Sinay, Lebanon: At 28, Thurayya left behind the Beirut neighbourhood where she was born and moved to the family farm, not because of environmental concerns but forced there by Lebanon’s bruising crises.
“Living in the city has become very miserable,” she told AFP from the lush south Lebanon farmland planted with avocado trees that is now her home.
“The quiet violence of city life sucks you dry of energy, of money... It was just too much.”
Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic and last year’s massive and deadly explosion of chemical fertiliser at Beirut’s port have dimmed the cosmopolitan appeal of the capital.
Many are turning their backs on urban life and heading for their ancestral towns and villages, where they can cut down on living costs and forge new connections with a long-forgotten agricultural inheritance.
In October, Thurayya moved to the two-story house built by her father in the south Lebanon village of Sinay.
She took the step only weeks after her Beirut landlord said she would quadruple the rent at a time when electricity generator bills and transportation costs were already spiralling beyond reach for most.
“It didn’t make sense for me to stay in Beirut,” Thurayya said.
“It’s pitch dark, there is garbage everywhere and you don’t feel safe... it’s hostile in its unfamiliarity.”
YouTube farming tips
Now, when she’s not working remotely for a non-profit group, Thurayya spends much of her time in her family’s farmland, discovering how plants look when they need water and the feel of ripening fruit.
She has turned to YouTube to learn how to prune trees and pestered local farmers for tips on how to best tend to a plot she hopes to one day take over.
“We are about to plant the new season and that’s what I’m really excited for,” Thurayya said. “I want to follow the planting from seed to harvest and I want to be there for all of those steps.”
In a country where no official census has been held since 1932, there is little data on the demographic shift to rural areas, which are largely underprivileged and underserved.
But a long-standing trend towards rapid urbanisation seems to be slowing partly due to diminishing job prospects in major cities, where the cost of living is 30 percent higher than in the countryside.
A spike last year in the number of construction permits outside Beirut suggest such a movement, according to Lebanon’s Blominvest bank.
Information International, a consultancy firm, estimates that more than 55,000 people have relocated to rural areas.
UN-Habitat Lebanon said that some mayors and heads of unions of municipalities had also reported an increase in the number of people moving, although it said it had no data to verify or quantify these claims.
“The lack of rural development plans and the highly centralised nature of Lebanon are expected to ultimately deter a counter-urbanisation in the long run,” said Tala Kammourieh of the agency’s Urban Analysis and Policy Unit.
‘Suffocation’ of city life’
Another Beirut escapee, graphic designer Hassan Trad, was ploughing a craggy field near the southern village of Kfar Tibnit and said he now steers clear of the “suffocation” of city life.
“My return to the village is an escape from three crises,” the 44-year-old said, scattering thyme seeds on a bed of soil.
He pointed to the country’s economic collapse, the pandemic, and the so-called trash crisis that has long left festering piles of garbage strewn across the city.
Trad, a father-of-four who works remotely as a freelancer for a daily newspaper, started weaning away from the capital in 2016 but resettled full-time after COVID-19 and last year’s portside blast.
Hassan said the cost of schooling his children is about half what it would be in the city but, more importantly, he can grow an agriculture business to supplement his salary.
“I took advantage of the crisis and grew closer to farming and working the land,” he told AFP from one of his many plots. “I now have a deeper attachment to my village.”
Writer and essayist Ibrahim Nehme, 35, who was severely wounded when the Beirut port blast ripped through his home, has sought solace in his family’s north Lebanon village of Bechmizzine.
“An explosion that made me lose touch with my ground eventually led me to realise how much I am connected to my land,” he wrote in a recent essay reflecting on the months he spent recovering there from his injuries.
In June, he left Beirut and rented a chalet by the sea, only a 20-minute drive away from his family’s olive grove.
He is not yet ready to commit fully to village life but Nehme said he is growing to realise his role in safeguarding an agricultural legacy left to him by his forefathers.
“I am connected here, I am rooted,” he said. “I have these olive trees, and one day I will have to take care of them.”