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Offering a Hand Up

Setting priorities is no easy task in postwar Lebanon.

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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A visit to a Lebanese home such as those in the villages of Kamatiyeh and Keyfoun always includes a cup of coffee.

How do you like your coffee?

Your choices are almost as numerous as those in a questionnaire: murr (bitter, no sugar), wasat (some sugar), sukkar ‘aliil (very little sugar) or sukkar ziyyadeh (a lot of sugar). If you don’t have a strong opinion or want to be diplomatic, you respond with “aa zaw’ak” (“according to your good taste”).

Kamatiyeh and Keyfoun are Shiite Muslim enclaves surrounded by Christian villages near Beirut. Kamatiyeh’s closest neighbor is the Christian village of Bmkiin. Good relations between the two villages have stood the test of time and the troubles of civil war.

There is no way the one road shared by the two villages can divide them; it curves in and out of each village, connecting the two communities in life and death. From one village church bells announce a marriage or a death; from another, a mosque’s muezzin calls out prayers from the minaret. The two village’s cemeteries lie next to each other; each community pays respects to its bereaved. On happier occasions, be it Christmas or Ramadan, village officials and religious leaders extend their salutations and share in the feasts.

These civilities are as old as the villages and the villages are as old as time. Village legend says the name Kamatiyeh, which means swaddling cloth, was given to the village when a Good Samaritan of the village gave a poor woman a swaddling cloth in which to wrap her baby.

A questionnaire was the reason for the visits to the villages of Kamatiyeh and Keyfoun by Marie-Gabrielle Corm and her team from the Beirut office of the Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East. To determine the needs of the village, a questionnaire was distributed. But few were returned.

The Pontifical Mission tried another approach: Create a village committee. Invitations went out to the mukhtaar, or mayor, to the teachers, who are held in great respect, to the old men who knew life long before the Lebanese civil war, to the heads of the farming co-ops and to the village women – the power behind the plows.

To each his own. At first, each person voiced his or her own opinion and supported his or her own agenda. But with the help of Pontifical Mission staff, these individuals became a committee. And the committee learned the fine art of setting priorities. As possible projects were targeted, each had its own advocate, each its own devil’s advocate.

The Pontifical Mission was willing to help plan and finance the chosen project, but the project required an approval from the central government. The committee learned that sometimes the amount of red tape that had to be cut or untangled helped to set priorities.

In dealing with the Lebanese government for permits and licenses, committee members not only learned on which door to knock, but also how loud to knock and how many knocks were needed.

The committee learned that weather, too, was a factor. For the farmers and the co-op agricultural roads were a top priority, but road construction had to wait for the dry seasons – late spring and summer.

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Tags: Lebanon Shiite