Dar Assalam – The House of Peace
Cancellations and the unexpected loss of income due to the political climate are part of the everyday struggle of many travel agencies in the Middle East. It thus comes as a surprise to hear Latife Abdulaziz's balance sheet: "Not a single travel group from Germany, Austria, or Switzerland has cancelled in recent years," the young Lebanese woman proudly told this reporter in perfect German. "Not even during the Iraq war. That was when people really weren't coming!"
Latife Abdulaziz, who also speaks fluent English and French, learned her German at the Goethe Institute in Beirut and during her many stays in Switzerland and Germany. Her main profession is teaching mathematics and physics at a high school in southern Lebanon.
But she devotes her free time to the House of Peace (Dar Assalam). This intercultural center, unique in its kind for Lebanon and the entire Arabic region, is located in the foothills of the picturesque Shuf Mountains, high above the bright blue Mediterranean, south of Beirut about a half hour by car.
From this oasis of quiet, visitors from the German-speaking countries, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and from the region itself embark on excursions—primarily within Lebanon, but also to Syria and Jordan.
Educational tours in Lebanon and Syria
Ten years ago the House of Peace opened its doors here in the quaint mountain village of Wardaniyeh ("the rosy one"). Since then, educational tour groups, conferences, language courses and also individual travelers from various countries are welcomed here every year.
In Wardaniyeh, educational tours mean not only visits to the archeologically, culturally and historically important sites in Lebanon and Syria, but also a confrontation with Lebanon's current problems and with contemporary Lebanese culture.
The many local religions, the traumas and the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, the environment, the situation of women in Lebanon, refugees and migration, and also the situation of Palestinian refugees in the camps—these are just a few of the many issues that are addressed at Wardaniyeh.
"We drive all over the country and visit representatives of all different social groups," says Said Arnaout, a social education specialist from the German town of Tübingen who was born in Lebanon and who was one of the initiators of the project. "But the people also come to us here at Dar Assalam: representatives in parliament, ministers, religious leaders and artists, among others. Next month a Lebanese women's rights activist will present a lecture."
Dar Assalam usually organizes the travel program in collaboration with associations or church communities from the German speaking countries—the range of clients includes for example church women's groups, youth welfare services, and experts who work with refugees.
Contributing to local development
"Most tours combine tourist attractions with socio-cultural encounters and are accompanied by volunteers from the associations' members or friends of the House," explains Latife Abdulaziz. Usually only the formalities of the trip are arranged by professional travel agents.
This means that the tours are still affordable despite the relatively high prices in Lebanon, and they even contribute to local development. The guests who sleep in one of the forty beds at Dar Assalam and eat their breakfast on a large terrace with a view of the sea are not only attending to their own well-being, they are also supporting a social project.
The jobs provided by the House of Peace secure the livelihood for several families from Wardaniyeh and the surrounding areas. In addition, the modest profit from the tours is used to finance summer training for child care staff and social workers from the Palestinian refugee camps, as well as seminars for young people from Germany who participate in work camps.
Dar Assalam has also opened two small stores in the covered market in the neighboring town of Saida (Sidon), where products from social projects and from the region are sold. Two needy families are thereby provided with a basic income.
Refuge during the civil war
The House of Peace was built in the early 1990s by a German-Lebanese sponsorship community, whose members supported the project with generous loans. Said Arnaout discovered the property for the project. He is actually from Beirut, but before the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, as a youth he spent his summers in Wardaniyeh.
"In fact, during the civil war I wanted to bring my parents here," says Arnaout, sitting on a bench under the shade of bougainvillea and grape vines in a large garden behind the house. "But then the war ended in 1990, and my parents wanted to stay in Beirut. We didn't need the property any more, but I also didn't want to sell it to just anyone. It was exactly the right moment for making a old dream come true."
A second home in Lebanon
Reading the many entries in the thick guest book at Dar Assalam, one gets the impression that it is not only Arnaout's dreams that have been realized here. Hundreds of pages are filled with enthusiastic praise for the project and its tours. For some who keep returning, Wardaniyeh has become something of a second home in Lebanon.
Visitors should not expect four-star luxury accommodations at Dar Assalam, but the house is spacious, full of light, and thanks to the high ceilings also relatively cool in summer. The terraces and the surrounding premises are very inviting, the house library is well maintained, and the lobbies boast a piano and a television and video room.
"Dar Assalam is not a normal hotel and it's not supposed to be one," says Latife Abdulaziz. "But everyone who is seriously interested in Lebanon and our project is warmly welcomed, whether in a group, with friends or by themselves."
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: Christina White