At the end of a small village road in Smar Jbeil, we find an old castle, a man standing by his black Renault, and three young labourers busy with shovels, stones, and sand. Within a few minutes, the man is talking to us about the site, built by the Crusaders about a thousand years ago. He shares his knowledge generously and passionately. I ask him if he’s the site manager. No, he replies with a laugh. “I am the guardian of the castle. My name is Nabil.”*
On June 1, 2006, Nabil began working as a castle guardian for the Ministry of Culture. Before that, he studied accounting. He walks us through the site, and tells us about the prison cages and water reservoirs, and the tunnel that links the castle to the coast in Jbeil, about 20 kilometres south. With my camera, he points, shoots, then counts to two. We become more relaxed with every picture taken, and by the end of our visit, Nabil has photographed us 45 times.
As though wanting to explain his enthusiasm, Nabil tells us that we’re the first tourists he’s seen in days. The winter rain had kept them away. But unlike the German and French tourists who arrive with guidebooks and prepared questions, we let him lead us and don’t ask too many questions.
The sun starts to set. The Syrian workers call it a day and disappear into the building where they sleep during the restoration. As we walk around the castle to visit a cave, I notice one of the workers. He looks young, no older than 20. He and tens of thousands of other Syrian men work in the country, mostly in the construction, agriculture, and service (e.g. as building superintendents). Syrians migrate to Lebanon for work—uprising/repression or not.
Nabil surprises us with an invitation to see his home. We accept and follow him in his car. We stop at a traditional Lebanese home. His family completed the second story in 1908 and the first, some time before. Next door is a chapel that his father’s uncle, a priest, had built. At the chapel’s entrance, a basket of mandarins sits under a Christmas tree. And through a door, into a long stone basement, he shows us a shop full of clothes and small gifts.
Being a guard and guide assures Nabil and his family a livelihood. We stumble to offer him money for his time and explanations. He refuses. His father looks over us from a second-storey entrance. We don’t insist in return, as is customary, and will later regret it. Back at the car, Nabil gives us his phone number and offers to show us Batroun the following week. From the car, we honk and wave.
* Name changed