One day, photographer Fadi BouKaram was Googling the word "Lebanon," hoping to browse the web for information about the country he grew up in. Instead, he found Lebanon, Ore.
It was one of 47 towns named Lebanon in the United States. It occurred to him to visit them all, taking photographs of residents and documenting the towns' histories.
For the towns he was able to research, BouKaram found the name was biblical. It came from people settling in the United States in the 18th century.
"They would be walking and they would see greenery and they would assume that these were cedar trees, or it would remind them of cedar trees," he said. "And given that Lebanon and the cedar tree are kind of closely associated, in my country and in the Bible, they called the town Lebanon and the emblem of the town would often be the cedar."
In 1955, seven American mayors were invited by the Lebanese president at the time, Camille Chamoun, to spend two weeks touring the country. Each was given a cedar sapling to take home and plant.
BouKaram continued to read about Lebanon, Ore. And Lebanon, Penn. And Lebanon, Ill. There once was a Lebanon, Minn., but now it's called Apple Valley.
He thought that he'd take his tour of all the Lebanons one day, when he retired. But in 2016, he changed his mind about the timing.
"I was on a business trip to Baghdad," he explained. "That didn't go well, and it made me reconsider things in life ... I thought, 'Life's too short, and I want to go on that trip.'"
So he started in San Francisco, where he went to graduate school. He found an RV in Seattle and headed east. His friends warned him that people might not be as friendly as he'd hoped.
But, aside from his RV being stolen in Albuquerque, N.M., people were very friendly.
"It's the kind of hospitality that reminded me of small villages in Lebanon ... places back home that also barely exist anymore," he said.
The tour also coincided with the 2016 presidential election, so there were a lot of political conversations.
Yes, he noticed the rural-urban divides. His photos reflect that. It was a common theme among all the Lebanons. They were all small towns — one had a population of 26. (When BouKaram was invited to a gathering where the "whole town" was expected to attend, it was literally the whole town.)
BouKaram thinks his work shows "a side of American life that few other Americans get to see." It has attracted online followers everywhere.
Sharon Mansur, an Arab-American dance and visual artist in Winona, Minn., invited BouKaram for a residency program and is featuring photos from his tour until the end of October. The photos are on display in Winona through Oct. 26. Mansur is leading "The Cedar Tree Project," which explores identity through the lens of Arab and Arab-American artists.
BouKaram's tour this year is a little different from the one he did in 2016. He's going back to plant cedar trees, because only one from the seven that were originally planted in the 1950s has survived. He's planting new ones to reestablish that connection with the country Lebanon.
He's in South Dakota now. Then it's off to Nebraska, Kansas and Oregon. He's still photographing people and telling their stories. And this time, he's driving in a van, not an RV.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.