Fadi BouKaram, the Lebanese photographer who visited 47 American Lebanons, including ours, in a 2016 coast-to-coast road trip, has again made the news here in the U.S. This time he’s being featured on National Public Radio’s podcast, Radiolab.
The episode, Lebanon U.S.A., was released on Aug. 20, 2020. It centers on BouKaram’s 2018 plan to return to the U.S. to thank some of the Lebanons he originally visited by giving them authentic Lebanese Cedar trees to replace mis-labeled trees planted decades earlier.
Unlike 2016, BouKaram’s return two years later doesn’t appear to have included a stop in Pennsylvania, but the story says a lot about what we have in common, with our fellow Americans and those around the world.
In 1955, the Lebanese prime minister wanted to give Lebanese cedar trees to the mayors of eight U.S. Lebanons who had visited his country. Unfortunately, seven of eight imported saplings died while undergoing required quarantine and fumigation at an Ohio nursery.
The nursery sent out juniper trees instead, apparently without telling anyone, and the switch went unnoticed for decades.
BouKaram discovered the deception in 2016 when his hosts in Lebanon, South Dakota pointed him to their “cedar” tree from the Lebanese government. He didn’t have to heart to tell them that the tree they were so proud of was an imposter.
Then, in 2017, when folks from Lebanon, Nebraska asked BouKaram to help them get another “cedar” tree after theirs was struck by lightning, he resolved to finally get the real thing.
But, “I knew I couldn’t take cedars from Lebanon,” he told RadioLab, “because they were going to be fumigated again.”
Instead, he found Trees of Joy nursery, run by a Lebanese-American, in Bethlehem, Pa. The owner, Bassem Samaan, grew real Cedars of Lebanon from imported Lebanese seeds, so no quarantine or fumigation would be necessary. Samaan was happy to supply four year-old potted cedar saplings.
Boukaram returned to the U.S. in the autumn of 2018, with the goal of planting a genuine Cedar of Lebanon in the eight namesake towns and villages that had unknowingly received junipers over 60 years earlier.
Wherever he’d go, the Bethlehem nursery would ship a cedar tree to the nearest post office, and it would be planted. Seven of eight got the real deal. Lebanon, South Dakota’s climate isn’t suitable for cedars.
BouKaram clearly treasures his visits to the 47 Lebanons. He told Radiolab that he was moved to tears by the proclamation issued by the mayor of Lebanon, Missouri, which read “though thousands of miles may separate our countries, our communities are bonded in friendship and a historic connection dating back to 1955.”
In a 2019 interview for the podcast Kerning Cultures, BouKaram recounted maybe the biggest lesson he learned on his trips across America: “What I learned was something that I should have known before, which is do not generalize, do not stereotype.”
“What was the most surprising for me was how close, in terms of culture, the rural people [of the U.S.] were to the mountain people of Lebanon. The kind of hospitality where it’s taken for granted, when you see someone who’s a stranger, that they will invite you to their home, and they will feed you until you can’t eat no more.”
According to his website, BouKaram now lives and works in Dublin, Ireland.
Listen to podcasts about Fadi BouKaram’s trips to America’s 47 Lebanons:
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