My visit to Lebanon, Illinois in early February could only be described as a series of very fortunate events. Back in late November when I was in Boston, I had done an interview on NPR, the US national public radio, talking about my travels around the country and the Lebanons project. A few weeks later, I was contacted by another NPR station in St. Louis, Illinois. The United States being as big a country as it is, each metropolitan area has its own radio station, running local news in addition to some country-wide programs. The interview in Boston had run nationally.
The producer from St. Louis, Alex Heuer, was interested in doing a second interview because he was contacted by a man from nearby Lebanon, Illinois, saying the city had a genuine ‘cedar of Lebanon’. As if out of a time gone by, this man from Illinois hadn’t emailed the station or phoned them; he took to his typewriter instead and wrote them a letter, including a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE ). Alex sent me a picture of the letter sent by Mr. Harrison Church and it read:
“Listening today to your station, I caught part of an interview with what I take to be a native Lebanese, Fahdi Buckharin [sic. But an impressive sic nonetheless], if I got it down correctly, about his visits to the various Lebanons of this country, and including commentary about Cedars of Lebanon. I wonder if you can put me in touch with him, as we believe we have genuine Cedars of Lebanon here in our Lebanon.”
Initially I thought that there must have been a misunderstanding. When the 7 mayors from American towns called Lebanon visited Beirut in March 1955 and came back with a cedar sapling gift from First Lady Zalfa Chamoun, the Lebanon of Illinois wasn’t one of the seven. But then again, when I was in Lebanon, South Dakota I found out that they had a supposed cedar from the 1955 trip, which turned out to be a juniper, and their mayor hadn’t visited Beirut either. So perhaps their case was similar to Illinois’.
Fast forward two months to February when I finally made my way to Illinois. I called Harry Church and he was very excited to hear from me. He said he had documents to share and asked if I could have brunch with him and his wife Harriet the next day. His voice was that of a somewhat older man, and he was quite the wisecracking fellow. He mentioned he’d be wearing a fisherman’s hat at the restaurant so I could recognize him, and I said it’d be easy for him to recognize me since I would just look Middle Eastern. He quipped: “You mean you’re going to be wearing a turban? I’m kidding; I know you guys don’t do that.”
The following day, I met the Churches at the restaurant and, as I had suspected, Harry looked to be in his late 70s and his wife Harriet in her early 60s maybe. They regaled me with stories about their city, and I found out that he was the city historian and, until a few years ago, had owned the local newspaper, the “ Lebanon Advertiser” for more than four decades. He took out an old yellowed copy from the paper, dated March 30th. On the front page was a portrait of “Assad Moukaddem” and the headline read “Lebanon Plants Cedar: Assad Moukaddem is Honored Guest.”
Mr. Moukaddem was representing Ambassador Ibrahim El-Ahdab at the ceremony for the planting of the Cedar of Lebanon on Saturday, April 1st. He was a Tripoli native, a journalist and a writer, and once held the position of the director of the Lebanese newspaper “Al-Yom”. In addition, he was a member of the Lebanon delegation to the UN, and the Tourist and Information Counselor at the Embassy of Lebanon in Washington DC.
Now the story started becoming clearer. Lebanon, Illinois did have a true cedar, but theirs was different from the one offered to the 7 mayors in 1955. That day in 1967 was of such importance to the city that April 1st was declared “Cedar of Lebanon” day. It was even included in their history booklet. Seven years later, when it was the city’s centennial anniversary, they borrowed the cedar from the Lebanese flag as is, and adopted it as their own.
Before parting with Mr. and Mrs. Church, he also gave me a possible clue as to why the other cedars from the 1955 trip might not exist today. Back when the ceremony for the tree planting was being prepared in Lebanon, Illinois, the trees that were brought from our Lebanon had to be quarantined and fumigated. Unfortunately, none of them survived the fumigation. Therefore new saplings had to be brought in from Harvard University’s arboretum; they had been growing true cedars there since 1915. So it is very likely that the saplings that came from Beirut in 1955 did not survive the fumigation as well.
My meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Church came on the second day of the visit to Lebanon, Illinois. The first day was even more eventful. I had contacted Alex, the producer of “St. Louis on the Air”, and he met me in the city to conduct the radio interview. He had called Rich Wilkin, the mayor of Lebanon, to ask him if he knew about the cedar tree and he very much did. It was right across from his office, now standing high 50 years after it was planted, fenced, and marked with a plaque below it to commemorate the occasion.
The plaque read: “April 1, 1967. Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus Libani). Planted by the Lebanon beautification committee and dedicated by Assad Moukaddem representing the embassy of Lebanon as a project in international goodwill and understanding between the country of Lebanon and our city of Lebanon.”
After checking the tree, we went to the mayor’s office. He greeted me with unbridled enthusiasm. We talked about the city and its history and my trip so far. He then smiled at me and said: “I have something for you. As a gesture to recognize your goodwill tour, I want to give you the key to the city.”
I must have been speechless for a good minute. It was beyond an honor to me. I thanked Mayor Wilkin profusely while still incredulous that I was being given such a gift. A photographer from the newspaper was there and the photo with me and the mayor, which was published on the paper’s front page the next day, shows how beside myself I was. Had I known before, I would have at least dressed more adequately. But it wasn’t just that. Five months prior when I traveled to the United States, I had given up my apartment and its keys. In March I was going to return the RV and its keys. On that day, the only key I actually owned was the one to the city of Lebanon, Illinois. It certainly didn’t open any physical doors, but I was definitely hoping it would open other doors for me. Dare I hope that I would some day try to do what Mr. Moukaddem did in 1967 around the country? It may be far fetched, but I will sure be trying.