The making of text and pictures
After publishing the article “Red Lebanon Hash” and “the origin of cannabis indica” both by Javier Marín, we want to explain now the circumstances related to them; the way they were made (text and pictures). Let us remember it all happened during the civil war in 1991. Kidnapping journalists from non muslim countries was then one of the major sources of incomes for Hezbollah (Party of Allah). But let Javier Marín himself tell the readers the way he had to cope with every problem.
It was mid summer and the heat was unbearable in Madrid (Spain). My head was about to blow up, unable to resist the extremely high temperatures and my hypothalamus was submerged in a cocktail of boredom and apathy.
Being tired and bored I started to read El País, one of the most important Spanish newspapers, when all the sudden one small article got my attention. It was not very special, given the circumstances, but I always have been fascinated by international politics, specially anything related to Middle East. If Wall Street is the “wallet” of the world, Jerusalem is the very heart, Mankind have been fighting for this unique city during thousands of years. It is essential for the three monotheist religions.
I cannot remember the news that called my attention. But it is was not important because it was another excuse to start a new trip to Middle East and initiate another adventure. But I must admit that quite a few years before I started to feel a great curiosity about the legendary Red Lebanon: one of the best kinds of hash in the world. I was dying to try it! Maybe it was my fate because just one month before a Lebanese young man came to visit me in Madrid. He was in Spain to escape from the civil war and his father was a friend of mine who helped me years before in Lebanon. He stayed in my house some days a week and went to the university every day. From the very beginning we liked each other and became good friends.
Being a reporter, my blood pressure began to go up. I was very excited with the idea! I called him . ” Do you have any connection to enter into Bekaa valley? – I asked without too many hopes. He nodded before answering me back. “ Yes indeed. A good friend of mine works in that area driving a Red Moon ambulance” Red Moon is the equivalent to our Red Cross and therefore he had access to most of the restricted areas (almost the whole country).
Bekaa is a huge valley that was the center of cannabis cultivation in the Middle East. Even though most of the population are Christians, the area is military controlled by the bearded men of Hezbollah (Party of God), a Shiite fundamentalist group that hates westerners. They oblige the peasants to pay a percentage of the harvest in order to finance their holy war against the infidels, the Christians of Europe, America and Israel. It may seem paradoxical but in this part of the world everything is a paradox. War and politics make weird allies.
One day after reading the article I was landing in Beirut International airport. I was very lucky because I got there just during a brief truce, a “halt the fire”, between Christians and Muslims. I took a taxi and asked the driver to take me directly to the Comfort Hotel; the favorite hotel for all the western reporters who worked in the area. To be honest, more than a hotel it seemed to be a Gruyere cheese full of enormous holes caused by the 240 mm projectiles launched by the Sirius army from east Beirut. It was impossible to find a single room with glasses in the windows. The war was lasting too much… Fortunately the bar was at the basement of the hotel and the bombing started we used to go there looking for protection. If the bombing lasted too much you used to leave the place quite drunk.
All the international war conventions prohibit the use of 240 mm projectiles against civil targets due to its enormous destructive potential. But the Sirius troops did not care about this and the Spanish ambassador in Beirut, Perico Arístegui, died precisely because a piece of a bomb hit his head.
I had a plan to visit the Bekaa valley. I was “officially” there to make an article about a Spanish nun who had spent more than 40 years working there, refusing to abandon her congregation. Of course it was a lie. The poor old lady had escaped 2 years before. It was too scary to remain there . But I thought it was me the only one who knew this fact. I hoped the muhabarrak (secret police) were not aware of this reality. The muhabarrak are famous for their efficiency and cruelty interrogating and torturing. I was terrified with the idea of being arrested by them.
A soon as I left my luggage in the room I went straight to the bar. Antoine, the owner, came immediately to say hello. He was an old “fox”, very smart and probably the person who knew all about the conflict among Christians and Muslins. He was one of the few persons I trusted in the middle of that nest of spies: Sirius and Iranians who had invaded the country. And when I write “trust him” I am talking about his criteria; not his loyalty.
Once I was about to finish my third vodka, Antoine asked me what the hell I was doing there. When I told him my story about the Spanish nun, he looked at me like a father looks at his misguided son. “You are crazy” – he said. “Who is going to believe that absurd story about the Spanish nun?” And on top of it he added: “given the circumstances I must asked you to pay your bill before leaving” I normally had credit with the hotel but that day the old rascal preferred to cancel all my privileges. I was horrified! And I had no other plan..I found certain relief thinking Antoine was much more intelligent than any muhabarrak.
But I must admit I reached that conclusion once I was about to finish my fourth vodka.
I was asking another drink when a young man entered into the bar. His look was too typical. Immediately I could tell he was reporter and Spanish. Being a reporter for more than 30 years has taught me several things. Wearing the typical “reporter jacket”, full of pockets and beige color, is a big mistake. It is like to wear written the words “please steal me”. And on top of it is a good way to tell everybody you are a journalist. But his innocence captivated me and therefore I asked him to sit with me and tell me something about his job there.
His name was Roberto and was a freelance photographer trying to get good pictures about whatever. But he knew nothing about it and was not ready to stain his nice reporter jacket. He was not ready to take any risk indeed. Since I could not help to like his innocence I invited him to accompany me to east Beirut, feud of Hezbollah and Amal, the best place to be kidnapped by those fanatic. “Is not too risky?” – he asked me. In order to make him feel better I explained there was a truce at the “green corridor”, a path of one hundred meters that linked Beirut east and west. Usually this corridor is plenty of sharpshooters.
We began our excursion just after a little lunch. We crossed the green line without remarkable problems and very soon we were in the middle of Hezbollah area. Roberto did not noticed at the beginning. But after a while he asked me: “ Don’t you think there are not women in the street?” In fact there were many other clues aside of the lack of women. It seemed we were in a Hollywood war scene. Many buildings were burning and nobody seemed to care about. The poverty was immense and most of the men wore long beards and black turbans. You could feel the suffering of the people.
Allow me to make a personal reflection about religions. Lebanon has both religions, Islam and Christianity. They use to live together in peace. It happens the same in Syria but here there are more Muslins. When you travel across these countries you don’t need to be told if the area is Muslim or Christian. Immediately the difference is obvious. Just look at the youth. If you see groups of boys and girls getting together, laughing and holding hands, you are in a Christian area. If there is no way to see them together and never see a couple holding hands, you are among Muslims. Women wear black clothes and walk always behind a man. And of course they cover their bodies from the tips to the toes. No need to explain where I feel the best…
Roberto was very naïve but not that much. He realized that we were back in the Middle Age. I had to tell him the truth: “we are in Hezbollah neighborhood”. He looked at me with wide opened eyes. He did not know if I was pulling his leg or being serious. After a while trying to calm him down, I saw a young man who was staring the scene with a expression a surprise on his face. Later on the same night he told me he hardly could believe we were so senseless to be there: inside the Shiite wolf mouth. Even more considering my westerner look (I look more American or English than Spaniard).
He approached little by little and then he introduced himself with a huge smile. His name was Ahmed and was less than 30 years old. Once he made clear we knew we were in Hezbollah area and that we were in real danger, he offered us to have a cup of tea in his house. Speaking Spanish to avoid being understood Roberto warned me about the danger of accepting the invitation and asked me to come back to the hotel as soon as possible. However after being reporter for so many years I have developed a sixth sense to see on the inside of the people. I knew that guy was honest and we were much better with him than on our own. Less than one year before I came back from Afghanistan where I spent several weeks with the talibans of Hezbi Islami while they were fighting the USSR. I was used to evaluate complex situations and decide what was acceptable. I always was freelance and therefore I had nobody taking care of me to pay a rescue if I was kidnapped or to send me back home in case of accident. I had to develop that sixth sense to survive.
After convincing my friend, we went to Ahmed house: a miserable hut with rats, garbage and debris all over. Around a humble table, the whole family was having a cup of tea. There were his mother, a woman who was about 40 years old but seemed to be much older, plus his 5 brothers. In fact Ahmed had 6 brothers but the eldest was out at the moment. However I realized he was in a photograph, holding an AK 47 and a bandana with the word Amal written in Arab and Christian. Amal was the other group, financed by Syria, and dedicated to kidnap foreigners. And when Roberto saw the picture he almost had a heart attack.
After offering us the two chairs still functional, we were given a cup of tea. That tea that represents the only gift they could share. It represents hospitality and Arabs are very good hosts. Hospitality is a religious question more than anything else. Unfortunately Roberto did not allow me to enjoy that moment. Being a freelance I used to spend most of my life alone. And sharing a humble cup of tea was like a family reunion for me. Roberto insisted so much that I finally gave up and decided to return to our hotel.
Ahmed offered himself to guide us and of course I accepted. During the way back to the hotel I propose him something that he could not refuse. After explaining my story about the Spanish nun I asked him to become my guide for certain quantity of money that I did not specify. He immediately agreed and after a friendly “good bye” we made an appointment for the next day at 6.A.M in my hotel.
Once I was alone with Roberto, he told me: “you have been brilliant! He even believed the story about the Spanish nun…And he believed you when you offered him to be your guide in your travel to Bekaa!”. When I told him my offer was true, he looked at me completely shocked. “You are crazy!” –as all he could say. I even offered him to come with me and share the profits. I guess you can imagine his answer…
I must admit that night I couldn’t sleep at all. I was too scared. The Russian vodka helped me, but not enough. And this way, between sip and sip , I spent the longest night of my life. Five minutes before 6.am, Ahmed was already waiting for me at the hotel door. Antoine was very gentle and came out to say good bye. “You are crazy!” –he told me again.
We decided to take a taxi to travel till the plantations. It was a little more than 100 Kmts. However, in this short distance we were going to find about 10 check points. Check points controlled by the muhabarrak, the dreaded secret police. Anyway, it wasn’t that what really worried me the most. I knew it was after the last checkpoint and once we were in the cristian village where the cultures were, when the real danger started. It was Hezbollah what sacared me to death.
It took more than 8 hours to pass all the checkpoints. Every time we were stopped the muhabarraks made tones of questions. However it was quite easy to pass without many problems. And I must say it was thanks to our football team Real Madrid that we could pass so easily. The Arabs are fanatics of football . Unfortunately, some time before our President Jose María Aznar was photographed with George Bush, proclaiming Spain was an allied of USA in the war against Iraq. Before that moment Arabs loved Spain. In any Arab country the simple fact of being Spanish opened you all the doors. They thought Arabs and Spaniards were brothers. But from that moment on, the situation changed completely and we were not considered brothers anymore. I have seen many Arabs crying like children unable to understand our treason. They could expect that from any other western country. But never could expect it from Spain. After having spent many years travelling across many Arab countries I can understand the atrocious feeling they have. From then on, we turned out a declared foe instead of brothers. Thanks very much, Jose María, your sense of diplomacy is impeccable.
But lets go back to Real Madrid and the role it played in my journey to Bekaa. Just before my trip, the player called Emilio Butragueño, became the cover of all the newspapers and magazines because he had an accident while playing and his “balls” came out of his pants and everybody could see them. The clearly picture showed that pair of balls and a playful penis flying with the wind. It was really funny! It was a great news and I thought it could help me in my journey. And it was exactly like this. In every checkpoint I used to mention the scene and when I showed the picture the muhabarraks died of laughter and the atmosphere changed completely. They were in shock and called the nest checkpoint to announce I was going to pass and show them the pictures. From that day on I have become a real fan of Butragueño!
We finally reached the point which we could get using public transportation. From then on ,we were in Hezbollah area . And those bearded men controlled everything there. It was a question of time they come to hear about a couple of westerners hanging around. And it was a question of time too to be kidnapped.
We had reached a Christian village and as soon as we hope off of the taxi we looked for a telephone to call my contact. His name was Mohamed and he told me to wait for him in a specific part of the village. He said he would be there in about 30 minutes.
The place to wait for him was the equivalent of a bar in Spain. It was the only meeting point there. Most of the inhabitants were peasants who cultivated red Lebanon hash. Quite surprised by our presence, they gave us food, drinks and good hash to smoke. I was given the typical Arab bread: cheese , white wine and olives. And, of course, a nice pipe of hash. Ahmed refused the hash, saying his religion didn’t allow him to smoke it. We spent a very nice time, chattering with those pals until I saw a Red Moon ambulance entering the village. It was my contact.
I ran out of the bar to meet him. He stopped the car and indicated us to hope in. We got in the back seats and made the introductions. Mohamed, my contact, came with a friend, a big guy almost 6 feet tall and with a very dark skin. However, my contact was a young and blond young man, with light skin and blue eyes. Most of the pure Arabs are like this. From the very beginning we liked each other and the situation became very pleasant.
Since they already knew the reason why I was there, we started to work immediately. I couldn’t forget that every minute spent there was a risk.
The fields of hash were close. However, in order to avoid risks, they made us lay down in the back side of the ambulance and covered our bodies with a white sheet. In case we were stopped by Hezbollah they would say I was a corpse. One more among the thousands that every day died.Fortunately we hadn’t problems at all.
When we finally stopped and I got out I had a real shock. As far as my eyes could see was full of red cannabis plants. And at the end of this beauty you could see the ruins of the roman city of Baalbek. Everything was red. The land, the plants, the sun…all! The sun was setting, staining with even more red colors the horizon.
I felt as happy as a kid. The plants were short, no more than 3 feet tall and with a central stem full of flowers and absolutely red. They seemed to “bleed” resin due to the lack of water they were suffering. Red Lebanon is a dry land cultivation and because of this fact is harvested very early. And also because of this the plants are short and sweat so much resin; ideal to make good hash. The fragrance that they give off was sensed from a far distance. It was kind of sweet and musky. I finally could see the mythical Red Lebanon! And that made me very happy. I will never forget those moments.
I started to take pictures like crazy. I saw a group of peasants harvesting all the plants to stack them in a trailer pulled by a tractor. I approached them and took the picture you can see. They made a break and we smoked a joint.
They told me the bearded men of Hezbollah used to charge them with a percentage of the sales which was too high.
They thought it was unfair because they were there cultivating since the old Egyptians times. When the Romans were governing their lands those people already cultivated Red Lebanon and used its delicious resin.
I was aware of being in front of the history and that few people could have that opportunity.
We couldn’t stay there anymore. As soon as I told my contact I had pictures enough, we left towards another village on which he owned a house. The plan was to spend there the night and come back to Beirut the next morning and as soon as possible.
We used secondary roads and paths that the only knew. It didn’t take too long to get his house. Aside of the main entrance, the house had a garage. It was closed with a iron door and my contact sat just there. I cannot remember the way things happened but before entering the house, Mohamed asked me if I was happy with the pictures. I was seated by his side and said yes. But I also thought it was a pity not to have pictures of an important stash. He looked back at me and said, showing a huge smile: “ Come on..get up”. And then he opened the garage door.
It was then when I understood my friend was an important smuggler. I and Ahmed couldn’t help a face of excitement and surprise. I only could say: what the hell is this?” I found myself in a garage of about 500 square meters completely full of red resin. But not only the walls were full; the floor too. He had tones and tones. I have never seen that quantity in my life!
There were dried plants hanging from the walls waiting to be manufactured to extract the resin. One of the pictures published in this article shows the cover of my book “The barrel of Diogenes”. And this picture shows the mentioned plants. I hardly could keep my joy for myself. It was the final detail of a good job which was going to bring me great profits and prestige. It was published in many papers and magazines and I earned a good amount of money. I will never forget that crook of lovely smile that helped me that much. If it weren’t for his help I wouldn’t be alive.
It was late and we had to weak up early to come back to Beirut. Therefore we decided to go to sleep. Mohamed show me our room. It was a large room with a weird decoration that remind me of the sixties. It had an ugly wall paper but it seemed to me a real palace. Moreover I was too happy and nothing could disturb my happiness.
Being muslin, Mohamed had no alcohol at home. He offered some food but we declined it. Anyway, there was a “urban legend” among the heroin addicts that was very popular in my country. It seemed that the best white dope came from Lebanon. I felt some curiosity about it and I decided to ask about it. Mohamed smiled again and, ten minutes later, he came back with a gram of the famous white Lebanese dope. I must admit I used this lethal drug when I was young. Fortunately I understood it was a risky deal with Satan and I gave up. But in order to continue with the story, I must admit the legend was true. The dope produced in Lebanon is possibly the best in the world. Mohamed gave a special pipe and after 3 drags I was out of the world. But I also must admit that those moments were like being in paradise. The famous tale “Blue smoke”, by Rudyard Kipling, came to my mind. What a shame! Everything I like is bad for the health, or a sin or illegal!
I finally tried to sleep. But when I was closing my eyes I heard a loud noise. It was like something very heavy crashing against the floor. I opened my eyes right on time to see a great ball of hash that fell from Ahmed clothes. It was about half a kilo that he had hidden trying to steal it.
I looked at him in shock and he looked back at me with the face of a child who has been caught cheating in the school. We weren’t able to say a single word. I was too surprised and he was too ashamed. My surprise came from the fact of have believed him when he said he was a good muslin who declined all kind of pleasures. I got mad at him because he had stolen something that belonged to my contact. For Mohamed half a kilo meant nothing. But stealing is stealing.
Ahmed tried to give all kind of explanations but I finally understood that the question was too simple. Ahmed was a normal young man who never had a single dollar to spend. And since for a young muslin man fucking is more a miracle than a sin, that half kilo was the best reward he could expect. After I understand this fact I tortured him a little bit with reproaches and he promised not to do it anymore. I promise him not to say a single word to Mohamed and continued torturing him a little more saying I was going to tell his mother as soon as we came back to Beirut.
He began to cry and his tears were quite sincere. “Please, don’t do it” – he implored. “She will kill me!”. The image of that man, born in the middle of one of cruelest wars, crying like a child, made laugh and feel bad at the same time. I will never forget the image. A man wearing underpants that seemed to be bought at the same store where Homer Simpson buys his made me laugh so much that my eyes became full of tears. I thought I was going to die of laughter!
“Come on, make a joint and after we will sleep” – I ordered. After make me promise I would never say a word, he made the joint, we smoked it and went to sleep. But at 5 A.M Ahmed woke up to pray and I had to shout. “If you don’t go back to sleep I will tell everything to your mother” – I said.
One hour later Mohamed called us. It was time to leave. After a light breakfast with tea and little more, we hoped in the ambulance again and we left. It was a short trip to another place where Ahmed and me were going to take a taxi to Beirut. However, that journey had another surprise for me.
Indeed, the chaotic way of driving of Lebanon plus the anarchy that governed the area at that time caused enormous traffic jams. Suddenly, a Mercedes Benz that was ahead of us, stopped. A bearded hezbollahji man got out, holding an AK – 47 and I thought he was aiming at me. Two seconds later he opened fire and finished a whole magazine. One of the “virtues” of this weapon is that it never gets stuck.
When I thought my heart was to blow up, the man hoped into the car again and left. Mohamed told me that type of situations happened very often. The traffic is very stressing and that man expressed his frustration firing his AK. That was all! I couldn’t believe it! After checking our car and see nothing had happened we continued.
The way back to Beirut was quiet and without any remarkable problem. Ahmed and I did shake hands to say good bye but he didn’t ask for money. I was full of gratitude and I gave him a hundred dollars note. He almost cry due to his deep feelings. “Alhandullillah (God bless Allah)” – he said. “With this money my family will survive two months or more” – he added. “Maybe we will meet again” – I said. “Inchallah” – he answer me.
He turned his back and disappeared. I never saw him again. I looked at his eyes and felt an incredible tenderness. I trusted him from the very beginning. I trusted a man who no westerner would have. My sixth sense worked perfectly.
I was very near to the Confort Hotel. When Antoine saw me, he showed a huge smile and pointed to the bar. He ordered the barman to open a bottle of his best Russian vodka. “You have credit again in my humble hotel” – he told me. I sat down and began to enjoy the moment.
Few minutes later Alberto came into the bar. He was wearing his reporter jacket, and said: “You have been very fortunate!”. I was about to tell him it wasn’t a question of luck and that nothing was what it seemed to be in that land forgotten by God. But I decided to close my mouth, ask another cup for him and drink.
Javier Marín text and pictures.
Author´s note: This article and his pictures has been made exclusively for Ketama Seeds. Its partial or total reproduction is completely prohibited.