ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Road to Paradise: Under Construction

Four villages in post-war Lebanon benefit from CNEWA’s Beirut office relief and resettlement program.

George dreams of beans. Big fat beans like those on Jack’s fairy-tale stalks. And as in Jack’s story, gold plays an important role. George, his family, and hundreds like him have lived for generations in Lebanon’s Wadi Dahab, only a 40-minute drive from Beirut. So rich is the agricultural land there that the valley long ago picked up the name that in English means “The Valley of Gold.”

Long-term foreign residents of Lebanon knew this valley too and contributed to its golden reputation. So perfect was it that they kept its existence a secret from outsiders. At the end of the valley (a four-mile drive plunging clown to the river) was a village called Jahliyeh, meaning unknown – and that is just how the foreigners who loved Jahliyeh wanted to keep it.

A 20-minute walk from Jahliyeh brought the picnicker to a glorious waterfall that cascaded into a deep pool. There was a village legend that the bottom was covered with gold: necklaces, rings and such that foreigners had lost leaping from the top of the waterfall or just swimming in the pool. Now and again, young bucks of the village would attempt to dive to the bottom. And so the legend endures.

So coveted was the peace and pristine quality of the waterfall and the numerous swimming areas it created that foreigners in the know would pass on directions to the spot only when they were leaving Lebanon for good. And then the information went out only to a family or individual accepted by the group.

During the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) there were few people to whom to pass the treasured information. Most Westerners, including some of the waterfall club, had fled. Those who stayed could not reach paradise because of the war.

But their loss was minimal compared to those villagers, many of them Christian, who lived in a handful of villages along the road to paradise. During the civil war they found themselves on the wrong side of the sectarian fence. Their lives threatened, they fled, becoming refugees in their own country, forced to occupy abandoned buildings. In their own villages, looting and vandalism destroyed what they had lovingly and vigorously built through the years.

In Serjbal, nothing was spared but a roadside church. Villagers believe that had the militia destroyed it, the rubble would have blocked the road. Paradise untended meant olive trees unpruned, George’s beans dead on their vines, fruit trees strangled by the wild growth that quickly took over. For years, paradise was lawless and hoe-less.

By 1994, however, the Lebanese army had secured the area sufficiently to guarantee security for returning families.

Today, with help from CNEWA’s Beirut office, the area’s former inhabitants are finding their way back. Both beans and paradise show signs of recovery. Doors are back on their hinges and basic kitchen fixtures have been replaced. Food preparation is possible. The church building that survives serves the Maronite and Greek-Melkite Catholic communities.

On Sundays the church bell, the only one remaining in the entire valley, rings across from Serjbal to the tiny village of Shemaareen. When I first asked how to get there, I was told to park my car near the grove of umbrella pines “just there” and take the foot path. “Take you half an hour,” the man told me. Then he saw my “city-slicker” shoes. “Maybe an hour,” he added.

Since Shemaareen’s settlement over 300 years ago, the villagers had traveled on foot or by mule, laboriously hauling in all their necessities. Men now in their senior years recall how they hiked to school in Serjbal, how they went to catechism classes along the same route. Shemaareen’s small church was served by a priest only on the patronal feast day.

The good news was that the man who frowned at my shoes was not familiar with the workings of the villagers of Shemaareen or the staff of CNEWA’s Beirut office. A request from one, a grant from the other, had resulted in an embryonic road.

When the return to Shemaareen seemed imminent, the villagers knew the old foot-path would no longer suffice. There was too much to be done, too much to be taken down, to be hauled away, to be put up. Although the villagers were willing and able to do much of the work themselves, they needed the Lebanese government’s help to connect the village to the country’s power grid. But first there had to he a road.

Waiting for the government to build a road and bridge across the ravine would be a lesson in frustration, the villagers agreed, so they formed a committee and headed to CNEWA’s Beirut office.

Beirut’s staff starts work early and operates on the principle that it is better to push dirt than paper. The road project was OK’d in quick order and the bulldozers began their work.

The road was still rough and the car we were in needed help from the four-wheel-drive vehicle that accompanied us. Winter rains had added to the mess. But to the villagers the road and bridge were things of beauty. To CNEWA’s engineers the bridge across the valley of gold had to hold its weight in gold. Its capacity was set at nine tons per square meter.

The challenge of getting to Shemaareen seemed small when the challenges facing the village became evident. Although my first gasp came when I saw the looted, doorless houses, the people were much more concerned about the land. Shemaareen is one of the few villages in Lebanon that still operate along feudal lines. The land is owned by an absentee landlord. The villagers own their homes but only if they till the land can they claim its production and continue their tenure. Once the war was declared officially over they had only a few years to put hoe to ground, saw to branch and seedlings to earth.

One by one I met the sun-hatted villagers. All had come for the weekend from their places of refuge around Beirut. Georgette and Camellia were minding their rows of peas and carrots. A noisy generator provided electricity to run the power saws that pruned the dry branches of the olive trees. A group of women were working on a picnic lunch, over which the problems and solutions of rebuilding would be discussed. The list was long: an irrigation system for the crops, new houses for the up-and-coming generation, a new church to replace the heap of rubble that was once the village place of worship.

The commute to Beirut is made long by wearisome weekend traffic. Emil Azzi, my host in Shemaareen, kept a discreet eye on his watch. At five he was due at his weekend job: collecting tickets at a movie theater in Beirut. As I looked around the battered village for a final photo, I asked him what was playing. “Twister,” he told me. It seemed more than appropriate.

Back in Serjbal I was given a tour of the land outside the village. The bean-growing process was explained in detail. Fairy-tale Jack had it good when all he did was toss the beans on the ground. With real beans, you have to work to earn the gold. Just like all of us, the beans need guidance. It is provided by a jungle gym of poles and wires. The Jacks and the Georges of this village have their work cut out for them as they replace the bean infrastructure, now in tatters. But their hands will not have been the only ones with hoes and wire snippers. CNEWA pitched in to repair the road and retaining walls in the cultivated areas.

As we walked along, my guide stooped to check a seedling lemon tree. Then I noticed that along every terrace, every three feet or so, were tiny plants. CNEWA had helped here too, giving thousands of fruit trees to nourish the next generation of villagers. If there were any doubts about the success of the upcoming crop, the juiciness of the two oranges peeled for me quickly dispelled them.

With two success stories safely stored on film and notebook, I drove to my third and final destination: Deir Doureet, a village tucked deep in the verdant valley, a good distance away. The miserable, neglected roads that led there convinced me the Shemaareen people had been wise to seek the help of CNEWA. In Deir Doureet they helped to rebuild irrigation canals and culverts, once the Lebanese army’s corps of engineers had opened a road and removed the rubble of destroyed homes.

The village has already benefited from the restored water system – a season of good beans is, literally, under their belts.

Far from Beirut, these villagers look forward to the day when they will be able to come here and live, rather than spend weekends only. Here too the damage to homes was total. Vandals left nothing behind, right down to sink fixtures and floor tiles.

Seeing the conditions in these villages one would think the young people would find the thought of returning less than attractive. But everyone agrees that life in the valley of gold is better than in the tinsel town Beirut has become. When I probed to find out just why they felt so strongly, they simply looked out to their land in paradise.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor.

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