On a clear day Mount Lebanon towers as a symbol of the country’s historical heritage; thousands of years of war have carved through the mountainous landscape, and mankind’s bloody campaigns have left symmetric lines, dug out plateaus, and strategically placed villages, visible to the naked eye from a great distance. Cursed by the crusaders, archers and the notorious ‘assassins,’ whose deeds echoed across the world, Lebanon is a fascinating widescreen epic with an epic, living picture of a rich, albeit bloody past.
The ‘taxi service’ from Beirut to Jounieh smells like old spit. All the upholstery is ripped out, and the passport photo of the Virgin Mary bears witness to the driver’s – and his female passenger’s – religious affiliation. A ‘taxi service’ is a car that drives along fixed routes. You find out if it’s headed in the direction you need to go, and if so, you ride along to until it reaches its turnaround, and then if you have to, you find the next taxi service.
The old Mercedes rumbles quietly away in fourth gear. We’re going so slow that I consider asking whether the chosen speed is a desperate attempt to save gas. But as soon as I have completed the thought the woman next to me shakes her fist as if ready for a boxing match, and blurts out with flying particles of spit that he drives like an old grandmother. I sink back in my seat and try in vain to open one of the side windows, but everything in the car is welded shut.
After one hour and several unsuccessful attempts to resolve the caustic bickering that doubtless wasn’t helping the driver navigate the psychotic traffic chaos, and we have arrived in Jounieh. I have to meet my friend Habibi, whom I haven’t seen since we bombed around in an old Mazda back in Denmark. I find him and we immediately sit down to toast each other with red wine and scarf down traditional lamb sausages dipped in hummus. Habibi is cool, and today we are going to track down some of that ancient herb, hash, that some American or other decided to prohibit in order to stop Mexicans from following their traditions.
The Lebanese ‘pollen,’ as it’s known, originally Afghan, was smuggled into the country via Baghdad during the golden age of what was then called Babylon, serving as the assassins’ biggest income generator. The story goes that they ended up being called ‘hash-assins’ for their total inability to keep their hands off the stuff.
We finish our meal and take off. Wherever we’re going, our screeching tires take the hair pin turns the only way out; up the mountain. I have no clue where I am, and the only way we get by the talkative, self-important checkpoint guards, a couple of mysterious guys with big moustaches and Kalashnikovs, is because of Habibi.
Our tires screech to a halt at a village which resembles a miniature version of Stonehenge. A quick left turn parks us nonchalantly under an intimate canopy, which hides the car with its faded rust brown color, yet another Mercedes from the 80’s. Thoughts of bad action films with Arab terrorists cross my oxygen deprived head.
Many of the houses on Mount Lebanon are several hundred years old, and newer concrete facades hide beautiful inner structures of rough stonework that the Danish architecture students back home would drool over. The door opens to a sweet smell; this is our third attempt to find a worthwhile vintage. Hash is like wine, and can be found in different tastes, colors, and strengths, whose effects can vary from headaches the next morning to explosive creativity and utter bliss. But everything is enjoyed best in moderation, as they say, which probably applies perhaps to all such cocktails, whether forbidden by the laws of man, or not.
I find Sheik Hassan is sitting at a low Arabic table, or tableyah. Here one sits in the lotus position, and with a languorous arm movement he indicates that Bibi and I should come in and join him. We accept.
The table is set for dinner; the menu is rice with meat. As the lamb sausages from our earlier meal gurgle in my stomach and send a spicy taste up the back of my throat, I realize that there aren’t many vegetarians in the Arab world.
In a big pile in one corner of the room are a dozen Kalashnikovs lying about helter skelter, with loose bullets and clips strewn carelessly around next to a dozen wooden crates that are stamped repeatedly in large Arabic letters with the word ‘DANGER!’ I feel the skin tighten at the back of my neck. A quick glance around the home reveals many hanging inscriptions with deep and serious words from the Koran; I am in the presence of a religious man. A man with a big, round belly and a long beard that has been groomed ‘til it’s a masterpiece, complemented by eyeglasses whose thickness leaves little to the imagination, and frames that are perhaps a bit feminine, completing a surrealistic picture of a modern day Arab Buddha.
We have come upon a vintage galah¸ the famous Lebanese pollen, known for its mild aroma and Winne the Pooh golden brown color. The naturally forming crystals are carefully shaken from the lush buds and gently pressed into big plates that are distributed world-wide. Sheikh Hassan is without a doubt in possession of more than a few dime bags, and within his arms’ reach are waist-high stacks of the plates loosely covered by a translucent white cloth that has long since lost its original color.
We negotiate with food in our mouths. We are served Lebanese bread dipped in hummus and white rice with big chunks of meat.
Agreeing on a price can be a tightrope walk in the Middle East; a test of one’s oral skills and willpower. In most cases a well-played trump card will reveal if there is a clear winner or loser.
Since it’s difficult to spit out smoke, we agree on a taste test after several protests on religious grounds. In traditional Arab style I refuse the Sheikh’s ‘no’ to my offer that he join in the tasting, and with my own theological argument I assert that it’s blasphemy to invoke the name of Allah in a circumstance such as this; no argument here.
A little lump from the fine scales with weights and copper bowls is crumbled out and mixed with the tobacco I pre-toast with my lighter in the best educational style. Sheikh Hassan watches curiously back and forth from his own water pipe and the masterpiece of a joint I am rolling. Bibi kicks me hard under the table, and his with his eyes asks me if I know what I’m getting myself into. Kalashnikovs and hash are maybe not the most ‘kosher’ combination, and even though I have been mesmerized by the Sheikh’s king-sized brown eyes, the sweat rolls down my back even though my feet have long since given up on maintaining a reasonable human temperature on the ice cold stone floor.
The fattie is lit, and after a couple of deep drags there is no doubt about the quality. In Danish we call it blown, in Arabic straightened out; what a difference.
The laughter is soon bouncing off the walls, and half-true yarns from my childhood in Egypt have both Bibi and Sheikh Hassan busting their guts. It felt like it would last forever, and for a brief, eternal moment there is a feeling of harmony. If it wasn’t for Sheikh Hassan’s beard carelessly dipping deeper and deeper into the hummus bowl eventually slapping down on the table in time with his deep laughter, maybe we never would have realized how serious the situation was: three men in the same room with bundles of dollar bills, big stacks of hash, and Kalashnikovs.
Sheikh Hassan calls for his wife, who had earlier showed us in with a boring, suspicious eye.She goes quickly to the task of cleaning her other half’s magnificent facial hair, and what better moment to take the negotiation to the next level.
In a moment I realize that the 50 measly dollars on me won’t measure up. It doesn’t make it any easier that 10 of them are reserved for the ride back to Beirut. While Sheikh Hassan’s head is turned and his beard is in the grips of his wife’s scrubbing hands, I increase the amount of the light-brown gold with an equal weight on the scales. With the tips of his fingers Sheikh Hassan tries to turn the negotiation to his advantage, but without success. The faithful man’s glasses have dropped to the bottom of the tin bucket with watery hummus and beard hair. The two brown eyes transform quickly to a warrior’s sharp gaze, as if focusing on a wounded animal on the far horizon.
I quickly make change from the bundled stacks, and for me one very fair quantity of hash is placed in the bottom of an empty film canister. While Sheikh Hassan ineffectually fiddles around looking for something or other, Bibi and I have regained the blood flow to our legs.
Like typical Arab players we thank him for his kindness and almost fall over each other on our way out of the ridiculously small door. I throw a quick glance back at Sheikh Hassan, who is still in the grips of his wife’s power. His eyes are bloodshot, and while I quickly close the door after myself, I hear the sound of the bucket crashing to the ground and the table pushed strongly across the hard stone floor. I turn around and see Bibi is already behind the wheel and with the motor idling at full throttle. He yells: Yalla! Yalla! (read: let’s go!)
With screeching tires, popping ears, and extreme G-forces we rocket down Mount Lebanon. It’s not until we see the apparition of the first government troops and police on the street that we breathe again. I look at Bibi, and we break out laughing so hard it hurts.
At a traffic light a soldier signals for us to stop. I stretch my hand out with a neon green package of Danish cigarettes with one smoke sticking out. He looks curiously at the pack, takes the smoke, looks at us, at our eyes, and smiles and waves us on into the rush.
One week later and I am back in dark and windy winter Denmark, where I get a 100 dollar ticket for possession of one gram of mediocre hash. Yeah, I guess almost forgot what that trip to the city is like, and the Danish efficiency. Here in Denmark, there is no hummus to be shared.