In Khaldeh, 'a gate to four places,' the Arab tribes stake out their turf

As part of series taking the pulse of the country through immersive reports from the four corners of Lebanon, L'Orient Today stepped into the world of the Arabs of Khaldeh. Descendants of Bedouin tribes, they hang onto their traditions but defend their Lebanese identity. After a series of clashes with Hezbollah that landed some clan members in jail, now they are threatening to boycott the May 15 elections.

In Khaldeh, 'a gate to four places,' the Arab tribes stake out their turf

Coffee awaits guests at an iftar dinner hosted by one of the prominent clans among the Arabs of Khaldeh on April 27, 2022. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

KHALDEH — The diwan of the late Sheikh Mounzer “Abu Amir” Daher in the hills of Khaldeh was prepared to receive guests in style. Plates of fruit and sweets were laid out on the tables. Coffee — made the traditional way by grinding hand-roasted beans with a giant mortar and pestle along with a sprinkling of cardamom — was on the fire.

At a Ramadan kitchen the Daher clan had set up next to a mosque down the hill, the Syrian kitchen manager Ahmad “Abu Zeid” al-Jassem and his wife, along with children and grandchildren of the late sheikh, had been sweating over vats of lamb meat and rice since 9 a.m. to prepare the required quantity of mensaf — a traditional Bedouin dish and the staple of iftar dinners among the Arabs of Khaldeh.

During the Muslim holy month, the kitchen was normally used for preparing iftar meals to distribute daily to families unable to afford their own.

“My wife and I cook every day, about three big bags of rice, 50 kilos of potatoes, 20, 30, 40 kilos of chicken — there are lemons, potatoes, fasoulia (kidney beans), about 20 kilos,” Jassem said. “Throughout Ramadan, we distribute to the poor. About 200 or 300 people come daily to take food for their families.”

But today, on the 27th day of Ramadan, they were preparing for a different occasion. Some 20 lambs had been slaughtered in preparation for the hundreds of guests expected to arrive for an iftar hosted by the clan in Abu Amir’s memory.

The staff of a Ramadan kitchen run by the Daher clan in Khaldeh clean up after a long day spent preparing an iftar meal for hundreds. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

Abu Amir was one of the clan leaders of the Arabs of Khaldeh, descendents of Sunni Bedouin tribes who settled on the coast south of Beirut long before the area grew into the dense suburban sprawl it is today. They are part of a larger network of Bedouin tribes spread out throughout Lebanon. In Beirut’s Karantina neighborhood, the tribe members became known as Arab al-Maslakh because they traditionally worked in the local slaughterhouse. In Khaldeh, they kept herds of goats and cows on the barren, rocky hills along the coastline.

The walls of the diwan are hung with vintage rifles and swords, portraits of clan elders, photographs of Abu Amir alongside political figures, including the father and son duo of former prime ministers, Rafik Hariri and Saad Hariri, and Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, alongside whose forces Daher had fought against the invading Israeli army in 1982. In a further nod to that chapter in history, a rough carving of the visage of former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat grinned down from a column at the back of the room.

As the iftar began, Abu Amir’s brother, Sheikh Riad “Abu Zeidan” Daher, welcomed the tribe members who had come from as far as Hermel and spoke of his brother's legacy: “He was a man who loved his tribe, loved his God, loved his people, loved his mountain.”

He then turned briefly to politics, addressing an attending delegation from Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party regarding the fallout of clashes that broke out between some of the Arabs of Khaldeh and members of Hezbollah in the past two years.

Some among the Arabs have called for a boycott of the May 15 parliamentary elections in protest over the continued imprisonment of clan members who were arrested in August 2021 in connection with the killing of a prominent Hezbollah member, Ali Shebli, and a subsequent ambush on Shebli’s funeral procession in vengeance for Hassan Ghosn, a teenager from the Arab clans who was killed in street fighting between the two groups a year earlier.

Among the detainees is Omar Ghosn, a Salafist-leaning sheikh who had a central role in the 2020 clashes and in previous roadblocks on the Beirut-Saida highway connecting the capital to the south — a source of tension with Hezbollah, which wanted the route to remain open.

“We need to bring this file to an end, Mr. Akram. It is essential that it is resolved,” Abu Zeidan said, addressing PSP MP Akram Chehayeb, who was among the guests, before turning back to eulogizing his late brother.

Sheikh Riad "Abu Zeidan" Daher, one of the leaders of the Arabs of Khaldeh, sits in the diwan of his late brother, Sheikh Mounzer "Abu Amir" Daher. (Credit: Hasan Shaaban/L'Orient Today)

A gate to four places

Khaldeh’s strategic location, particularly since the completion of the highway in 2002, has made it a melting pot of different sects and political factions and sometimes a flashpoint of conflict.

“Khaldeh is a gate to four places: the gate to the capital, Beirut; the gate to the mountains; the gate to the south; and the gate to the world by way of the Beirut airport,” said Ali Chahine, a journalist and researcher who is also a member of one of the Arab clans.

But when the tribes first came to Khaldeh, it was not a gate to anything.

In the 1940s, said Marwan Haidar, engineer for the municipality of Choueifat, of which Khaldeh is a part, the coastal area was undeveloped save for an old church, Saydet Khaldeh, and the tents of the Arabs. In the 1950s and 60s, he said, the Arabs began to build along the coast, but at first lightly. Later, after the war, he said, “When [Rafik] Hariri opened up the highway, the government bought their lands and then they began to build up above.”

The Arabs were not the only ones who began to build in Khaldeh, which today is a hodgepodge of strip malls and tenement buildings rising up above the highway. The tribes have traded in their tents for apartments, and those that still raise livestock have largely moved their flocks to land they own in Dahr al-Baidar. Wedding parties no longer go on for seven days as they used to. But in many ways, the tribes have blended the old ways with the new.

Fadi Nawfal lives with his family in what was once a single story house built in 1950. The house and the family’s diwan now occupy the bottom floor of an apartment building, the upper levels of which are rented by Syrian refugees. His children play in a courtyard that once had an unobstructed view of the sea but now overlooks the highway and a junkyard.

Behind the building, an abandoned smaller and older house is still surrounded by a small grove of olive and citrus trees with a few chickens in a coop.

Chickens range in a small plot of land behind Fadi Nawfal's house in Khaldeh. (Credit: Hasan Shaaban/L'Orient Today)

“These buildings here are not very old, maybe 30 years,” Nawfal said, pointing to the surrounding apartment buildings. Before that, when he was a boy, he said, “There was nothing here. There was this house and the one below, that’s it… The area has changed a lot, but we are still preserving our traditions, thank God.”

Abu Zeidan echoed that sentiment. He is a traditionalist; while younger members of the tribes have turned to jeans and T-shirts or slacks and button-up shirts, Abu Zeidan favors Bedouin-style robes and head wraps. In an era when most Muslims in Lebanon opt for monogamy, despite Islamic law technically permitting a man to marry up to four women, he has three wives.

“We, the tribes, have continued to preserve our identity and our accent and way of dressing and our customs, because these things point to our ancient heritage,” he said, adding, “Of course, first of all, we are patriots — Lebanese and patriots.”

The Arabs’ Lebanese identity has frequently been thrown into question by detractors, who claim they got the nationality in 1994 under a decree by the elder Hariri as a ploy to expand the Sunni electorate. Some refer to them as “nawar,” a derogatory term for gypsies.

Younes Daher, a mokhtar (local official responsible for records) in Choueifat and himself a member of the Arab tribes, asserts that the ancestors of the present-day clans, from the Zureikat tribe in Iraq, came to Lebanon after the 1187 Battle of Hattin in northern Palestine, in which the forces of Saladin defeated Crusader armies.

“There are some who went to Jordan, some to Palestine, and the last place they came to was Saadiyat [on the coast of Lebanon], and from Saadiyat to Khaldeh, Karantina and the north,” he said, adding that the current Arabs of Khaldeh — among them the Daher, Ghosn, Chahine and Mattar families — are descended from a man from the Nawfal tribe who settled in the area.

“This is my grandfather, Moussa Issa Daher Nawfal — we are all Nawfals — from 1877,” Daher said, rifling through a stack of property, census and family registry records on his desk, periodically pulling one out to brandish for emphasis. “In the census of 1932, we were among those counted. Nawfal was the first family to be counted in Choueifat.”

Issa Daher, an ancestor of the present-day Arabs of Khaldeh, pictured on the wall of a diwan. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

Members of related tribes living in the Bekaa and Wadi Khaled were either excluded from or chose not to be counted in the 1932 census. As a result, many were barred from Lebanese nationality until the 1994 decree. A study of the 1994 decree on voting patterns lists 9,070 Arabs from Wadi Khaled among the nearly 155,000 people granted nationality under the decree but does not list any from the Arabs of Khaldeh.

Even in Khaldeh, Daher said, at the time of the 1932 census, “There was some reluctance among the clans to take the nationality, because we have a particular lifestyle.” A teacher from the village of Choueifat who used to give classes to the children of the Arabs convinced them to register, he said.

“At the beginning of the state of Lebanon, we were the first people [to be recorded], and [the land in] Khaldeh was registered in the names of the Arabs of Khaldeh,” Daher said. He added, “There are people who insult us as nawar, but this is the answer.”

In the 1960s, development began to pick up in the area, with developers buying large plots and subdividing them with an eye to creating something like “the American suburbs, with small lots and individual houses,” said Hayfaa Abou Ibrahim, a researcher with the Beirut Urban Lab.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1975, the pace of development picked up further, as people displaced from Beirut and the south began to take refuge in Khaldeh — among them, some of the Arabs of the Maslakh who fled after the 1976 massacre by Christian militias in Karantina.

“When we came, there were the Arabs of Khaldeh, who protected the area,” said Ahmad Younes Khalaf, one of the Arabs of the Maslakh who settled in Khaldeh after his family fled from Karantina. “They welcomed us and they treated us well. We have relatives from the same tribe.”

Fadi Nawfal lives with his family in what was once a single story house built in 1950, now an apartment building overlooking the Beirut-Saida Highway. (Credit: Hasan Shaaban/L'Orient Today)

In the years after the war, Rafik Hariri planned to build a modern highway linking Beirut to the south, largely due to pressure from middle class Sunni families from West Beirut who had escaped to Khaldeh and surrounding areas during the war and wanted a quicker commute to the capital, Abou Ibrahim said. Originally the highway was supposed to cut through Ouzai, but in the face of opposition from the area’s residents and their political backers within the Amal and Hezbollah parties, it was rerouted to pass through land belonging to the Beirut airport — which had itself been moved from Bir Hassan to Khaldeh in the 1950s.

After the completion of the highway in 2002, the pace of development picked up, as did the influx of new residents. These included “Druze families from Rachaya and Hasbaya who wanted to be closer to Beirut, Sunnis displaced by postwar reconstruction projects, and most recently joined by Shiites who escaped the congested [southern suburbs of Beirut] to a less segregated area,” Abou Ibrahim wrote in her thesis, in which she studied the development of the area.

The Arab vote

The Arabs of Khaldeh today number between 5,000 and 10,000 to 12,000, according to different sources. Among them are some 1,200 registered voters, the mokhtar, Daher, said. They thus make up the majority of Sunni voters in the Aley caza, or sub-district, within the Mount Lebanon IV district — but less than 1 percent of the total voters in the caza. Druze make up 54 percent of the nearly 134,000 registered voters in the caza, followed by Maronites, with 22 percent, and Greek Orthodox, with 11 percent.

As there is no Sunni parliamentary seat in Aley — most of the Sunni population of the area are transplants from Beirut and still vote there — the Arabs are largely tied politically to one or the other, or both, of two rival Druze leaders: Joumblatt, head of the PSP; and Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party and son of the late Amir Majid Arslan.

In the diwans of the Arab clans in Khaldeh, photographs of Druze leader Walid Joumblatt or rival Talal Arslan, or both, are frequently displayed. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

A 2017 United Nations report on the security situation in the coastal area between Beirut and Saida noted that while the Arab clans in the area “are of the Sunni sect … their allegiances do not by necessity reflect their sectarian belonging, but rather a combination of complex historical and political interests. … They do not necessarily form one homogenous group, but can nonetheless be mobilized by politicians on a sectarian basis.”

“Our strong and deep and long standing relationship…with Walid Joumblatt and Talal Arslan is well known,” the mokhtar, Daher, said.

While “every son of the tribes, especially in Khaldeh, loves [Sunni political leader] Rafik Hariri and misses Rafik Hariri,” he added, the fact that there is no Sunni seat in the district “means that the relationship with the house of Hariri will be more distant in the elections. The closer relationship in the elections is with the Druze people.”

But that relationship has been frayed by last year’s clashes.

In August 2020, Shebli, a prominent local businessman and Hezbollah official, hung a picture of Salim Ayyash, a Hezbollah member convicted in absentia by an international tribunal in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and a banner commemorating the Shiite Ashura holiday on a building he owned. Omar Ghosn, who was later detained, and his supporters tore them down. In the ensuing clashes, Hassan Ghosn was killed and the Shebli Center burned down.

Nearly a year later, on July 30, 2021, Hassan’s brother, Ahmad Ghosn, allegedly shot and killed Shebli at a wedding party, and clan members then opened fire on his funeral procession in Khaldeh the following day, killing five people, including three Hezbollah members in what turned into an hourslong street battle.

The incident led some to predict an escalation in sectarian strife that could end in civil war.

A poster in Khaldeh commemorates Hassan Ghosn, a teenager killed in clashes between the Arabs of Khaldeh and Hezbollah in 2020. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

But the Hezbollah response was surprisingly muted. The party’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called the attacks on Shebli and the funeral procession a “massacre … perpetrated by a gang of criminals and murderers,” but added that the party “refused to be drawn into an internal battle" and that “what is required is to arrest all those involved in the Khaldeh massacre as soon as possible and refer them to the judiciary.”

A number of the Arabs believed to have played a role in the incident were quickly arrested. Sixteen remain imprisoned today, Abu Zeidan said, while Chahine, the researcher, placed the number at 18.

A Hezbollah spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on the case.

Representatives of the Arabs told L’Orient Today that they have no interest in a further escalation.

The tribes, “don’t allow themselves to be oppressed or attacked, but they live with everyone, with the Sunni, the Shiite, the Christian, the Druze, ” the mokhtar, Daher said.

“If [Hezbollah] had handed over Ali Shebli” to the authorities after the boy’s killing, Abu Zeidan said, “the matter would have been over.” But now, he added, “We are negotiating directly to arrive at a peaceful solution.”

Those negotiations, he said, have taken the form of regular meetings between the Arab clans and Hezbollah, under the auspices of the army and with religious authorities as well as representatives of Joumblatt’s PSP — which opposes Hezbollah — Arslan’s Lebanese Democratic Party — which is allied with Hezbollah — and the Future Movement at the table.

Despite sporadic roadblocks by members of the Arab tribes to protest the continued detention of their relatives, residents of the area seemed unconcerned for now about the possibility of another flare up of violence.

“The problems happened with people from outside the area who came into the area,” the municipal engineer, Haidar, said. The Arabs, he said, “are peaceful people, in general.”

A Lebanese-American analyst who studied the security situation in Khaldeh and who spoke on condition of anonymity said Hezbollah’s relatively restrained response to last summer’s attacks was likely a strategic decision.

“Hezbollah, strategically and tactically, has sought to avoid some conflicts that will drain it of energy, time, manpower, resources, and cost it political cover,” he said. “They’re the dominant actor in Lebanon, and dominant actors tend to prefer the status quo.”

As to the political clout wielded by the Arabs, the analyst said, “Their general political influence, if we use the dictionary definition of influence, is low, but they’re an armed actor and they have connections to other factions that are more powerful,” giving them a weight beyond their numbers.

He noted that in a close election, they could also serve as a swing vote, which could make a mass abstention from the polls problematic for the local leaders.

Such an abstention seems like a distinct possibility. “The families are insisting that their children should be released, and if they are not, they will boycott the elections,” Abu Zeidan said. “And I am with the families.”

Sheikh Riad "Abu Zeidan" Daher and other prominent tribe members greet guests arriving to an iftar on April 27, 2022. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

Chahine said that while there has not yet been a final decision on a mass boycott, clan members have called for the Arabs “to either not participate in the elections or to vote for opposition groups, against Arslan and Joumblatt” due to their failure to push for the release of the detainees.

“There is blame on the political leaders of the country, from Dar al Fatwa to Saad Hariri but there is direct blame on Walid Joumblatt and Talal Arslan because they are the leaders of this area,” he said.

Abu Amir’s son, Bader Daher, while acknowledging the position of many in the tribes “that there won’t be elections unless the guys are released,” couched it with a swipe at Hezbollah: “With or without elections, we are against the Iranian project and with the national project.”

Abu Zeidan said his ultimate demand is that the Arab tribes of Lebanon — including those in the Bekaa, Akkar and other areas as well as Khaldeh — be given a quota in Parliament within the allotment of seats for the Sunni sect.

“We’re present all around the country but we don’t have a mass in one place,” he said. “If we were concentrated in one place, we would have taken a quota … I won’t be comfortable until I see three or four MPs in the Parliament and a minister [from the tribes].” 

KHALDEH — The diwan of the late Sheikh Mounzer “Abu Amir” Daher in the hills of Khaldeh was prepared to receive guests in style. Plates of fruit and sweets were laid out on the tables. Coffee — made the traditional way by grinding hand-roasted beans with a giant mortar and pestle along with a sprinkling of cardamom — was on the fire.At a Ramadan kitchen the Daher clan had set up next to...