Lebanese photographer's RV trip to U.S. towns named Lebanon brakes for Metro East stop | St. Louis Public Radio

Lebanese photographer's RV trip to U.S. towns named Lebanon brakes for Metro East stop

Mar 14, 2017

Fadi BouKaram, a photographer from the Middle Eastern country of Lebanon, is on a mission in the United States. He’s attempting to visit all of the 40-plus communities in the U.S. that share the name of his homeland.

He acquired an RV and began the five-month trip on Oct. 15, 2016. The first Lebanon he visited in the United States was in Oregon.

Toward the end of the five-month trip, he visited Lebanon, Ill. – population 4,400 and just a half hour drive east of St. Louis.

Origins of an Epic Trip

BouKaram conceived of the trip about 10 years ago while attending graduate school in San Francisco.

“I once was looking for Lebanon, my country, on Google Maps and it didn’t take me to Lebanon the country, it took me to Lebanon, Oregon,” BouKaram said. “So that was my first big surprise. I did not think there would a town, Lebanon, in the U.S.”

BouKaram went on to create a list of all the U.S. towns named Lebanon. His research turned up about 50 such communities, though some of them no longer exist. For example, two Lebanons in Texas are now ghost towns, he said.

But BouKaram's idea for a Lebanon USA trip lay dormant for some time, while he earned his master’s degree in 2009 and returned to his native country to take a job in the finance industry. His career eventually led him to Baghdad, where he worked with U.S. tax laws and helped train a government agency on how to report expatriates to the Internal Revenue Service.

“I wasn’t exactly happy at my job,” BouKaram said. “During my stay over there, I had to sleep in a bunk bed and be in an armored car with bodyguards.”

His living conditions also reminded him of his childhood during the latter part of the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 to 1990.

“So at that point I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’” he said. “You get this awakening: 'I don’t want to live in a war zone,' or 'I don’t want to get anything to remind me of when I was living in a war.' So I was like ‘Nope, I want a different kind of Lebanon.’”

Fadi BouKaram prepared a map of all the towns in the U.S. named Lebanon. Each dot represents one such location.
Credit (Courtesy of Fadi BouKaram)

Lebanon, Illinois.

That's why on a cold February morning he parked his RV on a residential side street in Lebanon, Illinois, not too far from the town’s main four-way intersection.

The RV – the smallest he could find – is 21 feet long, and he described it as a self-contained home complete with a couch, bed, dinette and shower. On really cold days and nights, a gallon jug of water he keeps inside freezes.

Lebanon, Illinois, is both similar and dissimilar to other, mostly rural Lebanons BouKaram has encountered. Locally owned shops along the main, brick-paved road through town such as Aunt Bea’s Antiques and Dr. Jazz Soda Fountain and Grille give it a rural feel. But the town’s proximity to St. Louis and the fact that it is home to the oldest college in the state – McKendree University – give it a more suburban, almost urban, feel.

Charles Dickens was complimentary of Lebanon, Illinois, after staying at the Mermaid House Hotel in 1842.
Credit Robert Lawton | Wikimedia Commons

Residents of this Lebanon are also proud of their history. The city is near the Emerald Mound and Village Site, an archeological site once inhabited by Mississippian mound builders more than one thousand years ago.

Modern-day Lebanon was founded in 1814 and among its storied history is an association with famed British author Charles Dickens.

Dickens visited Lebanon in 1842 as part of a several months-long trip to America. Although coming away mostly disappointed by his trip overall to the United States – once writing to a friend, “This is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination"  – Lebanon, Illinois, was a bright spot for the writer.  

About his stay at the Mermaid House Hotel, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, Dickens wrote, “In point of cleanliness and comfort it would have suffered by no comparison with any village alehouse, of a homely kind, in England."

BouKaram's visit to this Lebanon was, too, a bright spot, thanks in part to the welcome he got from Mayor Rich Wilken.

“It was instant excitement on my part,” Wilken said upon recalling how he felt when he heard of BouKaram’s impending visit.

After the two introduced themselves and had a lengthy conversation, Wilken reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a large brass key with the inscription of “City of Lebanon.” Amid handshakes and smiles, he presented it to BouKaram, a moment that marked a continuing friendship between two places about 6,300 miles apart.

“We just feel so privileged that you’d come to our town and visit us,” Wilken told BouKaram.

Lebanese photographer Fadi BouKaram holds a key to the city of Lebanon, Illinois, presented to him by Mayor Rich Wilken.
Credit Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio

Cedar of Lebanon

Another highlight of BouKaram's Illinois stop stood just across the square from Wilken's insurance business: a tall tree called a Cedar of Lebanon.

It's a type of evergreen tree that’s known for growing in the mountainous regions of BouKaram's country. Depicted on the Lebanese flag, it’s also the symbol of Lebanon, Illinois.

A Cedar of Lebanon, a type of evergreen tree, is featured prominently on one corner of the public square of Lebanon, Illinois.
Credit Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio

Although rarely found in Midwest due to its climate,  the Embassy of Lebanon presented this Cedar of Lebanon as a gift to the city 50 years ago.

A plaque at the base of the tree reads: “April 1, 1967: Cedar of Lebanon planted by the Lebanon Beautification Committee and dedicated by Assad Moukaddem, representing the Embassy of Lebanon, as a project of international goodwill and understanding between the country of Lebanon and our city of Lebanon.”

This kind of tree is mentioned several times in the Bible. In fact, BouKaram said the Biblical connection is one reason why so many towns in the U.S. are named Lebanon.

A Portrait of America

Some of the other American Lebanons BouKaram visited, such as those in Pennsylvania and Ohio, contain more than 20,000 residents. But BouKaram said most of the communities he’s visited are in rural areas. He said his visits have allowed him to take the pulse of the U.S. following the election of President Donald Trump and to learn about ways of life different from his own.  

“The people are not happy. They are not thrilled with the way their mode of life is going on. It’s disappearing,” he said, noting that many farms in rural towns have been purchased by big, out-of-town companies.

BouKaram said he’s talked to residents about how that leads to a domino effect that makes it difficult for people to find work on farms. Once that happens, the population dwindles, he said, and city amenities such as grocery stores and post offices slowly fade away.

BouKaram said he’s also been able to observe why Trump may have been elected. In addition to what he said is a way of life that’s in danger of going extinct, BouKaram said the level of condescension in the country is palpable.

Such condescension is something BouKaram said he experienced growing up. His father was firefighter and his mother was a homemaker.

“If there’s one thing I’m kind of sensitive about is when you talk to someone with condescension,” BouKaram said. “This is happening a lot with this country right now.”

Follow Alex Heuer on Twitter: @alexheuer