A decade ago, while studying at business school in San Francisco, Fadi BouKaram started feeling homesick for the sunbaked hills of his native Lebanon. He typed “Lebanon” into Google Maps — and was stunned to find himself looking not at the Middle East, but at Lebanon, Oregon, a mere nine-hour drive from his apartment. He was puzzled: There was a U.S. Lebanon? Could there be more?
Another quick search led him to Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Then to Lebanon, Kentucky. Altogether, he found more than 50 Lebanons in the United States. The reason, of course, is that the word “Lebanon”more than 70 times in the Old Testament. What, BouKaram wondered, if one day he visited all of them?
Ten years later, this germ of an idea had landed him in a police station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, chasing a mother-daughter meth-dealing team that had stolen and gutted his rented recreational vehicle, the one he had slept in for five months, the one that had carried him 17,800 miles through 37 states, and left him with a better understanding of the American heartland than nearly all his coastal elite friends. But more on that later.
BouKaram, now 38, spent much of his childhood in bomb shelters in the Beirut suburb of Sabtieh at the height of Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. The war, combined with the conflict with Israel, left the country decrepit in every way. BouKaram got his degree in electrical engineering and soon landed a job. In 2005, he was so close when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated with a car bomb that his face was cut with glass from the explosion. “I needed a break,” said BouKaram, who decamped to San Francisco shortly after to study.
After business school, BouKaram returned to the Middle East as a tax consultant. His job took him from Cairo to Kuwait to Baghdad, often in an armored car. When in Baghdad, he had to submit a proof of life form with identification marks of his body in case he were killed. “All this for taxes?” BouKaram said he thought.
In July 2016, he quit his job and decided to make good on the dream of a decade before: He would visit all the Lebanons in the United States and photograph his way through America. His plan was pegged to a little-known historical event in 1955, when Lebanese President Camille Chamounseven representatives from towns called Lebanon in the United States to see the country. According to BouKaram’s research, they spent two weeks in Beirut, touring the nation, and were gifted cedar — the national symbol of Lebanon — saplings to take home and plant in their towns. BouKaram wanted to see if the seven trees still existed.
The timing was also intentional. He wanted to see America before, during, and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, even if that could be off-putting for a Lebanese-born, San Francisco-educated “coastal elite.”
Read more at Foreign Policy.