Lebanese watch homeland from afar

Fellows Fall 2004

By Julie Goodman

June 01, 2009

Chafik and Louise Chamoun came to the United States in1954. A few years later they opened a grocery store which evolved into the now-thriving Rest Haven Restaurant.

Chafik and Louise Chamoun came to the United States in1954. A few years later they opened a grocery store which evolved into the now-thriving Rest Haven Restaurant.

CLARKSDALE — Chafik Chamoun can only watch the painful transformation of his country from afar.

Five decades ago, Chamoun and his wife, Louise, moved to the United States as teenagers, leaving behind the fragrant cedars and foamy Mediterranean shores in their homeland of Lebanon.

They recall how saddened they once were by the sight of civil war, one that ravaged Beirut from 1975-90. Now, a militant Shiite group, Hezbollah, has made significant strides into Lebanon's government.

And tensions are brewing between Lebanon and its imposing neighbor, Syria.

The United States is pressuring Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon and close off its border with Iraq to block insurgents from crossing over to fight U.S. occupation.

The turbulence is the worst Chamoun has seen in 50 years.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen over there," he said.

The Chamouns, who have six children scattered around the South, visit Lebanon infrequently.

They have not ruled out another visit to Lebanon soon, but they still struggle with a range of conflicting emotions for the country they left behind.

Chafik Chamoun, 71, caught up with two generations of his family here in the Delta. They had come over as peddlers. His wife, whose father was American, was able to claim U.S. citizenship.

The couple joined other Lebanese families in an unusual confluence of cultures, bringing grape leaves and Arabic to the land of cotton, Southern drawls and the blues.

The Chamoun family originally came to America in the early 1900s, fleeing pre-war hardship and the Ottoman Empire.

They landed in Mexico and worked their way north, eventually settling in Clarksdale where they peddled goods to plantation workers for a living. Some eventually opened their own grocery and dry goods stores.

For years, Chafik Chamoun eked out a living as a salesman, packing the back of a station wagon with bug repellent, medicine, spices and other goods, and supplementing his income by selling cars. "I've done a little bit of everything since I've been here," he said.

In 1966, the couple bought a grocery store, and Louise Chamoun learned to perfect a pita sandwich with kibbie, a mix of ground steak, cracked wheat, onions and special seasonings.

They served the Lebanese dish in a makeshift dining area of picnic tables covered with plastic.

The couple eventually closed the store and took over a cousin's restaurant, Chamoun's Rest Haven, where they still serve a Lebanese-American fare to a loyal customer base.

"We're stuck here," said Louise Chamoun, now 67, still recalling the time ZZ Top walked into the restaurant for kibbie and cabbage rolls.

A few of the Lebanese in Mississippi left their native country within the last few decades, choosing to marry and raise children here, forsaking the homeland which had erupted into a brutal civil war.

Others came earlier, escaping service in the armies of the sultan, according to the book, Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi. Some left as early as the 1880s.

In the early days, the Lebanese were discriminated against. Some in Clarksdale were forced to live in the segregated black neighborhoods and permitted to move into other neighborhoods only after a generation had passed.

Many here now are the children or grandchildren of Lebanese immigrants, some of whom have never been to Lebanon.

The community eventually comprised the "most Americanized" Lebanese community in the United States, according to the book, which includes the story of one resident named "Bubba Mohammed."

Many Mississippi Lebanese make up the congregation at the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Vicksburg, and hold on tenaciously to their ethnic food traditions.

The Chamouns continue to worry about changes in their homeland, and they miss their country's sea, valleys and cedars, wood that was used to build the First Temple of Solomon.

But they like the people here in Mississippi, the regulars who help themselves to coffee every morning. And they recall the black Delta residents — impoverished themselves — who insisted on buying Chafik Chamoun's products all those years ago just to help him make a living.

"I love Lebanon," he said. "But we are in the best country in the world."

Copyright © 2007 International Reporting Project. All Rights Reserved.