JBEIL, Lebanon: Growing up in Ecuador, Elias Maalouf heard tales of Lebanon’s trains. His family hailed from the locomotive-centric town of Rayak, and both his grandfather and great uncle worked for the railway. Once known as “the city of trains,” at one point as many as 3,000 of Rayak’s inhabitants worked for the railroad in one way or another.
Lebanon’s last train stopped in 1975, and by the time Maalouf made it to Lebanon in 1992, “we found nothing. You couldn’t see one train,” he says.
Years later, Maalouf the university film student set out to make a documentary about the railway. His efforts were thwarted by the fact that Rayak’s train station and factories had been turned into a Syrian Army base.
Maalouf finally managed to slip onto the base as the Syrian Army was in the final moments of its pullout from Lebanon. He saw the army packing their trucks to leave, and also spotted smoke coming from a nearby building.
The railway’s archives were on fire. “I burned myself trying to save some papers,” Maalouf says. “[The army] saw me … I was scared, and so I ran like a roadrunner. I took some papers and that’s how it started. I started with a documentary, and it became something I need to do. I need to help this government bring back the railway.”
Six years later, Maalouf is a founder of Train/Train, a nongovernmental organization made up of railroad enthusiasts who want to preserve Lebanon’s railway history, and push for a rebirth of the train system in the country. And he’s still working on that documentary.
Lebanon’s first train set off in 1895, and the Civil War brought about the end of locomotives here. In the intervening years, lines ran east to west and north to south, connecting the country with Syria. In addition to providing public transportation, Maalouf says the trains contributed to the war efforts in World Wars I and II, and at one point the railroad factories even managed to build military airplanes for the airport in Rayak.
Maalouf has become an expert on the country’s trains, researching and interviewing many aging former railway employees. His Jbeil studio is full of photographs of the railway and its people, and he himself is bursting with interesting anecdotes.
He passes on one “very lovely love story” told to him by a train conductor. “While going around a curve he saw a girl from the window. She was one of the people that [took] the train daily.” Drivers didn’t have personal contact with the passengers, so Maalouf says that every time the driver went around a curve “he would wave his cap and sound the train’s whistle so she would look.”
“In the end,” Maalouf says, driver and passenger “fell in love, and they have children now.”
Maalouf’s has an impressive archive of photographs, maps, and other documents about Lebanon’s trains – including some that still reek of smoke from his 2005 adventure.
They’ve come from former employees, their families, the archives, and internet research. A month ago, Maalouf received an envelope from Hong Kong, its postage decorated with trains.
Inside were the original plans for a line between Rayak and Aleppo. The mail had come from an engineer who is writing a history of the railroad in Hong Kong. Maalouf says “many of the engineers that worked on the railway in Lebanon went on to build the railway in Hong Kong,” hence the document’s journey to Asia.
Maalouf and Train/Train’s other railroad enthusiasts aren’t just interested in the past. He hopes to see the train running again. He cites the benefits of railroads as including a decrease in pollution, and increased access to education for those who live far from cities. He also boldly says that “I believe if we have trains in Lebanon we have peace in Lebanon.”
He says that the daily interaction on trains, between sects and people from locations that would not otherwise interact, would diminish sectarian tension. “People on the train meet each other,” he says. “They become a family.”
Despite his obvious passion for the subject, Maalouf says his half decade passion for locomotion isn’t always fun. “It’s like a curse. It’s not only that I am obsessed with trains. It’s like someone gives you this small child, and puts it in your hands. You have the responsibility to do something about it … but I need to do something else with my life.”
That doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. Maalouf does freelance film work, but he pours most of his energy into his documentary. He hopes it will eventually help support a Lebanese train renaissance. Until then, as for doing something else, “I just can’t,” Maalouf says. “I really can’t.”