Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Before Apple There Was Tobacco

(Dedicated to my childhood friend from Keurkune: Ara Ghazarian)
Vahe H. Apelian

Very recently Ara Ghazarian asked me if I have written anything about the cultivation of tobacco (tutun) in Keurkune. I checked my files. In fact, it turned out that I have. Here is what I wrote.

Much like Steve Job’s Apple computers that changed the world, apple revolutionized Keurkune’s way of life and living. The transition to apple was not seamless and did not come about without hardship. The fields that became the orchards were used primarily to produce two essential yearly crops to make living possible in Keurkune: wheat as a staple for food and tobacco as the only source of cash revenue. Keurkunetsis teamed, pulled their resources together, braved the years waiting the newly planted apple orchards to come of age to produce the apple.
The cultivation of silkworm in Kessab, for all practical purposes, had subsided if not ceased after the genocide. Tobacco cultivation most likely started in greater Kessab after the First World War, in early 1920’s, during the French mandate, when France became the colonial ruler of Syria and Lebanon. The trade in tobacco was the monopoly of the French in Syria. The tobacco growers could only sell their product to “regie”, which became a household word in Kessab. Incidentally, Wikipedia defines regie as a kind of government monopoly (tobacco, salt, etc.).
The monopolized trade in tobacco in Kessab went this way. Kessabtsis would plant the tobacco. As the plant started growing, at some point officials came and gave an estimate of how much tobacco the field was expected to produce and thus they set a quota. The grower was expected to meet the quota. If the quota were not met, the grower would be severely penalized forfeiting all profits.
Growing tobacco was a messy business. Tobacco was first germinated. I have no recollection of that phase. It was then transplanted to the fields until it matured. The matured leaves were harvested and were brought home and needled through their stem on long needles. Once the needle was full, the leaves were pulled to the string threaded to the long needle. A wooden hook would have been fastened at the end of the string. When the string, in turn, was full of tobacco leaves, it was detached from the needle and another hook was tied. The string laded with tobacco leaves was then hanged on wooden racks made up of parallel wooden bars placed the strings’ length apart. The rack full of tobacco leaves was left outside for drying.
Needling tobacco was a communal affair. Families came together, sat around the huge pile of tobacco leaves, and wore an overall because tobacco leaves left a sticky mass on the hands and on the dress. My grandparents teamed up with their khnamis, uncle Josephs’s brother-in-law Asadour and in-laws Norits and Lydia. I would also join them. I was the first grandchild of my grandparents and my paternal grandparents dotted on me. My maternal grandmother made sure that at the end of the summer when I returned to Beirut, I returned a few pounds heavier. That is why I was always given the easiest part of the needling; the pile of large leaves. The large leaves naturally have larger stems making needling much easier and lessening the chance of pricking the index or the middle finger as the leaves on the needle were pulled on the string mostly with the aid of these two finders. Anytime anyone of them pulled a large leaf from the pile, it would be thrown in front of me.
Needling the large pile of leaves would last long, a whole day if not more. Meanwhile, food would be cooking on the fireplace. Electricity had not reached Keurkune yet. Thus there were no radios. Even transistor radios, if available, had not reached Keurkune. But there would be no need for them. There would be a lot of light-hearted and mundane chatter going on.
After all the tobacco leaves were thus stringed and hung across the racks; they were left in the open air for drying. Moisture, God forbid rain, damaged tobacco leaves. Any time when there was the slightest likelihood that it might rain, the stringed tobacco leaves were collected from the racks and brought home and hanged inside until the weather was judged dry enough to put them out again for drying. I remember one night my grandfather suddenly woke up and asked us to bring the tobacco leaves inside. He had suspected that it might rain.
 I had always remained under the impression that tobacco was dried in open air until, in my late teens, I saw the movie “A Summer Place”, the iconic move classic by Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee. Tobacco in the movie was cultivated under cover and dried indoors with heat. Keurkunets relied on nature. They cultivated tobacco in the open air and dried its leaves in the open air.
Once the tobacco was dried, they were bundled up and weighed. Should the weight fall below the set quota, the Keurkunetsi would look to supplement by purchasing tobacco from the neighboring Turkmen villages. Decades have come and gone by since those days and to this day, whenever I recall those days with a child’s apprehension, I wonder. Why was it that the Keurkunetsis usually could not meet their quotas, while the Turkmen villages would have surplus tobacco? Were the inspectors friendlier to them? The Keurkuenetsis would make an arrangement with the Turkmen and in the cover of night they would head to their village and bring dried tobacco home. Then there came the art of bundling them together in such a way that upon inspection, the purchased tobacco would not stand up from the rest.
Smoking was not uncommon in Keurkune but it was ceremonial. Villagers kept a stock of the best leaves for their enjoyment. The leaves were first minced with sharp knives, fluffed up and kept in a tin tobacco case. The minced tobacco was placed on a thin paper held between the two fingers. The paper was then moistened with licking and rolled into a cigarette.
Kids were always tempted to smoke too. It wasn’t easy at all to get hold of the precious tobacco leaves. There was another source of smoking for kids, dried sentzgan leaves. It is a plant that grows in the wild and probably belongs to the tobacco family. Its leaves are small, the size of olive oil leaves, but sticky much like the larger tobacco leaves and dry like tobacco leaves. I can safely claim that all the kids growing up in Keurkune have tried smoking it in their youth. And when the word came to us kids, that cotton tipped cigarettes had come around we tempted to wrap cotton at the tip of paper without much success.
Apple, for all practical purpose, wiped tobacco planting in Keurkune, ushering the village into a new era.

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