I arrived at the Ain Zhalta Cedar reserve park at 9am. Although a perfectly acceptable time to begin a summer hike, the park guards and workers did not to agree - the long metal barrier still blocked the entrance into the park. I wasn't willing to wait and neither was a biker who had already maneuvered his body and bike across the barrier and taken offinto the dense forest. As the bike disappeared into the distance, the only other person around was a young girl yelling at hersister to make sure their dozen or so sheep didn't go too far. As I watched these two young girls tend to sheep on this rocky mountain at 9am on a Friday, I thought of my beautiful baby niece, Kaia. Her life will be so different than other young girls I see all across Lebanon, some selling flowers on the road, some sleeping on dirty street corners, others frolicking barefoot in the snow, living in a makeshift tent along Lebanon's northern border.
But Hiba's energy was one I hope Kaia will one day share: it was warm and curious. As we exchanged smiles, and got introduced.
"Here's some money," I said, eventually, handing her 5,000LL. "The park isn't open yet, but I'm going to start my hike anyway. If I don't come back in four hours, send someone after me."
Hiba tried to stop me, warning me of snakes by pointing to a dead one that I hadn't even noticed along the side of the road. I told her it would be fine and I would be back shortly.
Two hours later, I returned to see the barrier now lifted and two workers manning the entrance.
"She's been waiting here all morning for you," said one of the guards, in a disapproving tone as if the presence of this young disheveled shepherd girl at his gate had bothered him all morning. There was immediate tension between us and it was instantly clear we didn't appreciate each other. I recognized his asshole type within seconds.
I was so happy to see Hiba was still there although she mildly reprimanded me for taking too long, telling me her sheep had returned to their house nearby.
By that time, I had coincidentally run into campers in the park who had slept at the top of the mountain, one of which was an old photographer friend of mine who years ago, had sold me the camera I was carrying.
The hikers took a liking to Hiba and her to them, even though I could see how she was getting shy around boys. She said if we wanted, we could drive down a small private path to her house, where there was a cold spring for the campers to refill their water bottles. So used to being outdoors and walking to her destinations, getting in my 2006 Honda Civic was awkward for her, but the smirk on her face also hinted at some excitement. The campers must have saw what I saw, and made sure she sat in the front seat.
"Your car is too low for the road to my house, so just park it here," she said, taking command of all four adults in the car. We all got out and walked five minutes to her house, a white metal rectangle that resembled a mini mobile home. As we walked around the small property, we learned the land which hosted her home was in fact owned by a Lebanese man named George. Her family lived there in exchange for taking care of the apple orchards, the sheep and few pigeons. This kind of trade-off between Lebanese land owner and Syrian refugee families desperate for a home or a place to sleep, has become even more common in the years after Syrian war that led millions to flee their country. Hiba and her family were from a small town in Idleb province and had arrived to Lebanon only last year.
After our little photo shoot with her and the sheep, and as I began to say goodbye, she blurted: "Can I get one without the sheep in the background?" She also made me promise to print the pictures, frame them, and bring them back to her.