The winding road leading into the mountains in Chambouq, above the village of Qobeiyat on the far edge of Akkar overlooking the Syrian border, is pitted from the trucks carrying loads of watermelons and other goods from the Bekaa Valley. An unmarked, red-roofed stone building on the side of the road, surrounded by apple and cherry orchards, appears to be a farmhouse. In fact, it is an unlikely tourist haven built in the remote outpost by Haykal Mikhael, a 64-year-old farmer with deep roots in the area.
Since 2003, Mikhael has built by hand a restaurant, a trio of chalets where travelers can stay, a small pond and the stone house where he lives. Last year, he began constructing another building, which will become a chapel. He plans to name it Saydet Mhartain, or “Our Lady of Mhartain,” after the old name for the area before the French dubbed it “Champs de Boucs,” meaning “Field of Goats” and later shortened to Chambouq.
All the stones used in the construction came from the surrounding land – about 100 dunums, some passed down from his family and some purchased by Mikhael later – where he has orchards and some 350 sheep and goats, along with several alpine ibexes that he hopes to breed and sell. “I made everything with my hands, and by myself,” Mikhael told The Daily Star. “There’s nothing besides the windows that I didn’t make.”
Mikhael grew up in the nearby Maronite village of Qobeiyat, leaving for Beirut in 1976, soon after the beginning of the Civil War, to join the armed Christian group Tanzim. In 1978 he left for Spain to study veterinary medicine for two years, before returning to Lebanon, where he married and had four children. He raised cows in the village of Lassa in the Jbeil district, before political problems forced him to leave in 1987, he said.
After that, he took his cattle and returned to the mountains of Akkar. There, he fixed an old house on the family property in Chambouq, which had been damaged in the war, and stayed there for four years with his wife and children. In 1990, he briefly returned to Lassa before coming back to Qobeiyat, where he ran a cheese factory along with his cattle farm.
“And then I found that the work wasn’t good, so I stopped the cheese business and came up here [to Chambouq],” he said.
He began work on the restaurant in September 2003. “In February , it was open, but without bathrooms, without a kitchen, just sandwiches on a bar,” he said. Gradually, the restaurant expanded, as did his business.
“In the beginning, I got support from the people of Qobeiyat below,” Mikhael said. “They began to come during the winter and the snow, and in the summer. We began bit by bit. … Then things began to go well.”
The income from the restaurant and the chalets underwrites the losses of the apple orchards, he said.
His wife left years ago, taking their children, who are now grown. Mikhael lives by himself in the house he built, but welcomes a steady stream of visitors to the property. Most days there are guests occupying at least one of the chalets. They come to hike, ski or snowshoe in the nearby cedars of Karm Chbat, or simply to escape the noise of the city.
“It’s very beautiful here,” said Mikhael’s sole full-time employee, Ruwaida al-Assaad, from the Sunni town of Bireh on the plains below. “You feel calmer here. When you go down below, there’s pressure.”
When the restaurant was first built, Assaad recalled, “Most of the people thought it was a house in the beginning. People on the road would ask me, ‘What’s this beautiful house? Is this your house?’ I would tell them, no, it’s a restaurant.’”
Over time, word spread. Now, groups come up from Qobeiyat and beyond for long dinners that often turn into evenings of revelry. Once dinner is served, if the crowd is lively, Assaad emerges beating a drum to encourage the guests to form a dabke line, while Mikhael insists on filling every empty glass with homemade brandy and calvados, while dispensing his philosophy on marriage, God and politics.
Thibault Blanchard, a French citizen living in Beirut, came to visit Mikhael’s retreat once with friends and then returned this week with his parents and sister, who were visiting from France.
“In tourist guides there’s not much information about Akkar, but I really enjoyed my last time here so I decided to go back,” Blanchard told The Daily Star Thursday afternoon, as he and his family were sitting over a final glass of cherry brandy before heading back down the mountain following a night in one of the chalets. “[Mikhael] knows how to welcome people, how to make them feel good in his place. It’s really a remote place, it’s really uncommon and really a pleasure to stay here in the houses he built by himself.”
Elias Fares, a resident of Qobeiyat who works as a guide for hiking, skiing and snowshoeing expeditions, said the presence of “Haykal’s place” has increased tourism in the area.
“People began to go up – they could find a place to eat, they could find a place to sleep,” he said. “We feel that there is more safety with Haykal present up above, because if something happens to us, we know that there is a place where someone will be there for sure, and we can rest with him. Especially during the time of snow and winter, if the road is cut off by a storm, there is someone up above who will welcome us and we can take a break at his place.”
Mikhael became the subject of the 2016 documentary “Those Who Remain,” by Lebanese filmmaker Eliane Raheb. Along with Mikhael’s personal story and sometimes lonely mission to remain on his land, the film explores the lingering postwar sectarian tensions in the region.
Mikhael is a devout Maronite Christian, but said he welcomes guests of all faiths – and offers up bottles of spirits to his Muslim, as well as Christian, visitors.
“I baptize them in calvados!” he announced with a chortle. “I don’t have anything that’s just for the Christians. To the contrary, we’re all brothers … God is in the heart of every person.”