Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Around Lebanon: To the Biqa'

This is the second part of the mini-tour of Lebanon trip. Read the previous post first...

Sunday August 24: The trip from Rashayya al Fukhar to the AUB farm (also known as AREC, the Agricultural Research and Education Center) takes about 2 hours. The road is very scenic, and passes through a region of Lebanon that is very seldom visited, the West Biqa`. This part of Lebanon has tremendously suffered from the Israeli invasion, but was not recognized by name until the mid 90's. Before that, it was lumped indiscriminately with "The South". It includes towns such as Rashayya al Wadi, and smaller villages such as Kfarmeshki and Libbaya. Agriculture is the main source of income (after remittances, of course) for most of the local inhabitants.

The Damascus road forms a sort of demarcation line between the "West" Biqa`, inhabited mainly by Sunnis and Christians, and the Central and North Biqa`, where the population is mainly Shi`a, and tribal (as opposed to the Shi`a of Jabal `Amel, who are organized into villages rather than tribes (`ashira). Of course, not all the Shi`a of the Biqa` are tribal, and there are large families, such as Hajj Hassan, who probably count more members than a`ashira, such as the `Allaw.

The Biqa` is the main agricultural area of Lebanon, and the Lebanese love to tell how it once was "the granary of Rome". The legend is that Rome used to import its grains from the Biqa`. I believe that the reality is probably that the Roman legions in Palestine and Lebanon used to confiscate the grain produced in the Biqa` to feed the army. Today, most of the production of crops is irrigated, and wells can go as deep as 700m. Of course, this is totally unsustainable, and the water table has dropped to below economic water yield, if one takes into account the increase in the price of fuel. A strange equilibrium has been reached, in which the price of oil has become the most effective tool to limit water pumping. However, many fields have been turned into cash crops and are still irrigated. Below is a picture of a cabbage field under sprinkler irrigation. Just look at those rich red soils! In the background you can (barely) see Mount Lebanon.

A bit further down, we encountered Bedouins milking their sheep. This is a unique sight that is not to be missed. Twice a day, when it is time for milking, the shepherd (or shepherdess in this case) calls the flock by shouting: "haleeb t`ae" meaning "come get milked". The sheep align themselves in a long line, two by two, opposite each others. The shepherdess ties them together by the neck with a long ribbon to prevent them from moving, and milks them in turn. The milk is then poured into 20 liters containers and taken to the market by pick-up truck. The sheep of this particular family were grazing on wheat stubble on these deeply red soils, hence their henna coat.

We reached The AUB farm a few moments later, and spent the night there in the guest house (recommended) .

On the morning of Monday 25 we were lucky to witness the first rain of the season while still on the farm. This is very unseasonal, and local farmers took it as a good presage: winter will come early this year, and it might even bring sufficient rain to replenish the wells and produce a good crop. Last year's drought was disastrous for many. I took this picture as a souvenir, from the window of our room in the guest house. It is a bit dark, because of the clouds, but you can clearly see, in the background, a triangle of blue sky over Mount Lebanon. A couple of hours later, the clouds had disappear and the day turned bright and sunny. We left the AUB farm as soon as it stopped raining. The next part of the trip consisted of crossing the plain at the level of Baalbak (Heliopolis) and taking the road up the mountain to the roof of Lebanon: Qornet al Sawdah, at 3080m altitude. The road crosses the charming village of Aynata, at the extreme northern edge of the Yammouneh plain. To get there, you have to pass through Dayr al Ahmar, a Maronite Christian village sitting at the edge of the Lebanon range. There is a Lebanese army check point right at the entrance of Dayr el Ahmar, because its population is strongly pro-Lebanese Forces, the right wing Christian militia headed by Samir Geagea, and much of the rest of the Biqa` is pro-Hizbullah. I took the picture of a cannabis field less than 500m away from the army check point. When it comes to growing dope, there are no religions, militias or armies: there are only people trying to make a living. Read this article (in Arabic from Tuesday's newspaper) for more information about the hash season in Lebanon.

This picture is also interesting because it clearly shows the tree line on Mount Lebanon in the background. The dark area represents the zone of growth of the oak trees (Quercus calliprinos), which stops abruptly at 1500m. Beyond this altitude, only sparse juniper trees can be found on the eastern side of the mountain, while cedars and sometimes fir grow beyond 1500m on the wetter western mountain slopes.

The Yammouneh geological fault is a zone of seismic activity that runs parallel to the Mediterranean shore, from the Red sea all the way into Turkey. In Yammouneh, the fault widens to create a mountain-locked elevated plain. The area is rich in springs emanating from the cracks in the mountain side, and channeling the water from the snow melt accumulated in the karstic craters of the summits. This is apple country: on the terraces carved in the hillsides, on the plain itself, thousands of apple trees produce some of the best fruits of the country. Recently, a project funded by the French aid agency has introduced wine grapes into the area: farmers receive a few hundred seedlings of modern grape varieties. They plant them and tend them and enter into a contract with one of the main Lebanese wine producers who purchases their produce. With the money, they pay for the seedlings they have received. The project appears to be working very well, and I was told that this year, "Warde" wine makers bought the produce. The picture below shows, on the right hand side, the village if Aynata, and on the left hand side the summit of Lebanon: Dahr el Qadeeb, the formation that includes the famous Qornet el Sawdah. In the middle, the apple and grape orchards.

Tomorrow: To the Cedars...


NewAmericanParadigm said...

Professor, your trip is very educational! I have only been to Sidon and a few other small villages in the South.

Btw, does the town of Yammouneh produce wine? I thought the town is a Shiite town. I apologize for my ignorance.


Rami Zurayk said...

Yammouneh produces hashish, so wine is a formality ;). Yammouneh is indeed a Shi`a village, but the region of Yammouneh is mixed Christians and Shi`a. Also, what is being produced is grapes that are sold for wine but not wine.

sheriff said...

Dear sir, it seems u know about my village more than i do :) in fact i dunno from where u get your info! what about the French Aid org?? what about the grapes planted there?!!am sorry but it is not accurate at all..we are fighting from long time so may someone look to this piece of heaven (Yammouneh) and do something for it!our government didn't reach it yet so i think the grapes u mentioned are still attached to an unreachable E-mail and the sender is your Frensh Aid Org:)anyways you are welcomed in our village any time to show you the truth..