simple?

Fadi: Yes. For most of them, they were people who were expanding West.

Jad: This is in the late 1800s, mostly?

Fadi: From East expanding West. They would cross areas that they thought were very green. It would remind them of passages within the Bible, Old Testament. "The righteous shall grow like a palm tree, they will multiply like the cedars of Lebanon." They would see trees and in their minds, it's like, "Oh, these are the cedars of Lebanon." They would call the place Lebanon.

Jad: Anycase, Fadi downloads this list.

Fadi: When I downloaded all the names, I thought, well, that'd be a nice trip to do someday when I retire. It all kept in the back of my mind. I was like, "I'll do it someday." Then I came back to Lebanon, went to work. Then one time, Christmas 2015, I was in Baghdad giving a workshop to the Central Bank of Iraq.

Jad: What? Wait, 2015?

Fadi: Yes.

Jad: What were you talking to the Bank of Baghdad in 2015 about?

Fadi: How to implement US tax laws. [laughter]

Jad: Apparently, they needed to know that for some reason.

Fadi: That's not the point. The point is, the day that I was going there, I had to be with bodyguards who had AK47s in an armored car. There were so many, what do you call that, roadblocks, and someone had tried to blow himself up at the entrance of the bank. Again, this is like you get flashbacks and it's like, "Oh, okay." I guess maybe that's why they asked me to provide a proof of life before going to Iraq."

Jad: Proof of life, by the way, is where you have to list every identifying mark on your body.

Fadi: Just in case they have to recuperate the body in case I get killed. After that, I came back, quit my job. I said, "I want to do this trip."

Jad: Oh, it's like similar to the first one?

Fadi: Yes.

Jad: Oh, wow. I had no idea, but that actually answers one of my big questions I wanted to ask you, which is why the [censored] would you go to every Lebanon in America? It's an amazing idea, but suddenly, I understand, I get it. It's almost like-- I'm going to say a thing and you can tell me if I'm [censored] here. It's almost like you left the country that made you, and you were looking for it elsewhere. Is that stupid to say or is that [crosstalk]

Fadi: That is not stupid at all. It's very correct, actually. It's just asking the question, what does it feel like you from this style called Lebanon? What does it feel like you being from Lebanon, who does not know what war is, who does not know what a bomb shelter is?

Jad: Okay. That was all by way of introducing the story. Now I want to throw to the original piece that ran on Kerning Cultures. Thank you again to Hebah and the entire team over there. The story was produced by Alex Ateck. He interviewed Fadi for this original story when Fadi was living in Beirut, they met at his apartment, and we'll just pick up the story there.

Alex Ateck: Just so I can get some levels, can you tell me what you did today?

Fadi: I did nothing today, I had breakfast, two [unintelligible], that's it.

Alex: When Fadi came up with the idea for this trip, his friends and his family were torn as to whether or not it was even a good idea for him to do it. They weren't sure if they wanted him to give up his life and his work in Lebanon to spend months on the road driving around a country where he knew next to nobody.

Fadi: I had two sets of friends, like the friends of the finance world and the friends of the photography world. The friends of the photography world were always like, "Yes, do it." The friends of the finance world and the family and all that thought that I pretty much lost my mind.

Alex: He planned his route anyway. [music]

Fadi: Hello. My name is Fadi and I'm a photographer from Lebanon, the country in the Middle East.

Alex: This is him on his blog.

Fadi: I've flown all the way from Bagels to the United States to take a road trip to photograph and discover all the towns, cities, and villages called Lebanon in America. There's over 40 of them.

Alex: The route was to stop at all 47 Lebanons, starting in Seattle Washington, where he rented an old camper from a guy he met on the internet.

Fadi: This is the entrance of the RV from the side, where this would be where the living quarters are. What do you call it? It was like it's a motorhome. There's a couch there. It had a dinette table, a stove with four burners that had an oven and a microwave, and a shower. The driver's seat, this is where I'd be driving it, and right on top is where the bed is.

Alex: You plan it all. I have this super romantic idea in my head driving and it's beautiful.

Fadi: It's just beautiful, driving on the road and the wide-open space. It's just great.

Alex: Did you have a soundtrack?

[00:13:20] Fadi: I listen to classical music a lot and to bluegrass country, Celtic. I don't know, it's a bit varied, what I listened to, but I got to say that I didn't get to listen to a lot of that often because large parts of the road, I did not have an internet connection. I had to listen to my thoughts a lot, instead of the radio. I couldn't even use Google Maps, or I had to use an actual paper map because that's the only thing I get.

Jad: Fadi told Alex that those first two weeks, driving from Seattle to Lebanon, North Dakota, sleeping in Walmart parking lots, only really seeing people at gas stations, if that, totally upended his idea of America.

Fadi: My idea of the US was New York, San Francisco, and whatever other towns, it was just through movies. I'd see town after town where all the stores are boarded up, places are for sale, foreclosed houses. It was really, really sad. You find pockets within the US that are more third-world than any third-world country.

Alex: His plan was quite simple. He wanted to just show up in each of these Lebanons and take pictures of the landscapes and the people that he found along the way. Fadi: This photo was taken on the road and it was one of the [crosstalk]

Jad: Some of the pictures are really cool, by the way, you see bales of hay at sunset, a guy in a black cowboy hat asleep at a McDonald's. Fadi: This photo, the reason why I like it is that because it's like two American cliches in one: one, it's a cowboy and two, he's in a McDonald's.

Jad: In another picture, you see a dead deer with its eyes open, hanging from a tree strung up from its hind legs and just in someone's yard.

Fadi: This photo, after posting it, I understood a lot about the division between rural America and urban America.

Jad: Very similar story to Lebanon, the country, where you have central Beirut very glitzy, but then just a few miles away, people in the mountains living without electricity. In any case, his first stop, Lebanon, North Dakota, population 100 people-ish, streets were empty, unpaved. He spoke with a Norwegian farmer, took pictures of the cemetery.

Fadi: I left on that same day because there was nothing.

Alex: It was such a small town.

Fadi: Lebanon, South Dakota-

Jad: Just four hours south.

Fadi: -even though it's tiny, it has 26 people, but over there, I went to the library, and I did research about the town and all that. It was the librarian who told me, "Go ask for Hazel in the Long Branch Saloon." This could be a line out of a movie, seriously. I went in and went to the Long Branch Saloon. It's all wood on the inside. It looks like it was built a long, long time ago. It had a pool table, it had a jukebox and a lot of photographs behind the bar, and all that. It was not a tiny place, 30, 40 people could easily fit in there. Hazel is the bartender, and she's in her 70s. At the time I was hungry, so I thought, can I order something to eat? She said, "Go to the back of the bar, open the freezer, bring me a frozen pizza. Let me heat it for you."

Alex: We called The Long Branch, but Hazel wasn't in that day, so we spoke to her colleague, Linda, instead. [phone ringing]

Linda: Lebanon Bar, this is Linda.

Alex: Hi, is this the Long Branch Saloon?

Linda: Yes, it is.

Alex: Hi, I'm calling, I have a kind of unusual request-- Linda is one of three women who work at the Long Branch Saloon in Lebanon, South Dakota. It's a town of less than 50 people, so this is the only bar in town. I called them up to ask if they remembered Fadi.

Linda: I remember him.

Alex: Oh. you do?

Linda: I had my picture taken with him.

Alex: When I called, it was around 9:30 in the morning for them, and she was just starting her day, but she had some time so she started telling me more about Lebanon, South Dakota.

Linda: We're a very small town. There's only about 39 people that live here, we have a bar called The Long Branch, and we also have an elevator in town.

Alex: The elevators she's talking about isn't the kind of elevator you're thinking of, she means a high-tech piece of farming machinery that digs into the ground and brings grain up from the depths of the earth.

Linda: We are known for the first outdoor swimming pool built in South Dakota, it was built in 1926. We're a quiet, little town. Fabio was here.

Alex: I know she says Fabio here, but she means Fadi.

Linda: He came, we told him to come in on a Wednesday night, we have dart league on Wednesday night, so there's usually about 24 of us people around here.

Alex: If you were to stand out, if you were to walk through the front door of the Long Branch now, what do you see?

Linda: I'm here all by myself right now. I usually have a couple of guys that come in for coffee, I open up at nine o'clock and put the coffee on, and I haven't seen any cars go down the street this morning so far, it's been quiet in town.

Alex: How many cars would you say go by on an average day?

Linda: On an average day? I don't know. Probably 10. [music] I moved here in 72, but I lived in Gettysburg before that, and that was just 10 miles west of here. I raised my kids here in town. Back in 1972, there was about 134 people that lived here, but as the kids all growed up and went away to school and college and stuff, now it's just a group of us old-timers here. [chuckles] First, I worked in the bar here for about 43 years, so I've gotten to know a lot of people from all the different towns around here. We're called where friendly people meet, that's our model, where friendly people meet. People have told us they enjoy coming to our little bar because of us because I know we're getting up in age, 75, 73, 71 years old. I just had somebody here a month ago that says, "What are they going to do with the Long Branch when you girls all quit working there?" I'm like, "I don't know because we've been here forever."

Alex: Is that a common problem in your Lebanon, that young people move away to bigger cities or towns?

Linda: Yes, when my three girls got out of high school, I just basically told them, "You better move to a bigger town because there's no opportunity here to make a career of anything." My kids did move to a bigger town.

Alex: Does it make you feel sad that so many young people are leaving?

Linda: Yes, it does. I would say in 50 years, we're not even going to be a little town anymore, I don't think.

Alex: Back to that moment where Fadi is sitting eating a frozen pizza across the bar from Hazel in Lebanon, South Dakota, the two were talking and then Fadi made this amazing discovery.

Fadi: I sat in and I was talking to her and she said, "Where are you from?" I said, "From Lebanon." As I said Lebanon, her eyes just lit up. She said, "You got to get out of that bar now and I go across the street until you find the tree and you'll know what I'm talking about," which I did, and that's where they had a huge sign that says, "Cedar of Lebanon, gift from the country of Lebanon to Lebanon, South Dakota." There was a big tree next to it, and it was not a cedar tree, it was a Juniper tree. This is where the story gets interesting.

Alex: Thus begins a bit of a detective story. First, let me explain a little bit about what's going on here. Cedar trees are very easy to recognize, at least for Lebanese people. They are the symbol of Lebanon. You see cedar trees on the flag that is burning in protests right now. They are on passports, but like everything in Lebanon, this thing that is so much a part of the country is barely there anymore. For thousands of years, various empires would march into Lebanon and take the cedars. The Romans used the cedars to build their walls. The Sumerians and Babylonians and Egyptians would make coffins out of cedar trees because they felt the wood would take them into the afterlife. As for the mystery of that specific Juniper tree in Lebanon, South Dakota that was posing as a cedar, here's what Fadi quickly discovered. You have a lot of Lebanese in America starting in about 1880 and then moving through to the 1920s, you had several hundred thousand Lebanese in America. Jumping forward a bit, 1955, in Lebanon, the country, you had a prime minister, Camille Shamoun, who was a Christian guy. He saw Lebanon as a real bridge between East and West. He heard about all of these Lebanon USAs and he decided to reach out and invite seven mayors of the various Lebanons of the US to come to Lebanon, the country, and go on a tour.

Fadi: They came, they spent two weeks here, seven of them.

Alex: They visited the presidential mansion, the Ancient Ruins, they drove up the famous Kadisha Gorge to see the cedars of God, the few that remain.

Fadi: After two weeks, the First Lady, Zelfa Chamoun gave each of them a sapling of the Lebanese cedar to take back to their own towns to plant them.

Alex: Which brings us back to Fadi in 2016 standing in front of this Juniper tree that was labeled as a cedar tree gift from the country of Lebanon in 1955. While he was standing in front of it, he knew straight away that this was not a cedar of Lebanon. He started researching where this mixup came from. [music]

Fadi: I had to do a lot of digging in the archives of The Daily Star and Mahad and L'Orient Le Jour in Lebanon, all these newspapers. Then even after I went to the US, I started going from library to library in these places, going through the microfiche.

Alex: One of those machines in libraries that archives old newspapers as tiny slides.

Fadi: The person who was supposed to take care of the cedar trees was a guy called Charles Harris from Lebanon, Nebraska.

Alex: Who wasn't a town mayor himself, actually. He was just a representative for the town of Lebanon, Nebraska.

Fadi: The mayor of Lebanon, Nebraska was an older guy. He couldn't make the trip himself. He sent a representative instead, who was Charles Harris, and he was just 23 years old. He was a young guy.

Alex: He was 24, actually, but he was also an agronomy student, which is basically the study of plants and soil. I suppose the rest of the town mayors thought, "Okay, we'll give these saplings to this guy. He'll do whatever he needs to do with them to adapt them to the US climate, and we'll plant them back in the US when it's done." That didn't happen.

Fadi: This is where the dark part of the history comes in. Charles Harris did not go to Lebanon, Nebraska after Beirut. He decided to go to Jerusalem first because it was close to Easter and he wants to do a pilgrimage of the Holy land and he got killed there.

Alex: Charles Harris was killed by a Jordanian border guard. Now, the circumstances around his death are a little bit lost in time, but another New York Times article from 1955 says "Charles B. Harris of Lebanon, Nebraska was killed today in the Jerusalem no man's land by a Jordanian guard's rifle shot, a Jordanian century shouted a warning, Mr. Harris apparently continued on his way, a shot from the guard killed him."

Fadi: Because he got killed there, the trees, someone needed to take care of them, so they shipped them to Lebanon, Ohio instead. At the nursery in Lebanon, Ohio, they fumigated them.

Alex: To make sure they don't carry any pests or diseases that are going to infect other trees in the area.

Fadi: As they fumigated them, six of the seven died, only one survived and they kept it, but what they did was instead of telling the other towns that the trees died, they sent them different species of trees and told them that this was a cedar tree, [background noise] but I didn't have the heart to tell them, by the way. They were proud of it. In any case, I went back to the bar and Hazel told me "You can come back in the evening because people could come in, you'll see more people."

Alex: He went back that evening and played darts with some of the friendly folks from Lebanon, South Dakota and left in the morning for his next Lebanon. He continued this trip over the winter, visiting 46 Lebanons over the next four months, and then it was time to come back home to Beirut, back home to reality.

Fadi: Long story short, after the first trip, I came back to Lebanon, my Lebanon. When I was doing the trip, I had quit my day job to focus on photography, but then that kind of life isn't very sustainable, financially speaking. I was like, okay, maybe I should just take off my hat and go back to my old stuff.

Jad: Fadi took a job, teaching photojournalism, wasn't really sure what he should be doing, where he should be living, whether in Lebanon or the country or over in America. He says he kind of felt a little free-floating.

Alex: After he'd been back a few months, he got this text message from somebody in Lebanon, Nebraska. [storm sounds]

Jad: Suddenly, the adventure took a whole new turn, that's after the break.

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Jad: This is Radiolab I'm Jad Abumrad. Back to our story from producer Alex Ateck and the podcast Kerning Cultures. This is a story about a road trip from Lebanon, the country, to 47 Lebanon USAs and then back. When we left Fadi, he was in Beirut not quite sure what to do with his life. When he gets a text message, several, actually, from people he'd met in Lebanon, Nebraska.

Fadi: Lebanon, Nebraska, they didn't have a real cedar tree, they had a Juniper tree, but still, they thought it was a cedar from Lebanon, and it was a big tree, and they decorated it on Christmas because it was by the town hall. A few months after I came back, people started sending me photos of the tree, and it got hit by lightning and split in half. I was like, "I feel like there's a curse to me [laughs] or something."

Alex: Oh my God. This is after you visited?

Fadi: After I visited, yes.

Alex: This tree had been there for what--

Fadi: 60 years.

Alex: And then just shortly after you visited--

Fadi: Yes. It wasn't something like it died. It had to be something like biblical. [laugh]

Alex: People start sending you messages with the picture of the tree?

Fadi: Yes. Asking if I could replace it, though. [music]

Alex: A plan started to formulate in the back of his mind. "What if I can go back around America and repay all of these towns in some small way, like gifting them real Cedars of Lebanon?" [music]

Fadi: I knew that I couldn't take the cedars from Lebanon because they were going to be fumigated again.

Alex: That takes like two years.

Fadi: Instead, I found a nursery in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to keep up with the biblical thing. A Lebanese-American guy had brought the seeds from here but had grown the saplings over there.

Bass Samaan: He actually reached out to me first. I was following his tour, but then he reached out to me. I was like, "Oh, I didn't know who you are."

Alex: I know the line, isn't great here, but this is Bass Samaan, who runs a tree nursery in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Bass: I work actually for Apple. That's my full-time job. I also operate a nursery called Trees of Joy. I grow trees that are not very common to this part of the world.

Alex: As you might expect, he's also an encyclopedia on Cedars of Lebanon.

Bass: There's even a Cedar of Lebanon tree in the White House, in Washington, DC.

Alex: No way. How did that come to be, though?

Bass: That was in the '70s, by Jimmy Carter. He planted that tree, along with a group of Lebanese people in the late '70s.

Alex: When Fadi reached out with this strange idea, he was down to help.

Bass: It's not for the money that I wanted to be involved in something like that. I adored the cedar trees. I love nature and seeing something that started as a seed in my nursery, it's like a baby. It's like having a baby that matures into a big man and goes to college and has a degree in something and has the assumption accomplished. Seeing the seed that started out in my greenhouse to be planted out in a city called Lebanon is really, really nice.

Alex: I should say, we're not just talking about shipping off a few envelopes of seeds here, which is what I initially thought. When you say post the tree, what are you posting? Is it like a seed, or what am I imagining here?

Bass: It's a grown tree in a pot with soil and physically grown and stuff. The trees I sent them, they were already about four years old.

Alex: In the autumn of 2018, Fadi planned his second trip around the US, two years after his first trip, this time with the goal to replant eight Lebanese Cedars in the towns that Charles Harris' saplings had never made it to.

Fadi: Wherever I go into any of these Lebanon's, he'd ship me the tree to the closest post office, and that's where we'd plant them.

Alex: On this trip, he ended up again in Lebanon, South Dakota. This is the small town of under 50 people where he first discovered the mislabeled cedar trees, but he couldn't plant an actual Lebanese Cedar here.

Fadi: For one simple reason is that the weather in Lebanon, South Dakota would not allow an actual cedar tree from Lebanon to live. It was one of my favorite places to go to, Lebanon, South Dakota. I did go back on this trip, and I went there because it was close to my birthday, and I wanted to spend my birthday at the Long Branch Saloon. I did not do that because my van broke down somewhere else. I was a few days late, but as I got there, I went into the bar and Jan was there.

Alex: Jan, by the way, is someone else who works at Long Branch Saloon.

Fadi: I just was wondering if she's going to remember me from two years ago. The first thing she tells me, not, hello, not anything, she said, "Where have you been?" That was the first question. I was like, "Do you remember me?" It's like, "Yes, I remember, you were supposed to be here a few days ago."

Alex: It turns out his aunt who lives in San Francisco knew he'd roughly be spending his birthday in Lebanon, South Dakota. She called the bar, the Long Branch Saloon, to let them know and mailed a tray of baklava to the Long Branch for all of them to eat.

Fadi: She said, "You got to come back tonight." I came back tonight, and it was Jan and Jim, and they were playing and they played for me, yes. [music]

Linda: He came in and we had a little party for him.

Alex: This is Linda from the Long Branch Saloon again.

Linda: Jimmick Roberts, he played the guitar, and Jan played the accordion. We had music and Fabio was taking pictures of them while they were playing. We had a group picture with him, with all the people in the bar that night. [music]

Alex: After spending his birthday in Lebanon, South Dakota, he continued on his trip. One of his next stops was Lebanon, Missouri.

Fadi: I will admit that I teared up a little bit when Mayor of Lebanon, Missouri came, and he presented to me with a proclamation of friendship, an official one, between their town and our country.

Alex: This is the proclamation that Mayor Jared Carr, of Lebanon, Missouri signed on that day.

Shima Oliaee: The city of Lebanon and communities across America share a bond with the country of Lebanon, not only through name but friendship. Americans have growing social, cultural, and economic ties to the global community as we seek to communicate with and understand our partners from different language and cultural backgrounds.

Fadi: It was something-- The words in it, it was touching.

Shima: Though thousands of miles may separate our countries, our communities are bonded and friendship and a historic connection dating back to 1955.

Alex: The mayor actually designated an entire day to this, September 20th in Lebanon, Missouri is now the Day of Friendship between the Republic of Lebanon and the town of Lebanon, Missouri. Over these four months, Fadi planted eight trees in eight different Lebanons, and in some way that brings us full circle.

Jad: I'm just curious, you started off your journey by leaving, whatever it was you're looking for, do you feel like you've found it?

Fadi: You just reminded me of a thing, which is when I was in Lebanon, Wisconsin, one of the Lebanons in Wisconsin because there's still Lebanon Waupaca County, Wisconsin, it had no people at all, but I was going to sleep for the night and I'm trying to find a place to sleep because I was in a camper van, I was in an RV. I remember seeing there was a church parking lot, so I thought okay, I'll sleep there and then the next morning when I woke up and I remember getting out and it was misty, and you could smell the smell cow manure. For a lot of people that idea of cow manure is not a very pleasant thing, but for me, it was just so good to smell that, it triggered this whole memory thing from when I was growing up because at one point during the Civil War, it was so messed because we're in the bomb shelter and all that, our neighbors who are from the village -- from a village and the Beqaa -- Biqâ called Tirbun. They said, "Okay, how about we go there, just spend some time there because there's not a lot of bombing there?" I remember, when we went there, it was just a village and we were in the fields the whole day smelling cow manure the whole time, but for someone who had been cooped up in a bomb shelter and now who's just running freely, it just triggered this whole idea of cow manure being freedom. I remember when I walked out of that RV and I smelled that, it felt like oh my God, it's like that moment was-- "Powerful" is a bit of an overused word, but it was a strong moment and enough of a strong moment for me that I slept in that same spot without moving for three days.

Jad: No kidding?

Fadi: Yes, because it just transports you back to this good time. It's like I didn't want to move, it was just a happy time. [music]

Jad: Let me offer a postscript to the story. I mentioned that I grew up near Lebanon, Tennessee, my dad still lives there. That was one of the seven places where Fadi planted new trees. Well, I happen to be visiting him this week and he and I, my kids, we drove up. Dad, this way. And try to find the little plaque in the cedar tree that Fadi had planted with the mayor and a ceremony. All right, I'm told it's in this playground. It was in a public park. Oh, wait, here it is.Let me see.Yes, here it is. We did find the little stone plaque. Lebanese cedar tree from the country of Lebanon, Cedrus libani, I guess that's the technical term, Cedrus libani, Cedar of Lebanon presented by Fadi Boukaram to the city of Lebanon in August 3rd, 2018, but next to the plaque there are kids playing, but there's no cedar tree. We're like, "Where's the tree?" I noticed there's a guy in a green shirt who looked like the groundskeeper about 20 yards away. Can you tell me what happened? Where did the trees go to?

D: It was a twig about that big. I'm going to surely get right back and forth, somebody ran it over it. It wasn't a bush, it was a twig, it had nothing on it.

Jad: Someone stepped on it or something?

D: Well, I am sure they did. We came in one morning it was down.

Jad: When did that happen?

D: It happened about three or four months ago, I don't know, the truth is that little tree right there was never going to make it there.

Jad: Wow, man.

NA: They ran over it. The kids ran over it? Oh my God.

Jad: My dad and I were like, "Well, that's just fitting." Then walking back to the car he and I decided, you know what, it'd also be fitting if we just replanted the tree.

Speaker 3: I will replace it, yes, I will.

Jad: Yes, we'll call Fadi the guy from Pennsylvania, we'll have him send us a new tree, send it to you and you bring it over to him. We made a plan to Bass Samaan at the Bethlehem nursery, arrange for him to send my dad new seeder sampling and we're going to bring that back to Dave to replant. [music]

Jad: This piece was made with collaboration with Kerning Cultures, a podcast that tells stories from the Middle-East, North Africa, both Arabic and English, be sure to check the out because they are amazing at kerningcultures.com, huge thanks to them. The original story was reported by Alex Ateck with editorial support from Bella Ibrahim, Dana Ballout, Zeina Dowidar, and Hebah Fisher. Original sound design by Alex Ateck, the new update of this story was produced by Shima Oliaee and we had original music by Thomas Kohner and Jad Atouis, now that makes three Jads.

[music]

Jad: You can read more about Fadi's trip and see he has photographs at lebanonusa.com or on his Instagram @lebanonusa and if you'd like to donate to Beirut at this difficult time, we've got a bunch of links on our website, radiolab.org. Thank you for the support, for listening, I'm Jad Abumrad, see you next time.

[music]

Jenny: Hi, I'm Jenny Divine calling from Milan Italy. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich and produced Soren Wheeler, Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design, Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Tobin Low, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Adrianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster with help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach and Russel Gragg. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.

 

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