When former Miss Lebanon runner-up Michele Hajal died of cancer this month, Arab social media was abuzz about her tragic fate. For many Lebanese, the 25-year-old beauty queen’s death personified mounting fears about living in a country where the air, water, and soil are increasingly toxic. Although it is unclear whether her cancer was tied to such pollution, it had become linked in the public mind, and these days, such health issues compete with even Middle Eastern geopolitics on the evening news.
For centuries, Lebanon has been known for its legendary cedar trees and its abundant agriculture in a region otherwise characterized by sprawling deserts. In the Old Testament, Lebanon’s diverse natural beauty is mentioned dozens of times as a metaphor for bounty and splendor. The country’s name is believed to come from the Hebrew word “laban,” or “white”—the Phoenicians first called the area “Lebanon” or “white mountain” in reference to the area’s snow-capped peaks, whose melting waters allowed ancient cedars to thrive. In modern times, the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism’s website extols the country’s “green fertile valleys.”