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The Story Behind the Exhibit: Cedars in the Pines:The Lebanese in North Carolina, 130 Years in History


Why did you choose the name Cedars in the Pines for the exhibition?

Caroline MugaliaCedars in the Pines refers to the indigenous trees in both North Carolina and Lebanon. The pine tree is the state tree of North Carolina and rightly so; it’s the land of the pines. So too cedar trees in Lebanon have shaped the landscape, industry, and culture in the region for centuries. For Lebanese immigrants to North Carolina, their identity represents both the country they left and the state they now call home. Therefore, the title reflects the feeling of maintaining one’s identity amongst a different culture; amongst the pines of North Carolina reside Lebanese, cedar trees, contributing to its culture, politics, civic life, food, and identity.

Why was it significant to break the exhibition into three sections (Journeys, Belonging, Being)?

Marjorie Stevens:  Everybody knows the story of immigration to the United States--cramped unsanitary ships, being herded at Ellis Island, and the struggle to get on your feet. But we wanted to give a more in depth perspective to what life was really like for immigrants, not just during their journey but in the many years after. In particular, it was important to present ideas contrary to those of pure assimilation and the melting pot. The first section of the exhibit, Journeys, focuses on the process of immigration, the iconic American tale. The latter two sections of the exhibit Belonging and Being, juxtapose how Lebanese adapted to fit in (Belonging) while also retaining a great deal of their culture through community ties, ties to Lebanon, and introducing their culture to North Carolina in some aspects impacting the culture of the state (Being). We think of these two sections as "Belonging in North Carolina," and "Being Lebanese in North Carolina." 

What Lebanese traditions (if any) have been impacted or influenced by American culture?

CM: Depending to whom you pose this question, you’ll receive different examples. American culture and North Carolina culture have certainly impacted Lebanese traditions. Examples can be found in many places. My favorites are in culinary traditions. Lebanese love food. Every occasion includes great spreads of delicious food. Because food is such an important part of Lebanese culture, you can clearly see influences and changes. Dolmas or grape leaves are a staple in the Lebanese diet. Normally they are made with grape leaves filled with lamb and other spices. Since North Carolina did not grow grapes, the Lebanese could not rely on an abundance of grape leaves. But, they could find cabbage, which grew aplenty in North Carolina. So too, North Carolina was not known for its lamb as much as its beef, so the Lebanese replaced lamb with ground beef. These seemingly minor changes are great examples of how a steadfast culinary tradition can change depending on the culture, climate, and agriculture.

Are there aspects of the Lebanese community that have influenced parts of Southern culture without Americans even realizing it?

CM:  Americans have embraced Lebanese and Mediterranean culinary traditions. Restaurants serving the region’s food open each day and thrive in places throughout America.  This is clearly seen in areas with high concentrations of Lebanese and other Arab-Americans such as Southern California, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and, of course, in North Carolina. I think there’s also an argument for the impact of less overt behaviors and attitudes that either influence American culture or reinforce it. Civic duty, connection to family, and a strong notion of identity can be considered Lebanese traits, generally, which are also apparent in American society.

There is also the film "Cedars in the Pines: A Documentary of the Lebanese in North Carolina." Do you believe that this film will help to change the way some Americans perceive people of Arab decent?

CM:  The expressed goal of the film was to chronicle the history of the Lebanese-American community in North Carolina through the voices, memories, and stories of the community itself. But, it is difficult to focus on a film about the Lebanese, showcasing Arab faces without having a keen understanding of the political context within which we live. Post 9/11 America ushered in racial tensions and religious discrimination that rival some of the most hateful and violent times in American history. We wanted to show myriad Lebanese faces, some in Lebanon and some living in North Carolina; some speaking Arabic, a language that now has negative and violent associations, and some speaking English with a southern accent; some wearing religious garb, some not. The film tells the story of one community, from one country, living in one state in America. But, we hope its message can be extrapolated to other migrant communities who may also experience oppression, but make contributions to society each day. At its simplest, the entire project has a mission of allowing people to see the long-standing presence of Arabs in America.


Was it difficult to collect memorabilia for the exhibition?

CM:  Without the generous donations of the Lebanese-American community, the exhibition would not exist. Simple as that. When we made a call for images, people opened their photo albums. When we asked for home movies, people found boxes in their attics. When we asked for artifacts and memorabilia to showcase the living history of the community, people dug through closets, garages and jewelry boxes. There was no hesitation, for instance, when we asked Mrs. Carolyn Dorrill to use her wedding dress. Or when we asked the family of Joseph Salem to use his Army uniform. Some of the artifacts in the exhibit are from Lebanon, which were slightly more difficult to acquire. And a few others we purchased. But, the large majority of primary images, documents, and memorabilia came from the homes and hearts of the community. In the end, these contributions were essential to shaping the exhibit as one based in memory, personal narrative, and identity.




Why are the interactive components of the exhibition so important?

CM:  The goal of the exhibition is two-fold: to educate non-Lebanese on the history and contributions of the immigrant community; and to showcase the history to the Lebanese community who generously supported our work from the beginning. Both of these goals sought to connect residents of North Carolina to each other and to their shared past as well as help draw lines between the Lebanese community and other migrant populations in the state, the Southeast and throughout the United States. The best way to reach our vast audience including K-12 students, college and graduate students, parents, educators, the Lebanese-American community and more was to provide ready access to the history and stories we uphold in the exhibit. Making the exhibit a shared experience where visitors could participate in learning about Lebanese-Americans and, in turn, think about their own identities was best facilitated through interactive features like iPads, video games, dabke tutorials, and maps. We intentionally created tactile features including suitcases, kitchen gadgets, spices, and stereographs to further the interaction. And of course, QR codes and social media allowed visitors to extend their experience outside the museum and continue their conversation with us. Hands-on history, as opposed to a static historical narrative, continues to be our priority.