Second destination : Lebanon, South Dakota
I'm driving on route 1806, a narrow two-lane highway in North Dakota leading to the town of Canon Ball where members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. During one of the demonstration 141 people have been arrested, I read in "Bismarck Tribune".
The Native American tribe is demonstrating against the oil pipeline passing close to their reservation, as there was a risk of its water supply being polluted, in addition to its burial grounds being desecrated. The videos I later saw of the protest were incredibly violent: the demonstrators were being beaten and shot at with rubber bullets.
I'm only an hour away from the town, so I decide to head there, perhaps out of the selfish feeling that participating in a civil disobedience movement would be a reminder of Beirut; I have been feeling homesick.
About 40 minutes away from the town, a sign on the road reads "Road Closed. Local traffic only". I decide to pretend I am local traffic. The main road is only crossed by small dead-end alleys leading to farms. Every few minutes the same sign reappears and I keep ignoring it. Then a line of six identical black tinted SUVs with flashing headlights zipped pasts me in the opposite direction. I try finding another route to reach the town, but the paper map doesn't show any and there is no phone service to check online. About 10 minutes before reaching the town, huge flashing signs appear in the distance, with countless cars blocking the road. I figure it's the police. As I'm halted to a stop, I am surprised to find out it is actually the army, not the police. In full gear. A soldier stands still in front of my windshield, and another one comes to my window, smiling:
- "Hey there, where are you headed?" she asks.
- "Lebanon", I lie.
- "This road is blocked. You have to turn around."
I'm surprised the word Lebanon doesn't seem to raise any questions for her. She just proceeds to give me direction off the top of her head on how to head to Lebanon, South Dakota. I'd like to take a picture of the soldiers with their weapons blocking the road. But I don't. I guess I am 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. I head south.
Before reaching Lebanon, I decide to pass by the county library in Gettysburg to do some research, ten minutes away from town. According to the history book, the origin of the name is not biblical in this case. In 1885, a certain D. M. Boyle came to the land, erected a house, including the first post office, and named it after his hometown of Lebanon, Indiana, which I'll be visiting in a couple months. While I am busy doing my research, the extremely helpful librarian, Barb, to whom I have explained my trip, contacts folks whom I should meet, including a local journalist who wants to interview me. Barb also advises that I visit the Dakota Sunset Museum, which shares a door with the library, as there might be further information to get from there.
I walk into the museum and ask the two ladies at the reception, both seeming in their seventies, if they have any historical information about this Lebanon city. One of these women, whose name-tag reads Mary Carol Potts, approaches me and asks: "Which country are you from?" Now this kind of question might be perfectly fine in our Lebanon, but in the US it would be deemed politically incorrect, as one shouldn't assume that a non-Caucasian is an immigrant. But when I answer the woman, the question makes sense. "Yes, I thought you might be from around there. So am I. Both my maternal grandparents came from Lebanon," she says. To say that this is an unexpected coincidence would be an understatement. I never thought I'd run into someone of Lebanese ancestry in that town. I ask to interview her, and she reluctantly agrees.
Mary Carol's grandfather was born in Beirut in 1857. His name was Georges Assaf. He emigrated to the US in the late 1890s with his father and brother and their name was americanized to 'Aesoph'. Her grandmother, Warda Elias, came from Kfar Mishki, a small village in Rachaya; everybody called her Rose. Mary Carol's mother was born in the US and didn't speak any Arabic; her grandmother always said: "You're in America now. You have to speak English." I ask her if she has any stories from the old country, but she says her grandmother didn't talk much. She does, however, remember her grandmother cooking: Kibbeh, laban, and yabrak (stuffed vine leaves). With vines not available in South Dakota, she made them with cabbage instead.
After promising to come back the next day, I head to the Lebanon Longbranch, the municipality-run saloon that Barb advised me to go to. The streets are dead silent. If it weren't for the one cow by the town sign, I would have thought everyone had packed and left. I finally find the saloon and walk in. It's empty. An elderly lady with short curly brown hair greets me from behind the bar. I ask her if they serve food. "Yes" she says, before asking me to go to the fridge behind the door and grab a frozen pizza so she can heat it up for me.
We start talking about my trip and her eyes widen. It's the first time she meets someone from another country. And it happens it's a country she's somehow familiar with. Not only because of the homonymy, but also because just across the street, there is a cedar of Lebanon she says. "It was a gift from your country", she adds with a grin.
I'm surprised. When in 1955, the mayors of seven towns called Lebanon headed to Beirut for two weeks, invited by late president Camille Chamoun, and came back each with a cedar sapling, the mayor of the South Dakota town was not one of them. The dozens of newspapers I have researched from that year never mentioned him. There must have been a mistake. But here I am in front of a tree with a massive sign by its side that read: "Cedar of Lebanon. Given to Lebanon, South Dakota by the country of Lebanon. One of two planted, 1955, Mayor WM. Schumacher."
But there is a problem, this tree is not a cedar. I take a few pictures and send them to Jane Nassar, an agriculturist friend back home. "Your "cedar" is a juniper tree, she says. A 'juniperus virginiana' to be precise, which is mistakenly called a 'red cedar' in some parts of the US".
I didn't get to the bottom of this story. I hope to get an explanation in Lebanon, Ohio when I get there in a few weeks. It is that Lebanon that received all the trees after the mayors left Beirut in 1955. Our country had specified that the saplings had to stay in a nursery for two years to acclimate before being sent to each Lebanon town. So maybe there I will figure out why South Dakota was sent a tree, and how come it wasn't a real cedar.
But Hazel, the barkeeper, is very excited about meeting someone from the country who sent them the tree, and I don't have the heart to tell her this is just a plain juniper.
So I steer the conversation to a different subject and ask her about the town. She is quick to mention that this is the home to South Dakota's first outdoor swimming people, in June 1926, a feat they were so proud of that they wrote it on a sign by the highway. But the pool closed down three years ago. It needed a yearly maintenance fee of $10,000 and the town couldn't afford the money.
I ask why the residents couldn't contribute a few dollars each towards the budget. She laughs: "There are less than 30 people who live in this town. Probably 26. No one could afford it. And there are only three kids left who could use the swimming pool in the summer. I came here in 1970 when it was still thriving. We had three banks and several gas stations and grocery stores. When the highway was moved one mile south, all the businesses left. So people started leaving too."
(to be continued)