The sweet cheese rolls of Hama are no match for Latakia’s tobacco

30 May 2018

Hazem Mustafa

Hazem Mustafa (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer and journalist residing in Latakia.

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

(Latakia) Tobacco trader Mohammad al-Sakka, a 65-year-old native of Hama who is also known as Abu Mohammad, roams the small coastal town of Dweir Baabda without fear of being intercepted or stopped by its inhabitants.

He searches for people who sell tobacco threads on the rack. A local land owner accompanies him and looks around to make sure the government’s tobacco controller does not see him and report him to the police.

Abu Mohammad drove to Dweir Baabda from the central city of Hama through the town of Beit Yashoutin on his Kia, a medium-sized car that locals refer to as the “2400”. He crossed the international road without being stopped at any of the strategically scattered checkpoints. 

Part of the Latakia governorate in northwest Syria, Dweir is the first village on a tour that normally starts with a visit to his pals. “We should bring with us some gifts for our friends,” he says in an accent typical of Hama, which resonates in that mountain village.

“Hama’s sweet cheese rolls (halawet el-jibn) are unmatched, as is the tobacco produced here,” he added. “After the crisis, everyone, whether backing the opposition or the regime, started smoking mountain-grown tobacco.”

Historical ties

Hama’s ties to the mountains date back to the Ottoman era, the late 19th century and early 20th century, when Sunni feudal lords would own entire Alawite villages, especially those in Rif Hama. In 1919, Mustafa al-Azem owned 46 villages that were home to around 40,000 inhabitants. Mountain rebels assassinated him a few years later.

A contemporary history account based on the documents of the French foreign ministry states that the revolution of Sheikh Saleh al-Ali, the troublemaker and inciter of the first Syrian revolution against the French in 1919, received support from the tradesmen of Hama.

Some of the city’s prominent figures, including the head of the Bolshevik party, sent Ali seven mules of ammunition to Al-Ghab, when the village was still a hard to traverse swamp. He did not, however, receive any support from the mostly Sunni coastal cities.

This village is considered a key spot in the western part of the Hama mountains. Many prominent Syrian leaders who were in power before the 1970 coup hail from it, including Salah Jadid (the regional secretary of the Baath party) and Ghassan Jadid, the Syrian national leader who participated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war as commander of the Alawite battalion.

As for the ties between the peoples of Hama and the mountains during the 20th century, they remained largely restricted to economic activity. One cannot forget that the 1982 Hama massacre created a major rift between the people of the city and those of the mountains, a divide they have been unable to overcome due to the blackout imposed on collective memory, impeding anyone from recalling what happened accurately. The latest Syrian slaughter aggravated the divide, but economic activity might help mend these ties.

Why is this tobacco being smuggled?

In the summer of 2011, like in previous years and in spite of the intensity of the Hama protests, the traffic of its traders to the mountains did not stop. They appraised the price of Arabian tobacco (paan and loose tobacco), bought it and smuggled it to Hama behind the back of state security agents and the  appraisers of the Regie Company, and bypassed the checkpoints set up by the National Defence Forces of Al-Ghab (pro-regime militia). The traders would offer small kickbacks  as compensation for the “smuggling operation” being facilitated.

Tobacco produced in the coastal mountains is one of the best types of tobacco. Late Syrian researcher Gabriel Saadé wrote in his book “History of Latakia” that this tobacco became famous at the end of the 19th century after a strike that tobacco growers staged in protest over low prices during the winter of 1890. They refused to sell the tobacco, stored it in sand houses and made a fire next to it. The tobacco was touched with a hint of smoke and became known as “smokey tobacco” from then on.

The problem that sparked the protests was quickly resolved and tobacco prices went up. But that smokey tobacco became in demand in European markets due to its good taste. It is still known as Latakia tobacco in some parts of the world. In Portuguese, for example,  it is called Lattaquee tobacoo.

Syria produces around 27,000 metric tons of tobacco, and the coastal production accounts for more than 77% of the country’s total production. The planted surface area constitutes 63% of the total planted areas in Syria (according to the state-issued 2011 statistics). Different types are planted in coastal valleys like Basma, which is mixed with the local type (Shak El-Bint). The sector provides job opportunities for more than 100,000 people at least, not to mention the employees in associations affiliated with it.

Growers disclose the amounts they intend to plant, and based on this, the expected production is estimated (the operation is called appraisal, and people who do it are called messengers). Most growers plant more than the average estimated by the Directorate of Agriculture so that they can sell the excess in the free market, where prices are twice those set by the government.

Hama is considered an important center for exporting loose tobacco to all Syrian regions, as it has several tobacco presses (a tool to mince tobacco after sorting its leaves and preparing it for processing). The loose tobacco is then moved through special smuggling channels to the capital where one kilogram is sold for as much as 8,000 Syrian pounds ($12). Smokers of this type of tobacco multiplied after the rise in prices of all local and imported tobaccos, and the drop of the purchasing power of the Syrian pound.

Higher prices and niche production

While paying his respects at the village, Abu Mohammad asked: “What does this mean? Why are we here? To buy smokes? Dweir Baabda, Qadmus and Daliyah smokes, whether for paan or loose tobacco, are unparalleled. I don’t interfere in politics. My grandfather used to buy from here a century ago, and I am following suit. My son will too. We have inherited these relations since centuries, and we won’t let politics ruin them.”

Abu Mohammad helped transfer information about soldiers and civilians who were kidnapped in Hama city in the wake of the incidents. He played the role of a possible mediator. He said, “We helped people as much as possible reach the parties that committed these heinous acts. It is true that the city managed to escape the war to a certain extent, but the countryside experienced the woes of war. People who had nothing to do with what happened went missing or were kidnapped.”

Ibrahim Hanna, another trader from Al-Suqaylabiyah (part of Hama), interrupted to say, “With the outbreak of the unrest, we played the role of mediators, as Abu Mohammad said, with the villagers here and across the mountainous areas. We were afraid of coming to the mountainside after news and rumors spread about killing every Sunni who comes close to the mountains and killing every “Alawite” who heads to Hama. Although our concerns did not materialize, fear blinded us.”

Ibrahim, 55, said, “After we interfered and realized that nobody wanted to kill us and that those were just rumors from some small traders exploiting the situation, we resumed our meetings and trade. We came to Dweir Baabda, then headed to other villages, and nobody stood in the way.”

Ibrahim added that soldiers on checkpoints stepped in at first and announced that they were not responsible for what might happen in the villages where fury about their sons’ deaths prevailed. The soldiers added, however, that they were “ready” to interfere if there were any clashes.

Although the government doubled some tobacco prices late 2017, the prices set by Hama traders are still higher. For instance, people pay around 4000 Syrian pounds ($9) for one kilogram of Virginia (the best type that has the thickest paper), which is double the government’s official price. For paan (used for shishah), they pay 5000 Syrian pounds ($10), which is also twice the official price.

Consequently, the Syrian government cannot match the traders’ tempting offers. Therefore, many growers do not disclose their real tobacco production. Some growers even kicked out the “smoke messengers” who have some authority or bribed them in exchange for their silence on the real production figures and for handing the government a small amount and selling the rest to traders.

Mahmoud Ibrahim, a 35-year-old grower, from Dweir Baabda added, “Our relations did not change. The distance to Hama by car does not exceed one hour, despite the challenging road and the many checkpoints. We are selling Hamas traders first, and we have been selling Idlib traders for a long time, although they are now almost nonexistent. But, Hama’s traders are still working with us.”

The purchase shadow prevails over all areas that produce tobacco in the coastal mountains. Some traders are deployed in areas relying on old ties cemented since the past, in Daliyah, Maarin, Al-Qadmus, Batmush, Jabal Al-Shaarah, Al-Seri, Wadi Al-Qalaa, and Banias, which extends to the outskirts of Hama. Local tobacco is planted using dry-farming with only a bit of pesticides, which makes production purer and of higher quality that one cannot find in busier tobacco producing regions.

No clashes or objections

No cases of assault on individuals or on the private property of these traders have been reported, except for an incident in the village of Harf al-Siri in Jableh, when two traders from Hama came to the funeral of two young soldiers in the village. Some local men tried to harm them. However, teachers in the village deterred the troublemakers and placed the traders under their protection. The teachers then drove them out of the village after they apologized

The route connecting Hama to Al-Ghab through Masyaf was only blocked for a few days in the past seven years. Today, with the presence of the Syrian army, popular committees and armed opposition forces’ checkpoints, the only thing that has changed is a sense of cautious anticipation due to fear of kidnapping.

There have been a couple of incidents that nearly triggered communal strife between the two neighbours, which are by no means on friendly terms. However, fear of the past and its burdensome wounds, the repercussions of the war and the determination to put economic interests first, helps maintain a degree of calm.

Tobacco is not the only link forging ties between the mountain, Al-Ghab and Hama city. Olive oil, of all kinds, also occupies an important position in the context of severed relations between Hama and Idlib. Therefore, economic relations are the real gateway to closing the gap between these two camps. Trade is no doubt particularly useful as it helps establish a broader base of social relations.

Recently, the nearby villages of Banias witnessed the first mixed religious marriage,  a phenomenon the region had not seen in almost seven years. The person who arranged the marriage was a trader from Hama.

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