A Slit through Thunderous Clouds
The Place that Remains
Lebanese American University
A Slit Through Thunderous Clouds
Walking on a path along the crest of a mountain where a political figure once came to hide from persecution, I paused to look back down the lower hills and valleys. The wind was strong and dark clouds were drifting over the land. The mountains were still lush with the summer’s growth, villages, dusted between patches of pine trees, were surrounded by worn terraces tumbling down the hillside. Slowly a slit in the clouds opened and let a few sunrays pierce the thunderous atmosphere to fall with an exact precision onto what seemed the most central village within the view that was given to see. The white houses brightened up and the bell tower on the very top of the hill seemed to reach out to the momentary sun. For a few seconds, the landscape stood still and I thought: this might very well be the most beautiful place on earth.
A landscape is usually defined by all that can be seen from a single viewpoint, or as would be said in French, by all that the gaze can embrace at once. A landscape is therefore formed through a collection of elements that are distinctive from one place to another, that can be named and recognized as having an agreed-upon aesthetic value. And to be able to claim that a landscape belongs to here or there, the elements need to share traits linked to culture, history, topography, or climate, so that they build upon each other a cohesiveness that can only be possible within a given territory. What makes a landscape Lebanese is first and foremost the sea or the mountain, oftentimes both, but also cedar and pine forests, river beds at the bottom of deep valleys, winding roads, Roman ruins, thistles, stone or concrete houses nestled on the hillside, and agricultural terraces bearing fruit trees. From a time that no one can now remember, forests cut down, stone extracted from the bedrock, and leveling of the mountain for agriculture forged the Lebanese landscape. Calling any part of the Lebanese landscape “natural” would be an oxymoron. Indeed, the transformation of the land(scape) is intimately intertwined with its resources, as well as the work of men and women who have found in its ground and weather conditions a perfect environment for securing a livelihood. Oranges and apples, pomegranates and figs, loquats and plums, grapes and prickly pears, mulberries and apricots: the variety of fruits grown in the mountains bears witness to the working of the land. With olive trees as old as a thousand years, agrarian practices are inseparable from the very idea of a Lebanese landscape. In fact, contrary to what might be thought, a landscape is not the mere addition of the natural features to the actions of men and women on a given portion of land. It is rather an intricate collaboration that is impossible to be told apart, because to cultivate the land is both to live and shape this land: the very act of sowing and the human activity this entails are integral to producing the Lebanese landscape.