Food and other drugs

In the Bekaa Valley, trays of raisins and cannabis leaves dry together under the sun. The herbal reek of hashish is headily overpowering, as men roll long cigarettes of Red Lebanese, the local speciality, over dishes of mezzeh on a plastic tablecloth. In this village in the Bekaa Valley, cannabis is as much of a time-honoured tradition as the local cuisine. The family of our campsite owner Mohamad lives in the remote outskirts of Dar Al Wasaa village, in the northern Shiite territory of the valley. Their low-walled garden is tucked into rocky hillside, where a rolling plateau of wild lavender shrubs is hemmed in by the snowy folds of Mt Lebanon and the silhouettes of cedar trees. In the wilds of these planes, flat leafed cannabis plants grow. But the cannabis farmed here is not just a commodity; it is an integral part of the area’s cultural identity. It is the valley’s life-blood, and, as Mohamad’s brother puts it, lighting a joint on the barbeque, “Hashish is very special here, it has a special place in Bekaa’s history.” He laughs, and tells me how he spent his boyhood combing local roadsides for the occasional untamed spiky-leaved plant, drying it out on his bedroom windowsill. When I ask why the crop is so important for local business, he responds darkly, “This is Lebanon. Things are more difficult here. I mean, who can make a living by just growing tomatoes?” Until relatively recently, he explains, hashish had value as a kind of social currency. It was used in a system of collective barter and exchange, where it was given in the place of dowries and used to settle debts. One thing is clear, away from the sterile brashness of central Beirut and the seedy glitz of its downtown, the poverty in these remote parts of the Bekaa Valley is real. This community needs to farm hashish to survive. 

The fertile flatness of Lebanon’s most productive valley is where two very different traditions of farming grow side by side. Here food and drugs are twin industries, where the rich soil impartially nourishes both vegetable and narcotic alike. Despite the US sponsored crackdown in the mid 90s, where drug fields were ploughed and sprayed with poison, the governmental instability and political traumas of the last five years have meant cultivation has significantly increased. In the valley’s remote northern outreaches, green plantations of cannabis edge into orchards of apples, and opium poppies grow amongst wheat fields. These territories are predominantly Hezbollah strongholds, and while the official party-line condemns drug production, in reality, it more often than not chooses to overlook the cultivation of hashish and heroin refinement which goes on in the area. Mohamad explains that there is actually a certain level of collaboration between the valley’s drug underworld and Hezbollah officials. Drug dealers from the Bekaa are permitted to smuggle cannabis and heroin into Israel as long as they provide Hezbollah with  intelligence on the IDF. Since the Lebanon War in 2006, and the sporadic clashes with Israel since, central government has a weakened grip on Bekaa’s rural localities. The valley is portioned off into powerful mafia kingdoms run by tribal clans. Mohamad tells us that in Dar Al Wasaa, people do not respect the authority of national institutions any more, instead they answer to local drug barons. When I ask who the mafia boss in this village is, a shadow passes across his face. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Closing his eyes in the sunlight, Mohamad finds it hard to put into words the perversions of law and order that regulate life here. As more and more of the country’s soldiers are siphoned off to deal with security commitments elsewhere, the situation in the Bekaa Valley gets progressively worse. Lawlessness is an ideal growing condition for the cannabis plant.  It seems central government is losing control of Lebanon’s wild, wild East. 
Barbecue smoke and hashish mingle. The pungent smelling sacks of cannabis leaves and seeds are heaped up in a breezeblock shed, while in the garden, spatchcocked chickens hiss on hot charcoal. A world away from the corporate drabness of Beirut’s greasy falafel franchises, the traditions of peasant cookery in the Bekaa valley still centre on the principles of seasonality and subsistence. The practice of mouneh is at the heart of village life. This ancient art of food preservation stores the summer harvest for the barren winter months to follow. Mohamad’s mother Fatima produces an extraordinary selection of jams, jellies, syrups, perfumed waters, pickles and oils left over from this year’s mouneh store. The spring sunlight illuminates jewel-like bottles of mulberry and pomegranate molasses, while jars of dark thyme-scented honey are treacly opaque. These dusty pots and containers are an intensely nostalgic memory of childhood for Mohamad. He tells me how he remembers eating dried figs in summertime sitting in the hashish fields. On the table there are dark green bottles of hemp oil, like glossy pond-water, made from crushing the seeds of the cannabis plant. I spread the coral-coloured crush of watermelon jam on thin bread, and glue my fingers together with the syrupy stick of candied pumpkin. Fatima passes around fat kibbeh, flavoured with sumac and smokily rich leeyeh (sheep tail fat), and a large dish of labneh b’toom, mildly acidic yoghurt blended with garlic. Our chicken is accompanied by the fruity sourness of pickled baby aubergines, swollen in grape juice vinegar.  Fatima’s mouneh stash is a storehouse of tradition; preserving more than pickles in the process, she is salvaging a culturally historic art that many have abandoned. 
Old traditions often find new ways of surviving.  As we drive away from rural farmland and onto the dusty stretch of motorway that cuts into the valley, Mohamad points out the bustling roadside clothes markets. He explains how the drug dealers operating in Bekaa have been forced into adopting new, more secretive methods of distribution; where sellers now sew marijuana, cocaine, and heroine into the pockets of jeans. In a valley that is at once a living, breathing symbol of fruition and fertility, there is also a sinister shadow of death and destruction that darkens the Edenic picture. Mohamed, squinting in the sun, gestures with a smoking cigar to the breezeblock buildings that are stencilled with green Hezbollah rifles: he says “in this area, there is no fighting, only killing. When a conflict breaks out, there are no physical fights and no fists are involved, instead people bring out their army machine guns. Imagine… AK47s to settle arguments! It’s a massacre.” Here the houses of normal villagers bristle with military metal, where family homes are loaded with stocks of weaponry and ammunition left over from the war. In this part of town, Mohamad tells me, the window repair business flourishes. 
I spit the pips of a melon as daylight dies in the valley. From the stump of a Roman colonnade in Baalbek, I can make out the entire grassy plateau. It seems obvious that the future of the Bekaa Valley depends on positive UN intervention. Its promises of irrigation projects and alternative crop subsidies never materialised. Until there are changes made, it is certain that the fertile soil of the valley will play host to vegetable and narcotic alike. And for now the political problem of the Bekaa remains un-weeded.

In the Bekaa Valley, trays of raisins and cannabis leaves dry together under the sun. The herbal reek of hashish is headily overpowering, as men roll long cigarettes of Red Lebanese, the local speciality, over dishes of mezzeh on a plastic tablecloth. In this village in the Bekaa Valley, cannabis is as much of a time-honoured tradition as the local cuisine. The family of our campsite owner Mohamad lives in the remote outskirts of Dar Al Wasaa village, in the northern Shiite territory of the valley. Their low-walled garden is tucked into rocky hillside, where a rolling plateau of wild lavender shrubs is hemmed in by the snowy folds of Mt Lebanon and the silhouettes of cedar trees. In the wilds of these planes, flat leafed cannabis plants grow. But the cannabis farmed here is not just a commodity; it is an integral part of the area’s cultural identity. It is the valley’s life-blood, and, as Mohamad’s brother puts it, lighting a joint on the barbeque, “Hashish is very special here, it has a special place in Bekaa’s history.” He laughs, and tells me how he spent his boyhood combing local roadsides for the occasional untamed spiky-leaved plant, drying it out on his bedroom windowsill. When I ask why the crop is so important for local business, he responds darkly, “This is Lebanon. Things are more difficult here. I mean, who can make a living by just growing tomatoes?” Until relatively recently, he explains, hashish had value as a kind of social currency. It was used in a system of collective barter and exchange, where it was given in the place of dowries and used to settle debts. One thing is clear, away from the sterile brashness of central Beirut and the seedy glitz of its downtown, the poverty in these remote parts of the Bekaa Valley is real. This community needs to farm hashish to survive. 

The fertile flatness of Lebanon’s most productive valley is where two very different traditions of farming grow side by side. Here food and drugs are twin industries, where the rich soil impartially nourishes both vegetable and narcotic alike. Despite the US sponsored crackdown in the mid 90s, where drug fields were ploughed and sprayed with poison, the governmental instability and political traumas of the last five years have meant cultivation has significantly increased. In the valley’s remote northern outreaches, green plantations of cannabis edge into orchards of apples, and opium poppies grow amongst wheat fields. These territories are predominantly Hezbollah strongholds, and while the official party-line condemns drug production, in reality, it more often than not chooses to overlook the cultivation of hashish and heroin refinement which goes on in the area. Mohamad explains that there is actually a certain level of collaboration between the valley’s drug underworld and Hezbollah officials. Drug dealers from the Bekaa are permitted to smuggle cannabis and heroin into Israel as long as they provide Hezbollah with  intelligence on the IDF. Since the Lebanon War in 2006, and the sporadic clashes with Israel since, central government has a weakened grip on Bekaa’s rural localities. The valley is portioned off into powerful mafia kingdoms run by tribal clans. Mohamad tells us that in Dar Al Wasaa, people do not respect the authority of national institutions any more, instead they answer to local drug barons. When I ask who the mafia boss in this village is, a shadow passes across his face. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Closing his eyes in the sunlight, Mohamad finds it hard to put into words the perversions of law and order that regulate life here. As more and more of the country’s soldiers are siphoned off to deal with security commitments elsewhere, the situation in the Bekaa Valley gets progressively worse. Lawlessness is an ideal growing condition for the cannabis plant.  It seems central government is losing control of Lebanon’s wild, wild East. 
Barbecue smoke and hashish mingle. The pungent smelling sacks of cannabis leaves and seeds are heaped up in a breezeblock shed, while in the garden, spatchcocked chickens hiss on hot charcoal. A world away from the corporate drabness of Beirut’s greasy falafel franchises, the traditions of peasant cookery in the Bekaa valley still centre on the principles of seasonality and subsistence. The practice of mouneh is at the heart of village life. This ancient art of food preservation stores the summer harvest for the barren winter months to follow. Mohamad’s mother Fatima produces an extraordinary selection of jams, jellies, syrups, perfumed waters, pickles and oils left over from this year’s mouneh store. The spring sunlight illuminates jewel-like bottles of mulberry and pomegranate molasses, while jars of dark thyme-scented honey are treacly opaque. These dusty pots and containers are an intensely nostalgic memory of childhood for Mohamad. He tells me how he remembers eating dried figs in summertime sitting in the hashish fields. On the table there are dark green bottles of hemp oil, like glossy pond-water, made from crushing the seeds of the cannabis plant. I spread the coral-coloured crush of watermelon jam on thin bread, and glue my fingers together with the syrupy stick of candied pumpkin. Fatima passes around fat kibbeh, flavoured with sumac and smokily rich leeyeh (sheep tail fat), and a large dish of labneh b’toom, mildly acidic yoghurt blended with garlic. Our chicken is accompanied by the fruity sourness of pickled baby aubergines, swollen in grape juice vinegar.  Fatima’s mouneh stash is a storehouse of tradition; preserving more than pickles in the process, she is salvaging a culturally historic art that many have abandoned. 
Old traditions often find new ways of surviving.  As we drive away from rural farmland and onto the dusty stretch of motorway that cuts into the valley, Mohamad points out the bustling roadside clothes markets. He explains how the drug dealers operating in Bekaa have been forced into adopting new, more secretive methods of distribution; where sellers now sew marijuana, cocaine, and heroine into the pockets of jeans. In a valley that is at once a living, breathing symbol of fruition and fertility, there is also a sinister shadow of death and destruction that darkens the Edenic picture. Mohamed, squinting in the sun, gestures with a smoking cigar to the breezeblock buildings that are stencilled with green Hezbollah rifles: he says “in this area, there is no fighting, only killing. When a conflict breaks out, there are no physical fights and no fists are involved, instead people bring out their army machine guns. Imagine… AK47s to settle arguments! It’s a massacre.” Here the houses of normal villagers bristle with military metal, where family homes are loaded with stocks of weaponry and ammunition left over from the war. In this part of town, Mohamad tells me, the window repair business flourishes. 
I spit the pips of a melon as daylight dies in the valley. From the stump of a Roman colonnade in Baalbek, I can make out the entire grassy plateau. It seems obvious that the future of the Bekaa Valley depends on positive UN intervention. Its promises of irrigation projects and alternative crop subsidies never materialised. Until there are changes made, it is certain that the fertile soil of the valley will play host to vegetable and narcotic alike. And for now the political problem of the Bekaa remains un-weeded.