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Lebanon, South Dakota: A small town and a fake cedar.

I was 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 were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The day before, October 28th, I had stopped at a café on my way from Lebanon, North Dakota, and I saw a copy of the “Bismarck Tribune” with the headline “Police oust protesters.” 141 people had been arrested. The Native American tribe was demonstrating against the oil pipeline passing close to their reservation, as there was a risk of their water supply being polluted, in addition to their burial grounds being desecrated. The videos I later saw of the protest were incredibly violent. The way the demonstrators were being beaten and shot at with rubber bullets would not seem out of place close to home. I was only an hour away from the town, so I decided to head there, perhaps out of the selfish feeling that participating in a civil disobedience movement would be a reminder of Beirut; I had already been feeling homesick. But my excitement would prove anticlimactic.

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Route 1806

About 40 minutes away from the town, a sign on the road read “Road Closed. Local traffic only.” I drove around the sign and pretended I was local traffic, which meant the many small dead-end alleys leading to farms on each side of the road. Every few minutes the same sign would reappear and I kept ignoring it. Then a line of 6 identical black tinted SUVs with flashing headlights zipped past me in the opposite direction. I tried finding another route to reach the town, but the paper map didn’t show any and there was no phone signal to check online. Then about 10 minutes before reaching the town, huge flashing signs appear in the distance, with countless cars blocking the road. I figured it was the police, and I approached them carefully. As I was halted to a stop, I was surprised to find out it was actually the army, not the police. In full gear too. A soldier stood still in front of my windshield, and another one came to my window, smiling:

– “Hey there, where are you headed?”, she asked.
– “Lebanon”, I lied.
– “This road is blocked. You have to turn around.”

But then what surprised me was that the word Lebanon didn’t seem to raise any questions for her. She just proceeded to give me direction off the top of her head on how to head to Lebanon, South Dakota. I still regret not having taken a picture of the soldiers with their weapons blocking the road. But I was 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. Slightly disappointed, I take my mind off the demonstration and head south.

Before reaching Lebanon, I decide to pass by the county library in Gettysburg to do some research, ten minutes away from town. The history book led me to find that the name was 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 was busy doing my research, the extremely helpful librarian, Barb, to whom I had explained my trip, was contacting folks whom I should meet, including a local journalist who became interested in interviewing me. Barb also advised that I visit the Dakota Sunset Museum, which shared a door with the library, as there might be further information to get from there.

I walked into the museum, and asked the two ladies at the reception, both seeming in their seventies, if they had any historical information about Lebanon. One of these women, her name tag read 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 is deemed politically incorrect, as one shouldn’t assume that a non-Caucasian is an immigrant. But when I answered the woman, the question made sense. She said: “Yes, I thought you might be from around there. So am I. Both my maternal grandparents came from Lebanon.” To say that this was unexpected coincidence would be an understatement. I never thought I’d run into someone of Lebanese ancestry in that town. I asked to interview her, and she reluctantly agreed.

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 asked her if she had any stories from the old country, but she mentioned that her grandmother didn’t talk much. She did, however, remember the food. Kibbeh, laban, and yabrak (stuffed vine leaves). With vines not available in South Dakota, she made them with cabbage instead.

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Mary Carol Potts showing me the ‘remembrance’ album of her grandmother, Warda, nèe Elias, from Kfar Michki, Rachaya, Lebanon

Read More on Lebanon, South Dakota: A small town and a fake cedar.

 

Lebanon, USA

I was 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 were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The day before, October 28th, I had stopped at a café on my way from Lebanon, North Dakota, and I saw a copy of the “Bismarck Tribune” with the headline “Police oust protesters.” 141 people had been arrested. The Native American tribe was demonstrating against the oil pipeline passing close to their reservation, as there was a risk of their water supply being polluted, in addition to their burial grounds being desecrated. The videos I later saw of the protest were incredibly violent. The way the demonstrators were being beaten and shot at with rubber bullets would not seem out of place close to home. I was only an hour away from the town…

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