Soha Hilal viewed much of Saturday’s Lebanese Festival through the camera lens on her phone.
She took photos of her daughter, Carla, before the 8-year-old and about 20 other children carried a giant Lebanon flag to a stage on Fayetteville Street’s City Plaza.
Hilal snapped more photos just before Carla walked on the stage to perform a traditional Lebanese dance, known as Dabke.
In fact, it wasn’t until after the music stopped and Carla struck a pose that Hilal stopped taking pictures. After kneeling in front of the stage and holding her gold phone aloft, Carla’s mom stood and high-fived several other camera-wielding Lebanese parents.
“We’ve had her dancing (in the festival) since she was 4,” Hilal said of her daughter, who was born in Raleigh. “We want her to get used to our beats, our music, our culture and our people.”
Organizers said more than 5,000 people crowded the south end of Fayetteville Street on Saturday afternoon to experience dancing, food and other customs of the Middle Eastern country.
Saturday’s festival was the 17th hosted by the Triangle Lebanese Association, founded in 1986.
Lebanese have been a part of North Carolina culture for more than a century. But this year, the association had an extra reason to celebrate. TLA late last year bought the first building it can call its own: a 4,500-square-foot structure on Horizon Drive in Raleigh.
“We’ve been saving up for it since we got started,” said Doumit Ishak, a co-founder of the association who serves as its president.
The Lebanese are known for being nomadic, Ishak said. And the Triangle association was no different – gathering in restaurants to socialize and renting out different venues for events over the years. Now it has a space to introduce new cooking classes, dance classes and Arabic classes, Ishak said.
On Saturday, the 50-year-old could hardly contain his excitement. He took a break from manning a grill to hug dozens of friends – even lying on the sidewalk to arm-wrestle with boys.
“These kids are like my own,” he said. “This is an event that, as you can see, makes us so happy and proud.”
North Carolina has been home to Lebanese immigrants since the 1880s and now has about 16,000 Lebanese-Americans, say with N.C. State University’s Khayrallah Program for Lebanese-American Studies.
Prominent Raleigh businessman and restaurateur Greg Hatem – who owns Sitti, Gravy and the Raleigh Times, among others – comes from a Lebanese family.
The community has been a part of the culture for so long that the N.C. Museum of History last summer hosted an exhibit called “Cedars in the Pines,” which chronicled Lebanese life in North Carolina.
But for others, such as 7-year-old Jacob Pogerelski, Saturday’s festival provided a rare opportunity to learn about an unfamiliar culture.
His family, which is of Polish descent, spent time at a booth learning Phoenician – the language of some of ancient Lebanon’s earliest settlers – before studying the food selections.
“I can’t believe my name in Phoenician is only two symbols,” Pogerelski said. “It’s interesting.”
Lebanese are known for being hospitable and family-oriented, so many are eager to share their culture, said Bisharah Libbus, who moved to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1971 and now lives in Chapel Hill.
Saturday’s event, which acted as a reunion for many Lebanese in the community, reminded him of when he was embraced by a stranger while walking in his hometown of Tyre last year.
“Your grandmother and my grandmother were sisters! Come, come let’s have coffee,” he recalled the woman saying. “I had never met her. But that’s how we are, very warm.”