MAANIEH, Lebanon: Driving through the hills and valleys of the Chouf’s Maanieh, 68-year-old Mansour Azzi professed his love for his olive trees, pointing to each passing grove and noting their varying ages. “I talk to each tree,” Mansour said smiling, his hands on the wheel. “I tell them, ‘Hello, I’m here to do a little maintenance,’ I prune them, and then I say goodbye.”
Sitting in the passenger seat, Mansour’s wife, Rita, laughed and nodded her head in agreement, testifying to her husband’s passion.
The couple, who now live in Zouk Mikael, north of Beirut, had taken a trip down south for the weekend to visit Mansour’s hometown. Tucked into the mountains between Rmeileh and Jiyyeh, the small village of Maanieh is deeply rooted in Mansour’s spirit.
Having grown up in the groves with his grandfather, Mansour can still identify specific trees that are firmly attached to particular memories from his youth.
“My grandfather taught me how to prune a little. He gave me very basic instructions and I would follow. I was about 22 years old when he passed away. At the time, I wasn’t serious about taking care of them [the trees] at all.”
Mansour’s passion would emerge years later, after his family had fled the village during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).
“It was Sept. 9, the summer of 1983,” he recalled. “We left after the militias arrived.”
Working as a travel agent in Jounieh, Mansour soon purchased a house in Zouk Mikael where he would settle for good.
Then, Mansour met his wife, Rita Hakim, and the couple went on to have three children.
Despite finding success in this new chapter of his life, Mansour never forgot Maanieh. The sleepy village – only an hour and a half away – loomed large in the thoughts of Mansour, who had hopes of introducing his wife and children to his hometown.
Eight years after he left, and shortly after the end of the war, Mansour made the first steps in preparation for his return – initially seeking an audience with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, who has long commanded sway in the Chouf region.
“I went to Walid Jumblatt for a visit in Moukhtara [the PSP leader’s residence], expressing my wish to return,” Mansour said.
“He immediately agreed. I’m still good friends with him. Jumblatt is a man of his word; he follows through on his promises.”
Mansour traveled with his wife and children to Maanieh on Aug. 14, 1991, immediately after his appeal to the Druze leader. Nearly a decade had passed since he had set foot in his hometown.
“I was astonished when I arrived. Every house was destroyed, all of the olive trees were cut,” he said.
“Today, when you drive up, you can see the trees. But the day I returned, it was like a desert. There were huge fields that were empty; there was barely any green left.”
Rita agreed, remembering her first visit as a disappointment.
“Mansour would tell me all the time how beautiful Maanieh was. I had never been, but when we drove down for the first time, it was so disappointing. There was barely anything on the land,” she said.
Walking into a grove nurturing some of Maanieh’s oldest trees, Mansour pointed to a branch long ago sawed from a thick trunk and now dried with time.
“I’ve known this tree since I was 5 years old. During the war, the people who came here would ... cut off the low branches. They destroyed the trees and used the wood for fires and heating during the winter,” he said, shaking his head.
The stark postwar landscape of Maanieh left a deep mark on Mansour, fueling him and his brother George with an awakened sense of purpose. The brothers, working to heal the village’s scars, started to labor on the land and began reviving the family’s modest olive oil production house.
“First, I worked to restore the church,” Azzi said, referring to the village’s sole church, Mar Elias, which is over a century old. “Then I started cleaning the fields before I began restoring the trees and planting new ones. I spent so many hours reading books, learning how to properly prune and restore the olive tree.”
Nearly three decades into this undertaking on his family’s expansive land, the formerly destroyed olive trees are experiencing a new lease on life, producing 1,500 to 2,000 liters of olive oil annually.
Compared to the 4,000 liters extracted before the war, Mansour’s current gains are meager, but such details are of little importance to him.
Mansour oversees the maintenance of the groves while his brother George handles oil production.
Their other siblings simply watch, a laughing Mansour said.
His efforts appeared contagious. Today’s residents of the town – most of whom are returnees and relatives of the Azzi family – are to be found working in the surrounding olive groves, or sitting with neighbors chatting outside their stone houses.
Mansour, vibrantly social, caught up with each person who passed by during The Daily Star’s visit. Holding green olives in his hand, freshly picked from a young tree, he told an elderly woman that he had just planted a sapling.
The elderly woman kissed each olive, wishing the tree a bright future – the interaction serving as a testament to Maanieh’s connection to the harvest.
“I’m happy with what I’ve done, but still, after all this time, it makes me sad that I could not restore it [to its] original state,” Mansour said.
He stood at the terrace of the Mar Elias Church, motioning to the lands rolling away from the church and recalling their former glory.
“Before the war, it was beautiful. There was green everywhere,” he said. “Olives, figs, quince ... We had everything in Maanieh.”
While the Chouf village now appears green, with the exception of several empty patches and occasional dying shrubs, Mansour shakes his head in regret.
“Not like before.”