YAMMOUNEH, Lebanon — Here, in this small Shiite town tucked high into the mountains, a farmer's hands are rendered rough and calloused by trade. Sweet golden apples are the main crop.
But, while the apples are good for marmalade alongside a beef stew and potato dinner, they are not the cash crop that brought this once struggling village into prosperity.
That distinction belonged to a more conspicuous crop: hemp, the bearer of hashish.
Ever since Lebanon began the eradication of hashish in 1992 — under pressure from the U.S. government — farmers here have complained that their livelihood has dipped into serious decline. Their children no longer attend private school, they struggle to pay bills, and they worry about the future.
"I got educated from hashish," says Nasser Shreif, 38, a member of the town's clan and a medicinal herb specialist who received his doctorate in France.
Now that the U.S. government once again is pushing for a policy in the region, some here in the rocky folds of the Bekaa Valley wonder why they should trust America to put their true interests at heart.
This time, U.S. officials are pushing for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. And while many Lebanese, including the farmers, would like to see Syria pull out, they question why America is so intent on making it happen.
The clash goes to the core of the complicated relationship between America and Lebanon, one mired in everything from terrorism to Zionist conspiracy theories.
It also sheds light on why many in the Middle East are suspicious of U.S. policy, and how that suspicion compromises efforts in the region.
Policy stirs debate
Even in these remote regions of Lebanon, a debate rages over U.S. politics.
The U.S. government recently weighed in on Lebanese affairs with a U.N. resolution calling for all foreign forces to leave the country, taking aim at the sweeping political control Syria exerts over its neighbor.
The move would render Lebanon a sovereign nation.
The former hemp farmers in Yammouneh, however, are not convinced the United States has any good intentions. Instead, they insist America is under "Zionist" control, robbing them of a lucrative livelihood and leaving them with apples, all to give Lebanon's enemy, Israel, an advantage.
They are convinced that if Lebanon appeased the United States and signed a peace agreement with Israel, their country would have free rein to do whatever it wanted — to not only resume hemp cultivation, but build nuclear weapons, too.
It's not unusual to hear talk of Sept. 11 conspiracy theories here. Some say the attacks were planned by Jews, who they believe did not show up for work the day planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
The problem, they say, is that Israel clouds America's judgment.
"When the world was composed of two poles, the Soviets and the U.S., we were in better shape," said Shreif, whose village was brim with banditry and theft before hashish bolstered incomes.
"Once the world power became confined to one pole — the U.S. — poverty and famine arose in areas that do not support the American and Zionist policy."
Miles away, at the American University of Beirut, Arab students talk about feeling hopeless in the face of U.S. policies in the region.
They fear American imperialism and say they're humiliated by the scrutiny Arab immigrants receive in the United States, feelings which are exacerbated by photos of dead Iraqis they see in the newspaper.
"Every day, you see our people die, die, die and killed by the Americans," said Hadi el Farr, an AUB party leader for the Syrian Social National Party, which advocates for a "Greater Syria."
"And 'Oh no, they are terrorists.' What the hell? We're dying."
Others, however, look to America with gratitude.
"They try to fix things for us," said Rana Eyamie, a freshman who ran for student office.
The school's election could be the closest thing to a real vote students experience in Lebanon, where Syria often determines who gets into office.
A recent demonstration in Beirut drew thousands from the largely Christian Free Patriotic Movement to protest Syria's presence in the country.
"We hope the U.S. government supports Lebanon to take its independence," said one of the protest organizers, Elsy Moufarreg, who stood among chanting Lebanese, some of whom carried signs with pleas such as, "Bush, help us to save Lebanon."
The United States is committed to seeing Lebanon "advance its economic, political progress to the greatest degree," said Christopher Murray, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon.
Ten years ago, people were more likely to overlook the odd relationship between Syria and Lebanon, but have since had less patience with the arrangement. Syria became entangled in Lebanon's affairs during the country's civil war, and descended on the country — with the United States' blessing — to help broker an end to fighting. Its troops never left.
Syria works closely with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah to help regain territory lost to Israel and also serves as a major power broker in Lebanese governmental affairs.
In September, pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term was extended under Syrian influence.
A month later, there was an assassination attempt on opposition supporter and former Minister Marwan Hamade. Around the same time of that car bomb, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri resigned amid protest over Syrian control.
Since Sept. 11, the U.S. government has looked more skeptically toward Syria.
William Quandt, a Middle Eastern expert who served on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations, said the Bush administration is serious about Syrian withdrawal, but is consumed by another agenda.
Its attention also is focused on the porous border Syria shares with Iraq, one which it has pressured Syria to close off to block the flow of insurgents fighting U.S. occupation.
But he said it's too easy to be cynical about U.S. policies, especially in areas where things are not going very well.
"They tend to think somebody else is to blame for their problems," said Quandt, a University of Virginia professor, who recently spoke in Beirut. "And we're the biggest somebody around."
U.S. marines arrived in Lebanon in 1982 as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force, as a bloody war between Christians and Muslims consumed Beirut.
On April 18, 1983, a suicide attack at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut left 63 dead. On Oct. 23, 1983, the headquarters for U.S. and French forces was bombed, leaving 298 dead, most of them U.S. marines.
Nearly three months later, AUB President Malcolm Kerr was assassinated. And eight months after that, the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut was bombed, leaving nine dead.
The U.S. government blamed the attacks on terrorists who later formed the Shiite fundamentalist organization Hezbollah. The group has denied involvement.
Twenty years later, the legacy of violence lingers.
The embassy was relocated to a compound on the outskirts of Beirut. Its employees are now forbidden from leaving their quarters without a body guard, and even then, they must request approval to leave 24 hours in advance.
Visitors to the embassy must pass through a scan for explosives and two metal detectors, and diplomats work in a sniper-proof building set back from the entrance. It is one of the most secure American embassies in the world.
A sprawling memorial on the compound lists the names of those who died, with the words "They came in peace" emblazoned across its center.
The Lebanese Army posts soldiers outside McDonald's in Beirut, and a bag search is required before a customer can venture in to order a burger.
Hezbollah has toned down its Islamic rhetoric, and it has been years since it has been implicated in an attack against Americans. It also has provided social services to hundreds of thousands of needy Lebanese.
But the U.S. government, which recently designated Hezbollah-controlled al-Manar television as a terrorist organization, says there is no way to disentangle social services funds from terrorist money.
"We believe Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and that it should not as such be permitted to operate in any way, including its military capabilities," Murray said.
"Its acts of terrorism are well-known and include things like support for cross-border activities into Israel and support for violence within Israel and the occupied territories," he said.
The U.S. government continues to push for the group to disarm and disband, a demand also included in the U.N. resolution.
Criticisms of U.S. foreign policy in the area should be viewed along with the considerable economic assistance the United States doles out to Arab countries, Murray said.
Abbas Hobballah, who heads Hezbollah-run health services that serve hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, also believes the U.S. opposition will continue as long as the party remains against Israel.
Although the party, supported by Syria, is against the resolution, Hobballah said there is little reason to worry about Hezbollah's future.
"The party gets lots of popular support. It's driven by an integrated and strong logic. It receives a large political support in the region," he said.
"Also, the U.S. does not control all the doors in Lebanon."