Lebanon News

A life in the hills: The herders’ harsh reality

BEIRUT: Above the town of Faqra, which boasts some of the most expensive real estate in Lebanon, a road winds up the mountain that gave the country its name. After the Lebanese Army checkpoint at the top of the hill it levels out and the landscape is barren but remains home to a community whose way of life is dying. Badr Halimi has a tanned, weather-beaten face under the red and white keffiyeh he habitually wears that speaks to a life lived under the sun. Badr has been a shepherd his whole life. Every year, from March to November, he and his family come up from the nearby Bekaa Valley to the plateau to graze their herd.

They pitch their tents for the summer, and the 300 sheep are the main source of the family’s income. “We make cheese, we make labneh and we sell it,” Badr told The Daily Star. “When the lambs are born, we sell the males and weaker females for meat and keep the rest of the females.”

With his thick brown beard flecked with streaks of gray, he talked about his life in the hills with a warm smile over his nicotine-stained teeth and deeply etched crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes.

His customers are from the nearby towns, or from the Bekaa. “There are people who come up here to buy the milk and the cheese, from Hrajel or Faraya. Sometimes we go down there to sell it ourselves, or we go to Zahle or Baalbek.”

He describes a tough, seasonal existence. Badr spends his days, and often his nights, outside with the sheep. He leaves home at about half past two in the afternoon, taking the herd to graze. He then often sleeps under the stars, and returns to his tent in the morning. “It’s a hard life,” he said.

Most of the milk the herd produces in the spring, with much less by the end of the summer. “In the winter we sell nothing. The milk has to go to the newborn lambs.” During that time the plateau is uninhabitable but becomes popular with skiers and winter sport enthusiasts. Because of the snow, Badr and his family normally descend the mountain road and head for the border town of Arsal, where he says his sister lives and he owns a house near the Syrian border.

In spite of the hardship, Badr says that shepherds like him and his family have been coming here for generations. His mother Hajar has been living this way since she was born – currently she lives with Badr’s brother in the neighboring tent.

Badr and his family are part of a wider community of that he estimates includes some “more than 250 families across Mount Lebanon.” However, he said that the community is also shrinking.

Despite its isolation, geopolitical developments in Lebanon and the region have a direct impact on the community, which is one of the factors he says contributes to their decline. When violence in neighboring Syria spilled over into Arsal, which was briefly overrun by Daesh (ISIS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – then known as the Nusra Front – in 2014, it became much more difficult for him to go home. He said that he hasn’t been there at all in the past year.

For a while he said he sent his children to live with his sister in the border town so that they could go to school regularly, while he stayed in Ras Baalbek. Speaking shortly before the conclusion of the Lebanese Army’s “Fajr al-Joroud” operation to drive militants out of the border areas, he said that even this became impossible and it made it difficult for the children to get a regular education. He added that the family used to receive support from the UNHCR as part of its assistance for host the poorest host communities, but this later stopped.

However, he said that similar challenges have been overcome in the past. He described how, due to its strategic significance, the plateau was hotly contested during the Civil War. “There were mines everywhere,” Badr recalled, “You had Army battalions, Palestinians, the Syrian army ... In the 1970s we lived up in the Cedars [near Bsharri]. We weren’t allowed up here.”

Even after the end of the war, he said it continued to have ramifications for the shepherds. He said that once a sheep got away from him and stepped on a mine, which exploded. However, he said, the shepherds have managed to adapt. “We’ve been here so long, we know where the land mines are,” Badr said.

Perhaps one of the main reason for the community’s gradual decline are the more permanent global developments. The way of life is getting easier due to better technology and increased connectivity with other parts of the country.

“Now, if we want to go get water, we can drive. Before, we had to go by donkey,” the weather-beaten shepherd joked.

This improved connectivity has opened up new possibilities for the community. Badr said his nieces and nephews received a good education and have successful jobs elsewhere in the country. His uncle left some years ago to pursue a career as a university mathematics professor in the United Kingdom.

Naturally, he and others said they want the same for their children, which is why he says some are leaving. “I hope they do something else,” Badr said of his kids. He has no such ambitions for himself, however. “I love the animals,” he said. “There’s no other life for me.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 25, 2017, on page 3.

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