What Hollywood Missed About "Paradise Now"

By Ellen Komp (2006)

"Paradise Now," a film that tells the story of two suicide bombers--and the first Palestinian film ever to be nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar--was the front runner in the race after winning the Golden Globe award this year. But it lost, after a group called The Israel Project ran protest ads in Variety showing graphic photos of an Israeli teenager blown up by a suicide bomber.

"Paradise Now" depicts the two young men smoking a hookah on a break from their job at an auto repair shop. Then they calmly accept the bombing assignment for which they have volunteered. The clue is in the title: the men's motivation is wanting their Paradise Now, just like the infamous Assassins of the Arab world reportedly did.

In 1937, when the first US drug "czar" Harry Anslinger wanted to whip up public sentiment against marijuana in order to pass legislation against it, he testified to Congress about the Assassins, the historic Persian sect that reportedly took hashish and killed prominent Christian crusaders. The story dates back to Marco Polo's tales of the Old Man in the Mountain, who tricked his followers into carrying out evil deeds, so they could enter the earthly paradise he'd shown them under the influence of hashish. Though the Assassins weren't "stoned" when they killed, Hearst newspaper headlines like "Hasheesh Goads Users to Blood Lust" were accepted as Congressional testimony centuries later.

CNN correspondent Peter Bergen, in his book Holy War, Inc., compares al-Qaeda to the Assassins as the most effective resistance to Western rule the Arabs have mounted for centuries. Bergen noted that Osama bin Laden signed his August 23, 1996 manifesto, "From the Peaks of the Hindu Kush," the region where cannabis originated. But Ernest Abel, in his book Marijuana: The First 12,000 Years, contends that Marco Polo never identified hashish as the drug used by the Assassins, and that historically the Arab world doesn't equate hashish with violence.

Marijuana, which thrives in hot, arid climates, has a long history of use in the Muslim and Hindu world, often for religious purposes. According to one legend, Haydar, the Persian monk who founded the Sufi order, discovered cannabis in 1155 AD and shared it with his followers. The Sufis' religion included direct communion with God, using cannabis as a sacrament, and like today's pot-smoking hippies, they "dropped out" of the prevailing economic model and lived communally.

By contrast, apart from an early report of Sythian ceremonies where hemp was thrown on fires and its fumes inhaled, there is little evidence of cannabis use in the West until after Napoleon invaded Egypt and his troops brought it home. In mid 19th-century France "Le Club des Hashishins" included painter Eugene Delacroix, writers Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire and others. This lofty group would gather in Arabian dress and partake of hashish syrup blended into strong Arabic coffee. The fanciful descriptions of their experiences they left behind has intrigued and inspired several generations of Western explorers into their own experiments in cross-cultural understanding.

British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton wrote in 1853, "And this is the Arab's--Kayf. The savouring of animal existence; the passive enjoyment of mere sense; the pleasant languor, the dreamy tranquility, the airy castle-building, which in Asia stands in lieu of the vigorous, intensive, passionate life in Europe. It is the result of a lively, impressible, excitable nature, and exquisite sensibility of nerve; it argues a facility for voluptuousness unknown to northern regions, where happiness is placed in the exertion of mental and physical powers; where Ernst ist das Leben [Life is Serious]; where niggard earth commands ceaseless sweat of face, and damp chill air demands perpetual excitement, exercise, or change, or adventure, or dissipation, for want of something better. In the East, man wants but rest and shade: upon the banks of a bubbling stream, or under the cool shelter of a perfumed tree, he is perfectly happy, smoking a pipe, or sipping a cup of coffee, or drinking a glass of sherbet, but above all things deranging body and mind as little as possible; the trouble of conversations, the displeasures of memory, and the vanity of thought being the most unpleasant interruptions to his Kayf. No wonder that 'Kayf' is a word unstranslatable in our mother-tongue!"

In 1894, the British Government published a seven-volume report on the use of hemp drugs in India. It said, "Like his Hindu brother, the Musalman fakir reveres bhang as the lengthener of life, the freer from the bonds of self. Bhang brings union with the Divine spirit." Alfred R. Lindesmith, the first modern academic in the US to challenge the drug laws, wrote that Hindu society roughly reverses the status of marijuana in relation to alcohol seen in the West, and "it would be rash indeed to believe that it would be to India's advantage to outlaw marihuana and encourage the use of alcohol." A 1951 study by George Morris Carstairs found that the warrior class of India, the Rajputs, used alcohol to stay warlike but the more respected Brahmins eschewed alcohol and preferred the gentle herb instead as a means to enlightenment.

The intoxicant use of cannabis may have permeated Islamic culture in part because alcohol was forbidden to adherents of Islam. It has been suggested that one of the reasons Muhammad instructed his followers to forgo liquor was to help distinguish them from the wine-loving Christians. Last November, six Black Muslims were caught on camera smashing liquor bottles at two stores in Oakland, California while chastising Islamic store owners for selling liquor to fellow Muslims.

A fascinating new book, Orgies of the Hemp Eaters (Autonomedia, 2004) says those who consume the plant instead of inhaling it, such as those who drink bhang to worship Shiva, tend to find smokers of the plant irreligious. The current, Christian-themed hit movie, "Chronicles of Narnia," which shows children receiving weapons for Christmas and using them in battle, is based on books by C.S. Lewis that denigrate Turkish delight, a confection traditionally made with cannabis.

Novelist, poet and composer Paul Bowles, who made a great study of "kif" during his time spent in Morocco, said, "One of the first things you must accept when you join the grown-ups' club [of the 20th century] is that fact that the Judaeo-Christains approve of only one out of all the substances capable of effecting a quick psychic change in the human organism -- and that one is alcohol. . . And so the last strongholds fashioned around the use of substances other than alcohol are being flushed out, to make everything clean and in readiness for the great alcoholic future." In Morocco today, farmers are marching to ask for relief from a government crackdown on their livelihood: cannabis farming for hashish export. Officials cite suspicions that Moroccan hashish was used to partly pay for dynamite that blew up trains in Madrid in 2004, killing 191 people.

André Malraux wrote, in Man's Fate "There is always a need for intoxication: China has opium, Islam has hashish, the West has woman." Or, it could read, "the West has liquor." Is our planet divided and warring over a distinction between intoxicants or religious observances? It sounds like Dr. Seuss' The Butter Battle Book, where countries fight over whether to butter their bread on the top or bottom. We will never make any progress if young men's only hope of happiness lies in a hookah, a sexy beer commercial, or a bomb. If there was ever a time to put aside our differences and heal the schism between the sons of Abraham, it is now.

Activist and journalist Ellen Komp manages the website VeryImportantPotheads.com

Author's note: This story is mainly just background; I welcome and will post (with authors' permission) any comments sent to comments@veryimportantpotheads.com. Also, to the Muslim world, please feel free to use this information as you like; I would never presume to hold a copyright on your heritage.


Changing the Face of Cannabis


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