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The Mule Whisperer

Lebanon, February 10, 2006

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    Mohammed poses with the mule he uses to lead tours up Mount Hermon. Photo: Albana Dwonch/Mercy Corps Photo:

It takes Mohammed six hours on muleback to reach the top of Mount Hermon, 9,200 feet above sea level from his Lebanese village in the valley. Accompanied only by his small herd of mules, he passes historic Greek temples, ancient caves rumored to contain gold and unexplained lights and the spot where Jesus was said to have transformed himself into a glowing spirit in front of his disciples.

Reaching the mountain's crest, which looks out over Lebanon, Syria and Israel, Mohammed sometimes gazes at the magnificent sunrise, the sublime sunset, or, on clear nights, the larger-than-life moon. Then he dispatches his mules in a whisper, slips on a snowsuit, goggles and a pair of skis, and slaloms back to his village.

To Mohammed, this is a routine trip that he's completed nearly every day for 15 years. But to a tourist, it's an adventure worth paying good money for.

That is why Mercy Corps is arranging treks up Mount Hermon with Mohammed and other mule-riding guides as escorts, one of several tourist attractions that is helping revive Southern Lebanon's economy. Other nearby sites that Mercy Corps is helping build and promote include a World War II museum housed in an underground British bunker, a restored Roman temple, a rare-bird reserve and a centuries-old ensemble of grain mills.

Each of these job-generating projects provides an economic boost to a region disproportionately hurt by the country's civil war and regional instability. Lebanon's tourism sector, once a dominant industry, is making steady gains overall. Tourist arrivals jumped 13 percent in the past year, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Mercy Corps is helping the people of South Lebanon, particularly rural residents, capitalize on the increasing number of visitors to their lands. Since November 2002, the agency has begun work on about a dozen tourist sites, created more than 30,000 person-days of employment and trained more than 2,000 people in basic business-development skills. Some participants already have used what they've learned to open bed-and-breakfasts, launch restaurants and lead cultural tours.

Mohammed, for example, is now one of six mule riders trained as tour guides by Mercy Corps' partner agency, Cyclamen, a private Lebanese eco-tour operator. Mercy Corps provided traditional saddles and other decorative adornments to help the mules fit their new role.

“I never thought my skills climbing the mountain could be used as an income generation possibility," says Mohammed. "I have climbed it for 15 years. I buy different items in the village and sell them to the soldiers that live at the military base on the top. But now, after Mercy Corps gave this opportunity for me to offer mule rides to interested visitors who want to enjoy what I see every day, I feel like I have much more to show and more people to talk to."

Last August, for example, a religious event celebrating the Gospel story of Jesus' transfiguration before the apostles Peter, James and John drew 200 tourists, who were led to the top of Mount Hermon by the mule-riding docents. As the group camped under a moonlit sky, Mohammed stared up at the great white orb as he had done so many times before. But this time, he was not alone.