The waste and open plains of Lebanon’s Bekaa valley differ markedly from the country’s busy and humid coastline, or the mountains where tiny villages neighbour over-developed towns. Here in the Bekaa, many still live off of agriculture. The late-summer colours are deep and vary from reddish-orange and soft brown to different shades of green. Open fields intersect and form graphical patterns: potato plants sit next to grapevines and rows of tiny trees, heavy with apples. The Bekaa is the country’s breadbasket, and home to generations of Lebanese farmers.
The roads that cut through the fields are long and straight, with narrow and winding ones leading to the east or the west. Along the road sit small villages with small and grey cement houses, typical of the Lebanese countryside. Each of them has a village bakery, a small dekkeneh and a couple of autoshops. Cigarettes, manaeesh, someone to fix your car. Then, there are the vendors who display produce straight from the fields: green figs, grapes, apples of all shapes. Large piles with big, round onions. Potatoes, bright orange from the Bekaa soil.
Right on the outskirts of the villages sit another kind of houses: rectangular tents, built from thick fabric and large sheets of plastic. This is where those who pick the apples and the potatoes live. The families come from Syria – only an hour or so away, behind the mountain range to the east. Lebanon’s agricultural sector is reliant on these workers, who work with everything from picking olives to harvesting tobacco. Wages are higher here, making the trip to Lebanon an attractive option. And, with the growing hardships across Syria, finding work at home is becoming harder and harder.
Just off a road that cuts through a patchwork of large, flat fields, five minutes outside a mountain slope village in western Bekaa, sits a row of brown tents. The middle one is home to Ahmad, an 11-years-old boy, and his family.
“Tu t’appelles comment?” Ahmad asks with a big smile, immensely proud of addressing someone in a foreign language. “I speak French,” he continues to explain in Arabic, “I’ve learned it in school.” He refers to the village school where he goes, together with his younger cousins and friends. Their elder brothers and sisters, who are teenagers, work in the fields. “How often we work?” asks 14 years-old Rihan. “Every day, of course. We have to for the money. We start early in the morning, at four or five. Then we work until five in the afternoon. Every day of the week.”
The fields around the little community are vast and flat. There is tobacco (the nicotine-rich plant is one of Lebanon’s most important crops), or potatoes and onions, covered by large, deep green leaves. “We work with different things each day,” says Rihan, “but mostly tobacco. We do everything: plant, harvest and take care of the leaves afterwards.” For this work, the girls are paid between 200 and 300 dollars each a month.
“How often we work? Every day, of course. We have to for the money.”
Like most agricultural workers from Syria, the family usually travels back and forth to Syria, and leave Lebanon during the winters. This year however, things are different. The family has not been back to their home village outside Idlib for 14 months. Their house, says Rihan, is no longer there. “There’s war now,” she says.
Rihan and Ahmed’s mother sits among her kids and neighbours outside the tent. “We’ve been working here for many years,” she says. “It’s good, it’s work.” Inside, the tent is small and modest – but impeccably clean and in order. Rihan and her cousin Razan show the main room, where eight people sleep. In the corner are piles of mattresses, their bright patterns colourful against the sandy brown tent walls. There is a TV in the corner, but often the family cannot use it. “The electricity. It’s always problems with the electricity. That’s Lebanon,” says the kids’ mum, referring to the country’s never-ending electricity crisis (which has been even worse than usual this summer).
“The electricity. It’s always problems with the electricity.”
The kitchen – the only other room – is both tiny and dark, but has a homely feeling. There is a fridge and even a washing machine, but neither works (again, the electricity). Instead, the food is stored through mouneh, a traditional way to conserve fresh produce. On the kitchen shelves are figs and baby aubergines in oil, and balls of labneh in a big jar. Rihan and Ahmad’s mum cooks all sorts of things in the kitchen. “We eat everything that we usually do in Syria,” she says. “Fasoulia and bemieh, lentils and meat with rice.”
The girls return outside, to the small porch where the other family members are. The surrounding fields are quiet, their colours fading into the background as the dusk falls. Neighbours from the tents next door drop by, sit down for a bit. A bit further away, a couple of men unload vegetables from an old pickup truck. Their kids run down on the fields and return with their hands full of me’teh, a small and pale cousin to the cucumber. Rihan and Razan bring out an old phone, through which they listen to Syrian pop stars. Ahmed jumps up to sit down next to them in the worn-out couch. Evening falls along the road in the Bekaa.
“Our house is gone. There’s a war now.”