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Orgies of the Hemp Eaters
Mar 15, 1895
The New York Herald
ORGIES OF THE HEMP EATERS.
Hashish Dreamers' Festival in Northwestern Syria Occurs at the Time of the Full Moon.

WOMEN JOIN THE CEREMONY.
Scenes at the Sacred Dance That Surpass the Wildest Ecstasy of Any Opium Dream.

THE DRUG AND ITS EFFECTS.
Standing in the outskirts of the little town of Latakieh, in Northwestern Syria, famous everywhere for the excellent tobacco which takes its name from the otherwise obscure and insignificant place -- and turning his back on the ramshackle houses the flea infested caravansary, the malodorous bazaar and garbage strewn streets, where the scavenger dogs lie stretched out [in the] noonday sun -- the traveller sees in the distance, beyond a wide stretch of green slope and alternate level, a low range of hills, on which a soft purple haze [!] seems always to linger. These hills lie between the Lebanon, where the fierce Druses dwell in their highland fastnesses, and the Nahr-el-kebir, "The Mighty River." They are known nowadays as the Nosairie Mountains, the home of the so-called Nosairiyeh tribesmen, the modern "Assassins," or "Hemp Eaters," as they should be designated from their ceremonial use of hemp, in Arabic "hashish."

AT THE TIME OF THE FULL MOON.
The festival or gathering of the hemp eaters is celebrated monthly, at the time of the full moon, the moon being then supposed to exert a specific influence upon human beings. The sectaries meet under a sacred oak tree growing upon a hill, about equidistant from Latakieh and the valley of the Orontes, and close to a tiny village inhabited by some twenty families of the tribe.

There is an enormous drum, some three feet in diameter, standing at the entrance to the village, a couple of hundred yards off, and as soon as it begins to darken and the westering sun appears to have fairly sunk in the waters of the Mediterranean, which is clearly visible from the elevated hilltop on which the Nosarriyeh are gathered, a deafening boom comes from the instrument and rolls over the mountain tops like the rumble of thunder, rousing the tribesmen to activity, and in a moment they are on the alert. Lamps are quickly lit and suspended to the branches of the sacred oak among the dangling rags and buttons and feathers and metal scraps that decorate it. A square heap of wood is built up in front of the tree about a dozen yards from it. A sheep is brought forward by one of the men, and the rest of the tribesmen then gather around, the lamps throwing a dim light on their picturesque figures and grim countenances. The Sheikh puts his hand gently on the head of the bleating animal, it is thrown down, its throat cut, after the fashion of the Moslems, and in little more time than it takes to write the words the fleece is off, the carcass is divided and placed on the wood heap, to which fire is applied and kept up till all flesh as well as timber is utterly consumed. Now the Nosarriyeh seat themselves in a circle upon the earth, the Shiekh in the centre, with an attendant on either hand, one holding a large earthenware bowl containing a liquid, the other a bundle of stems to which leaves are attached -- the leaves of the sacred hemp plant. The chief takes the stems in his left and the bowl in his right hand and slowly walks around the circle, stopping in front of each man present, who takes from him, first the greenery, at which he sniffs gently, then the bowl, the contents of which he sips. The vessel contains a sweetened infusion of hemp, strong and subtle in its action.

WHAT THE DECOCTION IS LIKE
The taste of the decoction is sweet, nauseously so, not unlike some preparations of chloroform, and its first effects are anything but pleasant, for it produces a distict tendency to vomit, not unlike a strong dose of ipecacuahna. As soon as all have in succession partaken of the drink, which is termed "homa", big horns are produced containing spirits, for the Nosarriyeh are great dram drinkers. The horns of liquor are passed about and in a few moments the effects are apparent, following upon the hemp. The eyes brighten, the pulse quickens, the blood seems to bound more actively in the veins, and a restlessness takes possession of the whole body. At this moment the booming of a giant drum is heard again, giving the signal for the sacred dance which is the next item in the ceremonial of the evening. From each of the dozen parties or so into which the clansmen are divided one steps out, and the dozen individuals so designated form up against a gentle declivity in rear of them. Two of the tribe with a "reba," one string fiddle, and a tambourine, seat themselves and start a peculiar air in a minor key, which all those around take up, clapping their hands the while rhythmically, and to this rhythm the dancers, joining hands as they stand, begin to move gently to and fro.

The moonlight is full on them, showing up their white nether garments, but leaving the dusky faces and dark upper garments in a semi-shadow. First the dancers move slowly, a few steps to the right and further to the left they go each time, till the movement becomes a positive allegro. Faster goes the music, faster the dancers, until with a finale furioso the men stop, panting and out of breath, at the signal of the Sheikh. He claps his hands and twelve others step out, and the figure begins as before. When these are exhausted a fresh set take their place, and this is continued until each of the clansmen has taken part in the dance. In conclusion all join hands and go seven times round the sacred oak in the direction left to right.

A CRAZY FESTIVAL
The solemn supper is now ready, and is served by the wives of the tribesmen, who have been busy preparing it in huge earthernware dishes placed upon the ground in the middle of each group. And the moonlight meal in the shade of the sacred oak is none the less striking by reason of its being dished up by women who wear in their shash-bands a sharp yataghan, of which the handle shows clearly, and a brace of pistols in the girdle. The plates are peculiar. First there is fried liver, eaten to the accompaniment of fiery arrack -- the favorite spirit of the hemp eaters. Then comes "leben" -- a species of sour cooked cream, with more "arak;" afterward the "kibabs" of mutton, in slices on little wooded sticks, like the familiar ware of the cat's meat man; eggs filled with a force meat of rice, tomato, mutton and onions and "pillau." Each person has a wooden spoon to eat with, and the etiquette of the table requires one to eat much and eat quickly, and to drink as much as one eats. The appetites of the Nosairiyeh are proverbial in Syria, the usual allowance of meat being a sheep or two. I can vouch for their tippling powers. Scores of them finish their pint horn of arrack in a couple of draughts, taking a couple of quarts in the course of their supper. The meal is really a match against time, and, with such good trencher men as the hemp eaters, is quickly finished.

The real business of the evening now begins. The hemp, powdered and mixed with sirup [sic], is brought round in bowls, together with the decoction of the leaves well sweetened. Each of the tribesmen secures a vessel of arrack -- for it quickens and heightens the action of the drugs -- and disposes himself in the most comfortable attitude he can think of. Then, taking a good spoonful of the hemp, and washing it down with an equally good drink from the liquor receptable, he lies or leans back to allow it to operate. I take a reasonable allowance of the compound (it tastes very much like raw tea leaves flavored with sugar water), and then lie back to note the action on my own person, and watch, so far as I can, its effects upon the modern assassins whose systems are seasoned and more accustomed to the drug. Five, ten minutes pass, and there is no sensation; the men around me, with closed eyes, look like waxwork figures. Another ten minutes, and the pulse begins to beat rapidly, the heart commences to thump against the sides of the chest, the blood seems to rush to the head, and there is a sensation of fullness, as if the skull would be burst asunder at the base. There is a roaring in the ears, and strange lights, blurred and indistinct, pass before the eyes. In a moment and quite suddenly all of this passes off, leaving a feeling of delicious languor, and an idea that one is rising from the ground and floating in space. Little things assume an enormous size, and things seem far off.

EFFECTS OF THE DRUG.
The oak tree close by appears to be a mile off, and the cup of drink looks a yard across, the size of a big barrel. One's hands and feet feel heavy and cumbersome, and then feel as if they were dropping off, leaving one free to soar away from the earth skyward, where the clouds seem to open to receive one, and one long perspective of light shines before the eyes. The feeling is one of estactic [sic] restfulness, contented unconsciousness, suggesting the "ninirvana" [sic] of the Buddhist. This marks always the end of the first stage of hemp eating. The aphrodisiac effects, the visions of fair faces and beauteous forms, the voluptuous dreams and languishing fancies which the Easterns experience -- these are the results of larger and oft repeated doses of the drug.

Already the larger quantities of the compound, repeated many times in the meantime and stimulated by frequent draughts of arrack, are beginning to show their results upon the hitherto immobile figures of the Nosiariyeh round the sacred oak. Again and again they seize the spoon and convey it to their mouths, until the hemp craze is fully upon them. One or two stir uneasily; then another screams for "Ali, Ali!" (their founder Ali), who is identical, they say with Allah. A half a dozen respond lustily, "Ali hu Allah!" then empty the arrack cups beside them. A few move about with outstretched arms as though they were in the clouds trying to clutch the houris, whose imaginary forms they see, and disappointed, sink back, after a fresh supply of the drug has been swallowed. From the extremity beyond, where the women are located, come the sound of singing and of laugher and the rhythmic patter of feet upon the ground. The ladies have been indulging on their own account, and the noise they make rouses the men from their dreams. Three or four jump up from the floor at a single bound, and, seized by the dance mania, begin capering away as for very life. They jig here and there, they twine and twist, and writhe and wriggle and distort themselves, awakening [...fragment missing...] blows off his matchlock as he capers merrily round, while his neighbor stretches out his fingers for the arrack.

END OF THE HASHISH DEBAUCH
In the distance we hear the sound of the women's voices as they scream and sing and dance in a noisy whirl under the influence also of the intoxicating hemp. Again and yet again the tribesmen quaff from the hashish bowl, and the riot grows wilder and madder than before. It becomes a veritable saturnalia. Flushed and inflamed, they fly from side to side, tear to and fro, whirl round on the heels, skipping in the air and jumping feet high above the ground, to the banging of the great drum in the village; the shouting of those unable to move, the screeching of the "Reba," or fiddle, which still plays on, and the crackling of the guns as they go off. Scimitars are drawn, yataghans flourished, half a dozen engage in mimic combat, slashing and cutting at each other with an all too earnest resolve to draw blood -- a result speedily obtained -- while yet another batch dance round and round on their heels spinning like tops in play. Faster and furious grows the corybantic rout, and in their mad excitement the men tear the garments from their bodies, throw away their weapons, fling the turbans from their heads and, naked to the waist, with dishevelled hair and eyes ablaze and extended arms, they continue their mad antics, until foaming at the mouth and bleeding from the nostrils, they sink to the earth and lie huddled in heaps, hopelessly and helplessly intoxicated with the hemp.