Previously in Atlantic Abroad:

Waiting for Gözleme (Pier Roberts, Turkey, March 8, 2001)

Caffe Sebilj (Jeff Koehler, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 7, 2001)

Matsutake Fever (Lawrence Millman, Canada, January 10, 2001)

At Home With Mayor Baby (James Ross, Philippines, December 6, 2000)

Crossing to Kinshasa (Jeffrey Tayler, Zaire, November 16, 2000).

Among the Ruins (Tom Haines, Serbia and Montenegro, October 27, 2000).

Only Today (Michael Carr, Morocco, October 4, 2000).

Going to Meet Aleksandrovsky (Tom Haines, Ukraine, August 31, 2000).

Snowed-in in Shangri-La (Mike Meyer, China, August 2, 2000).

India's Road Cool (Mike Youngblood, India, July 7, 2000).

Manhood and Bureaucracy in Ozyory (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, June 1, 2000).

Soccer in the City (Erik Barmack, Italy, May 10, 2000).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.

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Atlantic Unbound | April 25, 2001
Atlantic Abroad

Looking for Leb Red

When I arrived at the University of London in the late 1980s, the thing to take to parties was Leb Red—not a charming French table wine, but a pungent, murky brown hashish from Lebanon's Beka'a Valley. Regrettably, my fellow undergraduates majoring in Japanese were a bit square—several have since entered finance—and by the time I fell in with the anthropologists, Leb Red was nowhere to be found.

For more than a decade I gave it little thought. A couple of months ago, though, I visited Lebanon for the first time, and recalling Leb Red's untimely demise I suggested to my wife we figure out why it vanished from Europe, and whether it warranted its vaunted reputation. Although I stopped dabbling in extra-legal entertainment long ago, and my wife never really started, she agreed the quest for Leb Red might be fun, and conceded that at the very least it offered an opportunity to explore a side of Lebanon overlooked by most of the guidebooks.

Two days after landing in Beirut we set off to meet Uncle Joseph, a former policeman who spent the eighties grinding marijuana into Leb Red. Tony—Joseph's nephew, and the friend of a friend—had agreed to drive us to his uncle's home near the towering Roman remains in the north of the Beka'a Valley at Ba'albek, fifty miles from Beirut. Yet as Tony gunned his white BMW along Beirut's crowded streets, he warned we might not make it. It was Election Day, and the roadblocks would be worse than usual.

We ran into our first roadblock right after we crossed the ridge that separates Beirut and the lush Lebanese coastline from the arid hills and plains of the Beka'a—the northern tip of the East African Rift Valley and a stronghold for Hezbollah and several other armed militias. At one of the hairpins that take the highway down to the valley floor, guards with AK-47s stood alongside barrels and concrete blocks arranged so that cars could only squeeze by one at a time. To the uninitiated, it was a formidable sight. To Tony, though, such inconvenience had defined his life for nearly three decades. Slowing down to a crawl, he lifted his sunglasses to his brow, peered at the guards, and was waved through without delay. Later, he explained the key was to make sure the militiamen and soldiers who manned the checkpoints got a good look at the window to your soul—your eyes.

Happily, the next half-dozen roadblocks were as uneventful as the first, and with the sun still high in the sky we arrived at Uncle Joseph's home. There was nobody there, but after a quick search of the dusty neighborhood Tony returned with his uncle, a wiry chain smoker in his early forties who has a tanned face, sandy blond hair, and playful, sparkling brown eyes. Expecting us, he ushered us into his sitting room, and with his two young sons at his feet and his wife at his side he spoke with obvious relish about his days as a hashish lord.

To be sure, he said, what he had done was illegal. But with Lebanon mired in civil war for most of the seventies and eighties there was no other way to make ends meet. Because of the fighting, the public sector, including the police force, collapsed. For a while he considered farming tobacco and cotton, like his father. Yet with the roads to the coast impassable, there was no way of getting crops to market.

At the same time, there was heavy demand for Leb Red right on his doorstep. Especially after the fighting intensified in the early 1980s, foreign drug smugglers attracted by the prevailing lawlessness flocked to the Beka'a to shop. For them, there was big money to be made smuggling hashish into Western Europe, so they happily paid off the militias that controlled the roads and the ports to escort their wares out of Lebanon. It didn't take long for word of the foreign shoppers to spread, and Joseph reckons that for the bulk of the 1980s the Beka'a was planted virtually valley wall to valley wall with towering marijuana plants.

The drug smugglers' money dragged the area out of the Middle Ages. Take Joseph, who grew up with a half-dozen siblings in a tiny mud-brick hut. For several years in a row in the 1980s, Joseph ground marijuana he grew on his family's 12.5 acre plot into 4.5 tons of Leb Red. Most years, it sold for $100,000 to $300,000 a ton, the higher the ratio of marijuana flower to leaf in the original mix, the longer the "buzz," and the higher the price. Even allowing for the heavy cost of planting, harvesting, processing, and guarding the Leb Red, Joseph made good money, and he said it was no coincidence that he and most of the rest of the Beka'a's farmers now lived in big new homes.

For his part, Joseph replaced his father's mud-brick hut with a concrete and cinderblock two-bedroom house with mosaic floors, plumbing, and electricity. Aesthetically, it may lack the biblical "charm" of his boyhood home, which now lies in ruins in his backyard. But for living in, Joseph's new home is a vast improvement, coveted by those still in huts.

The drug money dried up as unexpectedly as it had materialized. It was 1989—my first full year at college. Syria, Israel, and the United States reached an agreement effectively ceding control of Lebanon to Damascus. In exchange, Syria ended the civil war its militias were instrumental in prolonging. One of the new regime's first acts was to clamp down on the drug trade, a major source of gun money for warring factions on all sides.

Nowadays, Joseph apologetically told us, Leb Red is only produced in a couple of anarchic mountain villages in the far north of the Beka'a, and on short notice he couldn't take us any further on our quest. "After the civil war, the government promised to help farmers switch back to legal crops," Joseph said, between slurps of Lebanese coffee and slices of pear. "But it was just words. There's no real help, and prices for tobacco and cotton are so low that it doesn't make sense being a farmer in Lebanon. If it didn't mean winding up in jail, I'd go back to grinding hashish in a minute."

In the meantime, Joseph's fields lie fallow, and he works as a carpenter in Beirut, where he spends weekdays living in a cramped apartment. Across the Beka'a, the story is the same, he said. Thousands of farmers have left for work in the city, while they wait for the good times to return. Of those who chose to stay or couldn't leave, many have gone back to growing tobacco and cotton. But in their struggle for a livable wage, more and more are experimenting with citrus trees, grapevines, and avocados. At least one enterprising farmer has turned a clump of ancient ruins on his land into a winery—although he has yet to achieve the right level of tannins.

Joseph, his wife, and their children waved us off into the setting sun, and the following week, as my wife and I took off from the gleaming new Beirut International Airport for the short hop to Athens, I was glad I understood why Leb Red disappeared from my college bar a decade earlier. And it occurred to me that if Uncle Joseph's situation is any guide, we may not have seen the last of Leb Red.

Velisarios Kattoulas, a former foreign correspondent for The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek, is based in Tokyo. He is working on his first book.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.