This photo essay originally appeared in Volume Two of Gossamer. Order your copy of Volume Three here.
Welcome to Lebanon. Home to one of the most beautiful and historic landscapes on the Mediterranean coast. To the north and east, Syria, a country besieged by a brutal war and genocide, leaving tiny Lebanon with roughly one million of its refugees. To the south, Israel and Palestine, whose wars and horrors have flooded across the border. Lebanon, home to its own conflicts and self-destruction, is a country of corruption. But it’s afloat, for now.
If one thing could perfectly symbolize all of the country’s political, physical, and cultural problems, it’s cannabis.
I lived in Beirut two years ago. The memories of Lebanon’s civil war almost 30 years prior still felt fresh. Bombed out buildings reminded residents of what they didn’t want to live through again. But political instability wasn’t what kept me up at night, it was the fact that the country could not handle its own waste. From its waterways, air, and surrounding oceans, Lebanon has dug itself into an almost irreversible position: full of literal shit. Landfills are overflowing into the oceans and streams, waste is burnt all over the country, polluting almost every bit of air. In 2017, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled “As If You’re Inhaling Your Death” about the government’s failure to manage solid waste, which has, in turn, poisoned its citizens. Maybe between the stress of maintaining a national peace and a massive, never-ending flood of refugees, the country simply put waste management at the bottom of its to-do list.
But if one thing could perfectly symbolize all of the country’s political, physical, and cultural problems, it’s cannabis. Processed into hashish, Lebanon’s cannabis crops bring in an estimated $175 million to $200 million a year, making the country the third largest exporter in the world. Driving through the Beqaa Valley—where cannabis has been cultivated since the Ottoman Empire—one cannot see an end to the fields. Stop at a regular military checkpoint, and there’s likely to be miles of cannabis flowing behind Lebanese Army tanks.
I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for cannabis, not because I like to get high, but because I see so much potential in a plant that could help millions. Legalization can create jobs, release innocent people from prisons, improve economies, and heal the ill. I naively assumed that anyone dealing with cannabis understood this, that everyone’s got a taste of the “good vibes.” But upon my arrival in the Beqaa Valley, I quickly realized how criminalization can quickly turn an innocent plant into a very, very dark substance.
Yammouneh is a small village situated in a valley that is completely geographically separated from the rest of the Beqaa Valley. There is only one entrance. Upon arrival, a large, man-made, emerald body of water glimmers in the harsh sun. My driver boasts about how they built this water supply for themselves. As you drive further in, you realize that the entire valley is filled to the brim with cannabis. The houses are large, a sign of the wealth derived from the crop. Everyone here grows cannabis, and they’re all from the same family. This does not feel like the rest of Lebanon. It’s clean, though the familiar sight of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) logo is plastered on refugee tents throughout.
After driving all the way through town and up a dirt road, we make our way to a home overlooking the entire valley. This is the home of Abu Ali, one of the largest drug lords in Lebanon. He’s a large, bloated man. We lounge in his majlis (sitting room), staring at the large-screen television with multiple camera feeds streaming live images of the area surrounding his house and the valley below. He’s laying on his side, four automatic weapons beside him. I ask him what the cameras are for. He rolls over and grabs a remote which zooms all the way to the opposite end of the valley, right into someone’s home. He tells me that there’s always trouble, and he needs to know what is going on at all times. After his young Ethiopian maid serves me coffee, I ask him who works in the fields. “Syrians, of course.” As he gleefully snorts a bump of cocaine, he tells me he pays each worker five dollars an hour for their work.
The next day, I go on my own to the plastic tents in which Ali’s employees live. A 29-year-old Syrian man named Ahmed informed me that they receive $1.50 an hour and that asking for more isn’t an option because, “to be honest, it’s better than nothing.” Their camps are situated on mud, on the opposite side of the valley from the large homes of Lebanese landowners. In the winter, the valley gets snow. “It’s not a comfortable place to live, but it’s better than worrying about airstrikes all day,” says Ahmed.
Thanks to the construction of Lake Qaraoun, the valley’s large, man-made reservoir, Yammouneh became somewhat immune to Lebanon’s water pollution while simultaneously ensuring their crop. They live in a bubble. But, just a few meters out of the valley, the trash settles, and, not far, a war is raging.
We leave Yammouneh for Baalbek, one of the larger cities in the Beqaa. Like Yammouneh, it is a stronghold of Hezbollah. Their political propaganda is pasted on every corner. Unlike Yammouneh, Baalbek is overwhelmed with trash and air pollution. The city is hectic and crumbling. It is home to both Syrian and Palestinian camps, and no one seems to have enough space to live comfortably. The city had apparently built a new trash processing facility (a landfill), after the last one reached capacity. We drive up the hill to find a farmer letting his sheep graze on the trash. Those sheep were almost ready to head to the butcher for the next day’s meat sales for Eid, a holiday marking the end of Ramadan. I was able to take one photograph of the scene before we were threatened by the owner of the landfill, a member of one of the mafia families in the Beqaa.
In August and September, Lebanon’s crop will grow another meter high and begin to dry, and Syrians from all over the Beqaa will come and prepare its harvest. It will be funneled into buildings where the hashish will be processed, packed, and readied for trafficking. The best and cleanest hashish, from Yammouneh, will be exported to Europe. The B-grade finds its way to Africa and the rest of the Middle East. Lebanon’s population gets the lowest grade for its own personal use, just like the rest of the resources left for the people in the country.
Yumna Al-Arashi is a photographer, filmmaker, and writer based in London.