In the post–Walter White world of methamphetamine trafficking, the stereotype of the average meth cook has broken down, but even so, Apo, a name he used to protect his identity, did not fit the mold. He met me in an East Beirut bar in a nicely pressed pink Ralph Lauren shirt. He was well groomed, slightly shy, and had an air of sweetness that didn’t match up with the image of Mickey Rourke in Spun. The “Walter White of Lebanon” had agreed to talk to me now that some time had passed since prison.
Apo was raised 20 minutes outside Beirut. He described himself as “not a perfect student, but good. The best in his family, at least.” Like so many other Lebanese youth, he continued his education after high school, and began a mechanical engineering degree at a major Lebanese university.
In 2005, two years into his mechanical-engineering degree, Apo’s trajectory changed dramatically. It started with the emergence of the underground party circuit in Beirut. Trance and house broke onto the Lebanese music scene, and as in so many other countries, drugs followed—mostly ecstasy, cocaine, and speed. The scene was centered around smaller nightclubs—“BO18,” an old converted bomb bunker, and “the Basement,” now defunct—as well as larger venues like Forum de Beyrouth and Biel, an event space on the waterfront. Both Apo and a friend of his who asked to be called Sami described it as their favorite moment growing up in Lebanon, a time of naïve youthfulness. They agreed, “Lebanon was banging.”
Apo and his friends spent weekend after weekend chasing girls and raving. But they were curious about the chemicals they were experimenting with. They scoured the web to find out about various combinations of chemicals that made up the pills they were taking, but their interest homed in on a drug that was possible for them to produce. “It was like heaven, ignoring the side effects,” Apo noted when describing his initial impression of meth. “You’re productive, not sleepy, friendly,” he added. A set of insecurities every young adult can relate to.
They started cooking for their friends. It was a cheap alternative to the pricier drugs on the market, and it wasn’t a crowded field. There had been rumors of an Armenian cook who had escaped to Yerevan years before, but apart from that meth was a new phenomenon for Lebanon. Apo told me it took him seven months to master the hang of cooking. They sourced Sudafed from local gym clubs, which sold it as an appetite suppressant. The precursor chemicals, which are hard to source in America, were purchased from the same companies supplying their university laboratories. He and his friends set up makeshift labs wherever they could, but usually in the basement of their parents’ apartment buildings.
One day, Apo and his crew started a cook in one of their parents’ apartments. Half way through the process, everything lit on fire. It was out of control, and fire spread quickly to the balcony. One of his friends grabbed the fire extinguisher to put it out, but the extinguishing chemicals mixed with the meth fumes, blanketing the entire apartment in thick, white dust. Seconds later, Apo’s friend’s mom walked through the door, astonished. They told her it was a university experiment gone wrong. She bought it.
“It was boys being boys,” Apo told me. “In the beginning it was just, go with the flow.”
Once the gang perfected its cooking method, they gave out product to their closest friends, and partied harder than ever. In a country where youth unemployment is expected, Apo had found his purpose. “It’s an art; you’re painting something.”
His art quickly turned to business. Within seven months, Apo and his crew saw a potential market when friends of friends came knocking. One batch every two weeks turned into two every week. They were happy to be making money, but they were also making addicts, themselves included. “A year of good fun and then paranoia kicks in, a lack of sleep, and you get thin. When you want to sleep, you can’t sleep,” Apo explained. This, in combination with the influx of money, created an atmosphere of distrust among the original friends, who were now no more than greedy partners. What had started as “meth among friends” had become a drug operation that spread beyond Apo’s largely Armenian crew and inadvertently infiltrated the Lebanese party scene. Meth was on the rise in Beirut.
The crew had managed to stay beneath the police radar, but Lebanon is a small country. Unbeknownst to them, one of their customers was also an informant for the police. The informant had kept quiet as long as he was getting his supply. But the partners’ paranoia, driven by a lack of sleep, left them with the feeling the operation was spinning out of control. They started to say no to people. Around the same time, Apo began to understand the depth of his own addiction. He wanted out and headed to a hospital to get clean. Meanwhile, Apo’s partner had cut off the informant, who then headed to the police.
Four days after Apo’s release from the hospital, the cops came knocking. They knew everything. He was tried and convicted, and sent to Rumieh, the largest prison in Lebanon, where he served four years. For a boy brought up within the traditional Lebanese family structure, prison was an adjustment. It took him six months to find his feet. He used Xanax to control his anxiety, but he was determined. “If people throw you in a desert, you just have to survive,” he told me.
Apo was released from prison, still this side of 30. He returned to school, where he is now finishing his bachelor’s degree. He said the police are letting him live a free life and don’t check up on him anymore. He’s not proud of what he’s done, but “it’s definitely a story to tell your kids when they grow up.” He has a new group of friends, but in regard to his old partners, he said, “I still respect them. Shit happens.”