We met up with the Hamra brothers, hoteliers and self-made entrepreneurs in the best of Lebanese tradition, at a place where old ways of peaceful coexistence stand firm in the face of great outside pressure.
“Settled by my forebears,” Pulitzer prize winning reporter Anthony Shadid wrote in his book ‘House of Stone’, “Marjayoun was once an entrepôt perched along routes of trade plied by Christians, Muslims and Jews which stitched together the tapestry of an older Middle East. It was, in essence, a gateway – to Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and Damascus, beyond Mount Hermon; to Jerusalem, in historic Palestine; and to Baalbek, the site of an ancient Roman town. This was a place as cosmopolitan as the countryside offered.”
On my day in Marjayoun, in Lebanon’s blue zone, south of the Litani river, nothing felt particularly cosmopolitan about it. There were more than a dozen tables ready for breakfast in the Dana Hotel, but only two of them were occupied. From the loudspeakers, old Fairuz songs in instrumental versions were playing over to where I was sitting.
After breakfast, I met brothers Fouad and Najib Hamra, founders and owners of the Dana Hotel. Fouad and Najib were both born in Africa, in the Ivory Coast, from Lebanese parents. Their family moved back to Marjayoun and later the brothers studied mechanical engineering in the United States. While “things were bad” in Lebanon they worked successfully in the Gulf and made some money there.
“We didn’t want to just sit on the money”, the brothers told me, “we wanted to do something meaningful with it and invest it in the Marjayoun area.” The Hamra brothers, self-made entrepreneurs in the best of Lebanese tradition, came back to the south of Lebanon, opened a variety of small businesses and finally built the Dana Hotel, their “affair of the heart”.
“The idea for the hotel came in 1986,” said Najib Hamra, lighting a cigarette after asking me if I would allow him to smoke. “At this time there was no real hotel, no resort, no recreational facility around here. Fouad and I wanted to expose the people of Marjayoun to new things.”
Photo credit: Dana Hotel
The Dana Hotel opened at Christmas of 1990, at a time when the south of Lebanon was still under Israeli occupation. In Marjayoun, UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, was busy trying to keep some kind of order. UNIFIL’s original mandate, established in 1978, was to confirm the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. When this didn’t happen, UNIFIL’s role was reduced to humanitarian assistance. For the Dana Hotel, their presence was nevertheless a blessing. To this day the flag of Norway, head of the UNIFIL contingent at that time, flies at the entrance of the hotel.
While being stationed in Marjayoun, the Norwegians were able to win hearts and minds – so often evoked, but rarely achieved – of the local people. Quite naturally the rapture was mutual. Some Norwegians have married into families of the region, some keep contact through Facebook, some even have learned how to speak Arabic like a Southerner. Once every year a group from Norway comes back to the Dana Hotel to celebrate the good times they had when meeting the people of South Lebanon.
In the year 2000, after the Israelis finally withdrew from Lebanon, civilians started to flock back to the area. “The whole area was in shambles during the Israeli occupation,” Najib Hamra said. But now people started to construct new houses or began to repair the damaged houses of their ancestors.
“People need a place to belong to,” the Hamra brothers told me. “For some this is Marjayoun and this area in southeastern Lebanon. After the Israelis had left, people had the chance to again belong to their region.”
Many people don’t live in the area permanently; they live in Beirut and have made their houses in the south their second residences, for weekends or for longer periods during summertime. In winter there can be snow in Marjayoun and the area – as well as the Dana Hotel – is all but dead.
To reach the land south of the Litani, foreigners need a permit from the Lebanese army. This is a big burden for the Dana Hotel. “It holds people back from visiting us and has a negative impact on the area as a whole,” Fouad Hamra said. Some potential visitors just don’t feel like dealing with Lebanese bureaucracy in order to get the pass.
Notwithstanding the hassle with the permits Dana Hotel has guests from all over the world. Only the Lebanese are mostly absent. For Najib Hamra southern Lebanon is the safest area in the world, but the Lebanese are nonetheless afraid to travel to the south. They rather stick to the tracks they know, in the traffic jams between Beirut and Jounieh. “It’s in their heads,” Najib said.
Strolling through Marjayoun and nearby Ebl Saqi in the glaring light of a summer midday, I immediately understood Najib Hamra’s argument. The area is not only safe, but also peaceful. The tapestry of an older Middle East, as Anthony Shadid described it, is very much alive. Christians, Druzes and Shias live side-by-side, door-by-door. This land full of beauty has lots of substance and potential; its people are as soft spoken and hospitable as their houses are rock solid.
This is a place where the Chief of Police also drives the ambulance.
Marjayoun gathering in the 1950s. Photo via marjeyoun.net
Besides welcoming and accommodating its guests, the Dana Hotel is also an enterprise to create jobs in a region with very poor economic opportunities. The hotel has 65 employees in summer and ten during the winter season. It also provides outside catering and organizes weddings for up to a thousand people. And since the brothers are always expanding – building new rooms, or a huge pool area for guests of the hotel and locals alike, or bungalows – Dana Hotel is an important source of income for the local construction business as well.
“What are the effects of the war in Syria on your business?” I asked Fouad and Najib Hamra.
“They are huge,” said Najib, who lives in Abu Dhabi, but comes back to Marjayoun once every month. “Before the war, Arabs from the Gulf were sometimes driving their cars through Syria to Lebanon to spend time in the Dana Hotel. Of course this in not possible anymore. If the Gulf Arabs still come to Lebanon at all they fly to Beirut and stay there.”
With the state of Israel only a few kilometers away and its borders closed, with Beirut buried under trash, and living next to the ongoing war in Syria, the region sometimes feels like caught in a trap. The gateway has become a cul-de-sac.
“Israel is really affecting us a lot,” Najib Hamra said. “And it has become almost like a rule that every year between June 10 and 15 Israel conducts some kind of operation to mess up the summer business in the south of Lebanon.”
“However,” Fouad Hamra interrupted, “we don’t want to talk about politics.”
Like most successful ventures in Lebanon, the Dana Hotel is the fruit of efforts by private individuals. Lebanon is not a particularly business-friendly country. Fouad and Najib Hamra didn’t have any kind of support from the state when planning and developing the Dana Hotel. “Only now, when everything is working, politicians want to participate,” Najib Hamra said.
“How do you make money with the Dana Hotel,” I wanted to know from the brothers, “in such a geopolitically challenged environment?”
“Actually we don’t,” they said, and both of them were smiling. “The hotel is our fun area.”
“And where do you see the hotel in 2030?” I asked Fouad and Najib Hamra before we finished our conversation. Fouad was both pessimistic and enthusiastic. “I hope for a better future for this region,” he said, “but I am not sure. As for the hotel, we will always strive to grow and improve.”
Against all odds, the Hamra brothers and the people of South Lebanon keep going. Because this is their character. Because this is their home.