BZIBINA, Lebanon: Residents of the northern district of Akkar are romantics; they wake early to see the sun rise and stay up to watch the stars in the night sky with a lullaby made up of the sounds of streams and creeks.
These residents are plagued by daily challenges, but they also carry a unique beauty, and their love of leading a tranquil life transforms their already charming personalities into poetic ones.
Akkar is not a deprived and neglected land as much as it is a completely overlooked one, and it will remain so as long as Mount Lebanon embodies the image of the ideal Lebanese countryside, even though other areas are no less folkloric.
Bzibina is one such town. Lying at the center of the villages scattered on the farthest northern Lebanese mountain range, its residents refuse to leave even during the winter, putting their roots ahead of work opportunities or even education.
One of its residents is Rajia, an employee at the Social Affairs Ministry who Sundays can be found busy preparing lunch in her kitchen and keeping watchful eyes on each of her two boys, George and Nehme. George tends to play outside in the square, while Nehme, who suffers from a physical disability that makes movement difficult for him, spends his time on the Internet in the living room.
Her mother-in-law, Umm Ayoub, helps around the house as much as she is able, while her husband, Father Ayoub Nehme, makes his phone calls and greets visitors.
Not yet 40, his smile is warm and gives him a different air from the usual seriousness of religious men. A portrait of his late father, Abu Ayoub, known around the town as a generous, selfless man, hangs in the house.
None of the family have ever lived outside their village, which lies at the bottom of the famed Qamoua mountain reserve. Ayoub and Rajia leave for the Akkar capital of Halba for work in the morning and return in the afternoon. Their home is never locked; in fact, there has been no key to the house since Abu Ayoub owned the home.
“Where am I to go? Give me a place more beautiful than the heaven I live in and more beautiful than this castle,” Umm Ayoub says in her thick Akkari accent, gesturing around at her humble home of two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room with its garden and orchard outside.
Rajia has one complaint, however – social media websites, with their slow but sure penetration into her otherwise peaceful life.
“The idea of permanently living here turns this invention into a demon inside the house, where you find everyone glued to their phone screens, unaware of the other’s presence,” she tells The Daily Star.
For Nehme, even though he says it is his disability that has prevented him from leaving the town, the land still means much to him.
“Here I can feel the day and the night and the morning and the evening, and I use my senses by looking at the sky or hearing the sound of flowing water, the shining summer sun and the snow that covers everything in winter. Here everything is beautiful in the details,” he explains.
George, on the other hand, absolutely refuses to come inside. Clearly the leader of the group, he bosses around the other children in the neighborhood on matters that seem trivial to an adult, such as taking Umm Ibrahim’s groceries from the market or pushing Abu Ali’s broken-down car.
“Here I don’t feel like I am living inside an apartment that is closer to a prison like where you live. Here I have my full freedom and I never settle down in one place, I move from the square to the orchards,” he says.
Mocking city life, he tells a story of how his father once decided to take him to the beach, assuming that it would make him happy. He was met instead with dirt and sand, and ached the whole of the following night, something he claims never happens when he goes swimming in the river.
Not too far from Father Ayoub Nehme’s home lives Nicolas Issa, a retired arts professor. As his wife Isabelle prepares the afternoon coffee, he calls for her to come watch a belly dancer perform on television.
Isabelle calmly ignores him, perhaps a result of her years of teaching at the public school only a couple of meters away from the house.
She says she too is addicted to the village, even though two of her three children no longer live in Bzibina.
“Sometimes I surprise myself when I get in the car, I am so stable in the village and I never want to leave it,” she says.
“When I used to go to the college in the morning I used to feel strange because I would be away from the village for hours, and I’ve only travelled abroad once for two weeks,” chimes in Issa with a grimace. “I can’t describe the pain in my heart the entire time.”
Issa is not only a professor of art, but he is also a theater enthusiast. He established a local theater in 1974 and has put on a play every year since then.
“We suffer from hardship and a lack of resources here, but at the same time there is an outpouring of romance,” Issa says. “Here we do not just feel love, we experience it every day and we practice it in the details of our hard lives, or we would not have been able to carry on like this.”
When visitors arrive, Issa moves the assembled party to the orchard, where he tells of how he sometimes passes the night sleeping under the trees and the starry sky.
“There I get back my nostalgia, love, and heartbreaks, there I feel happiness and sadness at the same time, but in my own way,” he explains as his friends cheer him on.
For Saad Moussa, his way of expressing his love for his hometown is through photography.
“I feel proud when I look at someone’s features as I am giving him a picture of one of his grandparents or his relatives,” he explained. “It provides me with a sort of inner weapon. I don’t have any money and I am usually careful about my expenses, but I would never trade in my hobby because when I do I lose this pleasure.”
Despite having had a series of shows in Lebanon and even in France, today he is a farmer who spends all his time in his village, the residents and features of which are a never-ending source of inspiration for his camera.
As he picks through each photo, he explains its history. The pictures, he says, focus on beauty he has not seen anywhere else: trees, bushes, streams, and good, genuine people who he has been photographing for a long time.
Despite the sweltering summer, Moussa turns on the heater and stays cozy indoors as though it were still winter.
“Whoever wants an aim in his life needs to sacrifice something, and whoever wants to take my photos needs to tolerate the high temperature in my home.”