Lebanon’s Fnideq: Capital of the Rundown Akkar Countryside

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The uprising took place against the Merhebi clan, the region’s feudal lords, and spread to other villages in Akkar. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Doha Shams

Published Monday, October 7, 2013

At the highest point of Akkar’s countryside lies the town of Fnideq. Like other Akkar villages, Fnideq is mourning its residents who drowned tragically while trying to reach Australia – a long-time Mecca for poor Akkaris, who nearly all have relatives there.

When the names of Akkar’s villages appear in the news, they rarely stick in people’s minds. It is as though they do not belong to the national collective memory and are only mentioned during disasters, like the sinking of the Indonesian ferry. Hrar, Berqayel, Qabeet, Meshmosh, Sheikh Younis, and Fnideq: Where are these hometowns of the victims located exactly?

Fnideq, for instance, is one of the poorest locales in the district. Fnideq is looked down on by many, who are “offended” by the simplicity of the village’s ways. But little do the Lebanese know that Fnideq was the site of peasant uprisings against feudalism in Akkar in the 1960s and 70s.

The uprising took place against the Merhebi clan, the region’s feudal lords, and spread to other villages in Akkar. Here, although there is an ideal climate for political parties fighting for social justice, people cannot think of anything but earning enough to live, one day at a time.

In Fnideq too, the vast majority of young people are unemployed. They barely make ends meet from insecure daily work: unskilled labor, porterage, wood chopping. Furthermore, most students in the village drop out of school at 7th grade. Why the 7th grade? Because this is the age at which the students can start working – waiting tables in Jounieh for example, as we were told.

Some people in Fnideq still remember Khaled Saghieh, the late Baathist activist (when the Baath was still a real political party), who was killed by the Second Bureau in the early 1970s. Saghieh was the brain behind the peasant uprising, while Wajih al-Baarini, long-time Akkar MP, was responsible for enlisting the support of the clans in the area for the trio that also included Fouad Awad, an officer from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

While the uprising ultimately put Wajih Baarini in parliament, this was almost devoid of any meaning because of Saghieh’s death and Awad’s imprisonment. Then, in 1976, the Syrian intervention in Lebanon made matters worse.

Today, the Future Movement and its ilk have taken the place of the old feudalism in exploiting the people of the region. For one thing, these groups want to keep the Akkaris poor and ignorant, to manipulate them during election season. Some votes are bought for less than $100, sometimes in return for a mobile phone minutes-card. Moreover, whenever needed for Future rallies, these political forces carry Akkaris like cattle from their remote villages to downtown Beirut, paying for the trip with little more than sandwiches and soda.

After the money ran dry, these factions resorted to sectarian agitation to mobilize people, using nothing but blind passion that does not hold the leader accountable. Indeed, when poverty becomes this deep-seated, it turns into ignorance, and when ignorance lasts so long, it turns people into primitive humans.

Gloomy Apprehension

The drowning of the asylum-seekers from Fnideq and the rest of Akkar has cast a heavy shadow on the area.

The air in Fnideq is chilly, a sign of a frigid winter lurking just around the corner. There is a smell of burning wood coming from somewhere. Perhaps it’s firewood burning under a large cauldron where tomato paste or apple jam is being made. This is the season for making staples for the winter pantry, a necessary chore in this rural area that could be cut off from the outside by snow for as long as six weeks, as happened last year.

But the apple crop, which farmers here rely on, is another calamity that has befallen the village. “The apples are all damaged, and cannot be sold,” said the woman who greeted us warmly at her home – the result of both her rural hospitality but also her intrigue about her two unexpected guests from Beirut.

“No one is finding work, to put it simply,” the woman told us. As she stood speaking to us at the entrance of her house, all the members of her household, young and old, gathered around. She continued, “Honestly, you got to consider all the residents of Fnideq as poor people. No one is earning any money. We can’t enroll kids in school. Those who work eat, and those who don’t work don’t eat.” At this point, Baraa, 19, arrives, drenched in sweat. He was chopping wood.

Baraa said, “What do I do for a living? Everything and anything: shoveling, digging, wood chopping, porterage, labor…” How much does he earn per day? He said, “25,000 lira ($17), but if you take out money for cigarettes, some vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers, bread, and tea and sugar, then it’s soon all gone.”

What about their land, can they not farm it? His sister, who had joined the gathering, said, “We have land, but there is no water, which we have to share with Meshmosh and Qurna.”

We asked Baraa whether he ever learned at school and he said, “I reached the 7th grade.” When we asked why, his sister Fatima said, “They all reach the 7th grade then leave school.”

Again, we asked why, and Baraa said, “We all get to this grade then leave to work in restaurants in Jounieh or Beirut, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. We go there and walk around until we are called. They pay us $35 a day, of which we pay around $10 for taxis there and back.”

What about food? He replied, “They never feed us, but we sort something out.” He said this while laughing. Interestingly, they were all laughing as they spoke about their problems, probably because they were surprised that someone has taken an interest in them.

Umm Khaled, the lady of the house, spoke again, and said, “We went yesterday to the Ministry of Social Affairs to ask them whether they can help with the kids’ school registration fees. I applied last year to receive assistance this year. They told us: Come back after Eid al-Adha.”

Welcome to Qoraytem

Fatima intervened. Apparently, the young woman is married and has four children. Fatima said, “I could not enroll my kids in school this year. Where would I get a million lira ($660)? My husband had a shop, but it went bankrupt from all the debt.”

Umm Khaled continued, ”Whatever we borrow in the winter, we work in the summer to pay back. Only the soldier in our family has been able to support himself, but we are all drowning in debt.”

We asked them whether they were waiting for the election season to make some money, and she said, “I wish! I wish they would pay us even 50,000 ($33)! They no longer give us anything. Sometimes, they distribute clothes or phone cards.”

Fatima, agitated, jumped in again. She said, “The Syrians now number more than us. The homes they live in are fully paid for, and so is their food and schools. Those looking after them are providing them with everything.” Umm Khaled picked up on this train of thought, saying, “They give them only the best brand-new fridges and washing machines.” According to Fatima, “One Syrian woman even said: Why should I go back to Syria?”

What about the apple crop? Umm Khaled said, “The crop was small and mostly tainted. Three boxfuls would sell at 25,000 lira.”

Moving on, we traversed the winding roads that resemble those in the mountainous Shebaa. Some Future Movement symbols were spray-painted on walls, but someone cheeky wrote nearby: “Welcome to Qoraytem” – in reference to Future Movement leader Saad Hariri’s luxury palace in Beirut.

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Sheikh Samih Abdul-Hay, the former mayor of the village and director of the Baraa elementary school, said, “Fnideq has a population of 30,000. Were it not for the option of finding work with the army, there would have been a crime here every day.”

One of the students from the school drowned in Indonesia. Her name was Sarab Mohammed Abdul-Hay. Samih said, “She finished high school and then got married, planning to continue her education in Australia with her husband. Unfortunately, they were exploited. They were manipulated and told: Don’t bother with visas and embassies. Pay us $10,000 and we’ll get you there, and they accepted.”

“Actually, Sarab had applied at the Australian embassy and she got a visa one week after she traveled [to Indonesia],” he added.

So why did she not return? He said, “Maybe she felt embarrassed for having asked her parents to pay the money. Her father works selling coal from Saida to Baqeea, and has 12 children. The group drowned although they were only about 300 meters from the shore. They are all from the mountain and don’t know how to swim. They were defrauded by this guy, Abu Saleh, a Shia Iraqi.”

We asked him, why did he feel he had to mention the man’s religious denomination? Samih was befuddled and embarrassed for having made a sectarian slip of the tongue, and said, “I don’t mean it that way!”

Sarab the Martyr of the Sea

At the home of Sarab Abdul-Hay, sorrow has not yet reached its peak. At least, this is what one entering the house might feel: People there will not believe what happened until the bodies arrive.

The mother mumbles in weeping noises, and the sisters’ eyes are swollen from sobbing. They told us about Sarab, who got married two weeks before Ramadan. She had gotten approval to go to Australia, but her uneducated husband could not travel, so she left for his sake. “They went as bride and groom on a honeymoon,” we were told.

According to Sarab’s brother, Ibrahim Omar, her husband’s friend from the village of Beit Youis told the family: “They went to the mayor who contacted a man called Abdullah Tibeh in Tripoli. They gave him $20,000 for two people, whom he and Abu Saleh would smuggle to Australia.”

Sarab’s brother continued, “There, they were told, ‘we will smuggle you into Australia.’ After she arrived in Indonesia, she received approval for a student visa, and she was summoned for an interview at the embassy in Beirut. We started telling the embassy that she was sick and made up excuses. When she knew that she would be taken by sea, she started saying I don’t want to go by sea, give us the money back.

“Tibeh told her that he could not give her back the money or even take her back to Lebanon. He told her that if she went to the airport, she would be arrested for overstaying her visa. He withheld food and water from them and took them to a remote area, and after that, he took their passports.”

“Five days before they sailed, Abu Saleh chose five men, including the son of the mayor of Qabeet (who is involved in the scheme) and sent them by boat alone to Australia, while the rest of the group were caught by the police. They were placed under arrest and were left with one policeman to guard them, but the asylum-seekers managed to escape.”

He added, “Those who had kids with them could not escape, and neither could my sister and her husband. They got on a motorbike and ran away, but they lost contact with one another before they met at a place they all knew. They contacted Abu Saleh who told them, if you rat me out I will destroy you all. They waited five days, but Abu Saleh asked for more money. Abu Ali (Sarab’s father) borrowed $2,000 and sent them to Tibeh’s brother in Tripoli.”

Sarab’s brother continued, “Five days later, they got on the ferry.” He then paused and showed me on his phone the last message he received from his sister: “It’s half past midnight here. We have just set off. Pray for us.”

Sarab’s mother then spoke, like someone who had just woken up from a nightmare: “She told me, ‘Mother, I am a martyr of the sea! Mother, pray for me! We do not dare tell him no and not go, but there is no hope that we will get there.’ They did not even give them life jackets! And she couldn’t swim!” The mother then started crying.

What happened to the groom? The mother said, “Nothing. He said a wave threw him back to the shore and then he lost consciousness. When he woke up, he saw her. He told me: There is nothing wrong with her. She was lying on the shore and her face was white like snow. There is nothing wrong with her.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

The authenticity of this article with political, historical descriptions incorporated into a full narrative view makes for a compelling read. The description of sectarian agitation is a keen one.

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