In the Mountains of Lebanon, After Hashish, What?

In rural Lebanon, the hashish business is dying; a trade which once lifted villagers out of abject poverty is vanishing under government pressure, but there is little to replace it. Al Akhbar visited a village in the country’s marijuana growing region and described its decline from the point of view of a young woman whose family was forced out of the trade when she was younger.

When her father quit growing cannabis, she learned the taste of starvation. He had decided he would make do on his policeman’s pension, giving in to his fear of military checkpoints. Twenty years ago now, this was.

And perhaps that decision, which her father at the time of his ‘repentance’ believed to be the right one, was indeed wise. He had had enough of those terrifying moments-not least being hauled from their house one cold night and herded into a military truck for an hour of interrogation. That night, he had thought he would never come back, that the hashish plants would be the end of him. The terror of that moment, the accumulated years of cultivation and harvest and fear, were what made him finally give up cannabis.

But today the longing still remains for those lost seasons; all that remains are little stories: the truck loaded down with hashish navigating the back roads and side streets, lights extinguished in the night, the darkness stealing the hours as they drove to avoid the checkpoints. Those long hours fearing the sudden bust that would erase all of the season’s labor.

Her longing returns with special force in the autumn, when the first rains once spread the smell of the stalks of the plants, stripped of their buds. On those days, the scent became part of the landscape, and still haunts her memory. A public scent, issuing from every house, from every fireplace on which the drying stalks of the plant were burned.

For long years after her father quit cultivating cannabis, the smell pervaded her village, until the rest ‘repented’ as he had. Cannabis here was an almost normal annual ritual. Only the occasional bust would shake the ordinariness of the crop, and most of the busts failed anyway; the men of the village were cautious. And besides, some of those on patrol were friendly with the growers, especially since most of the growers had themselves served in the military.

The smell lingers to this day, and it will not soon fade; the memory of cannabis here is inextricably linked to a time when people did not go hungry. A finer time, in particular the week of the harvest, the drying of the plants, the selection and the grinding. People who lived through those times still remember the taste of cannabis infused sesame cookies, the flavor of tea boiled on a cannabis fire.

The biggest joy was when the harvest brought in more flowers than kabsha; half a pound of cannabis flower brings in twice its weight in kabsha. The joys of the cannabis season are gone now, the trade iniquitous in the eyes of the state. But cannabis delivered people here from poverty, a poverty from which the state has never before or since tried to deliver them. Who in those years worried about school fees or books or new clothes for school or the price of eggplants for winter provisions or the price of heating oil?

Her father, she says, never carried these burdens until he ‘retired’ from the hashish trade. From that day, his policeman’s pension had to be enough for school fees, for groceries, for the household expenses and for everything else. From that day, stationery for school was a luxury, heating oil was rationed out, drop by drop. Life itself was rationed out, drop by drop. A season of cultivation was half her father’s pension after twenty years of service.

In this region, called Baalbeck-Hermel, nothing has replaced the vanishing cannabis cultivation. There is nothing now that can save a family from poverty as a few kilos of hashish once did; certainly no apples or nebulous alternative crops promised by the government will pay the bills. Here, half the people are farmers who lack the money to invest in new crops, and the rest are in the military, but they too were hashish growers.

For those who still cling to the old trade, the bitterest pill is that the state is never present here, except when it arrives with its ‘joint forces’ to annihilate their livelihood. Who will remind the state that these are not criminals or bandits or willing drug traffickers, but merely people who do not want to surrender their right to live? They cultivate cannabis so that they can send their children to schools and to universities where the fees alone would swallow the entire pension of a soldier.

Who will remind the state that its alternative crops do not feed the hungry, that no one buys them? The growers here know well enough that there are state officials who will buy their hashish crop without asking where it comes from.

Rajana Hamyeh