Chebba, South Lebanon - His real name is Ali Ismail. But people here still know him as Ali Tahan, which means Ali the Miller.
Until recently, Ali had gone more than three decades without setting foot in Chebaa's stone water mills - seven picturesque buildings set amidst the ancient trees and high mountain peaks of southern Lebanon. Generations of local farmers have used the riverbank mills to crush and grind wheat, barley, lentils, corn and 38 other types of locally grown grains.
When civil war broke out in the mid-1970s, nearby growers stopped hauling their crops to the Chebaa mills. The quality of locally available flour, or the bread it produced, Ali says ruefully, has never been the same since.
Today Mercy Corps is helping restore two of these mills as tourist attractions, part of a larger USAID-funded effort to create jobs and economic opportunities in this war-torn region of Lebanon. Although the south is still plagued by high rates of joblessness, poverty and illiteracy, it is home to many of the country's historic and archeological treasures. And tourism, which by one estimate once employed one out of every five Lebanese, is making a strong post-war comeback.
What Chebaa offers, among other historic features, is the set of 500-year-old mills where Ali once toiled. Ali’s father taught his son all the secrets of proper milling, impressing upon him the importance of keeping a sharp mind and using a strong hand. “This is how I worked 40 years in these mills," says Ali. "One day I had to leave. And I thought I would never set foot in this place again."
Today, however, the wisdom of this 82-year-old miller - and the information about the mills he tended long ago - is very much in demand. During a recent break in the renovation, Ali sits beneath a tree near the mill - the same one under which he and his father used to eat lunch - stirring a big pot of Turkish coffee. He is surrounded by local craftsmen, all of who are eager to hear his experience as they work to restore Chebaa's mills to their heyday.
These workers are transforming one of the mills into a museum and another into a fully functioning demonstration mill, with operating millstones, water wheels and grain storage rooms. Mercy Corps estimates the restoration will create ten new jobs, paying nearly US$60,000 combined in wages, and anchor a cultural tour encompassing visits to Chebaa's historic homes and religious monuments, lunch in local guesthouses and a local snack served on the banks of the fast-flowing Nabeh el Joz River.
In addition, several walking trails are being extended to the outskirts of the village, allowing urban "agro-tourists" to see fruit-picking, plowing or irrigation work firsthand.
Despite a sluggish economy, Lebanon's tourism industry is thriving: in 2003, the country drew more than a million tourists for the first time since its civil war began in 1975. And the average tourist spends US$1,500, a figure higher than anywhere else in the Middle East.
To help south Lebanon capture some of these dollars, Mercy Corps is working to not only renovate the mills in Chebaa, but also to convert a British-built World War II bunker into a museum, turn 939 acres of woodland inhabited by migratory birds into a nature preserve and build a hotel and conference hall that overlooks the plains of Israel. The hope is to lure visitors not only from the northern regions of the country, but also from the 15-million-strong Lebanese diaspora.
Already, Chebaa residents see evidence that their village is a budding tourist destination. "One year ago, a Lebanese immigrant abroad returned to Chebaa and opened a big, beautiful restaurant in the area," says Ramiz, a lifelong resident here. "This year, many other villagers are thinking of offering ed-and-breakfast services in their traditional houses.”
At first, Ali says the restoration of these mills, with their old rusty water wheels, seemed like “mission impossible." But the old miller, whose mind still runs sharp and fast, proved that it was not.
”People might think that this is hard physical work,” says Ali, "but the truth lays in what my father passed on to me: You have to keep your mind sharp and your hands ready, because everything in this mill is operated by the miller's hands."
Back in the day, such know-how gave Ali a steady wage and helped feed a village. Soon, his sage advice will reach a brand-new audience and create new opportunities for his village to prosper once again.