Guardians of the sea: Beirut’s lighthouse family

Date: Monday, March 14, 2016
By: Dana Abed
Source: The Daily Star

BEIRUT: For more than 150 years, one family, from father to son, has been in charge of lighting the Manara (lighthouse) of Ras Beirut. The Cheblis took it upon themselves to keep the shore marked out brightly and keep ships safe as they approach Beirut.
The first Manara was built a few meters away from where the iconic black and white one stands on a hill above the water. In the 1840s, under the reign of the Ottoman Empire, the first lighthouse was built and stood around 25 meters tall, burning kerosene for light.
“It was very hard to manage,” said Victor Chebli, the latest generation of lighthouse keeper, “My father used to gather 2 or 3 gallons of Kerosene every day and carry it up the stairs in the dark to light the lamp.”
Victor, who lives with his family in a house adjacent to the black and white Manara after inheriting the job from his farther, proudly tells the stories of the three different lighthouses Lebanon has had over the decades.
“The Manara was very important up until the ’50s, it guided boats coming to Beirut and it had four different lights,” Chebli explains.
On Dec. 22, 1952, the French SS Champollion sank near Khaldeh, south of Beirut, as it headed to the capital. However it wasn’t the ship’s first trip to Lebanon and they were used to the lighthouse, Chebli says.
The French blamed Joseph Chebli, Victor’s father, for the incident. Protests were organized in France with citizens holding his picture as the criminal that killed their people. He was imprisoned for three months in Lebanon, until he was proven innocent: The lighthouse was shining at the time.
Some French people came down to the house offering money and a French passport to the family in return for Joseph saying he was guilty of the accident, Chebli says. However, Joseph refused, maintaining his innocence and insisting he was doing his job properly.
After further investigations, it turned out that the captain of the boat had mistaken the green light of the airport for the white light of the Manara. “It wasn’t a valid excuse,” Chebli says. “However, at least it was now clear that it wasn’t my father’s fault.”
Following the incident, the Lebanese authorities decided to build a new lighthouse, which is the black and white one that still stands today. In 1953 the project began. “We moved away for a few years until the Manara was ready,” Chebli says. “We came back in 1957, when it was first lit.”
Chebli explains the then-new Manara ran on electricity and was very innovative and technologically advanced at the time – “the best in the region.”
In 1973, Victor officially took over from his father and became the employee responsible for lighting the beam.
However, in 1975, hardship began with the start of the Civil War.
During the Israeli invasion of 1982, the Cheblis were asked to turn off the Manara to prevent the Israelis from using the light to land on the beaches of Beirut. Against his will, Victor was forced to turn it off.
The lighthouse remained dark until 1990, when the Civil War came to an end.
But the years of the Civil War were hard for Victor and his family; they were bullied by militias in west Beirut. He was kidnapped three times and the lighthouse was bombed twice. Despite it all, he refused to leave. “This is where I was born and this is where I will die,” he says defiantly.
In 1991, a French mission came with the aim of fixing government-related infrastructure after the end of the Civil War.
When they reached the Manara, they were surprised to find that Chebli had already fixed the glass. “I used to light it up during the day,” he says, “I didn’t want the motors to get damaged from lack of use.”
Chebli and his son were later sent to France, at different times, to get a better understanding of the workings of a lighthouse. During that time the French replaced the components in the Manara, modernizing it.
A few years later, a businessman decided to build a residential skyscraper in front of the lighthouse, which was, of course, problematic.
Chebli said that it would block the light and he petitioned the government, but the businessman was powerful enough to get the approval for his building regardless. Then it was decided that a new lighthouse should be built right next to the sea. It is this latest one that currently guides ships by night.
However, it is still Chebli that lights it up every evening and turns it off every morning.
“The Lebanese Army is always guarding it now and it became a military emplacement because of the radars and surveillance tools,” Chebli explains.
In summer 2006, the Manara was again targeted by the Israeli troops and they bombed it, with Chebli and his son inside. “It became a dangerous place.”
His family’s story of keeping the lights shining is one of challenges, hardships and dedication.
The Cheblis have faced significant obstacles, not least war. Chebli longs for the past as he sees the problems of the country today.
“My only wish right now is for Lebanon to overcome the crises [it faces] and go back to the way it was in before 1975,” Chebli says.
“Those were the golden times.”


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