BEIRUT — While Hezbollah occupied the Beirut city center in an attempt to bring down the government, I teamed up with my American friend Noah Pollak, who works as assistant editor at Azure Magazine in Jerusalem, and took a trip to Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon. We wanted to survey the devastation from the July War and see if we could find civilians who had been used as human shields by the Party of God.
Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak
Before we went to the south, however, Noah wanted to meet Hezbollah members downtown. He had never been to Lebanon before, and I was happy to show him around and introduce him to the “party” that fired missiles in our direction when we covered the July War together from the Israeli side of the border.
He arrived in Beirut at 2:00 a.m. His taxi driver took him alongside the edge of Hezbollah’s downtown encampment. Even in the middle of the night demonstrators were out the streets screaming slogans.
“What are they saying?” Noah said to the driver.
The driver rolled down his window and told the demonstrators an American was in the car and wanted to know what they were saying. One of the men in the street came up to the taxi.
“We will cut Seniora,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s elected prime minister. “We will cut him!”
Noah laughed to himself and knew he had come to Lebanon at the right time.
The next day I took him downtown so we could sit and talk with the malcontents and the disgruntled. First, though, we had to stop by one of the Hezbollah propaganda stands so I could buy a “resistance” scarf and go incognito into the tent city. Don’t laugh. It actually worked. All the hostile paranoia I had to put up with from Hezbollah’s security agents vanished entirely as soon as I put a Hezbollah scarf around my neck. The goons with their sunglasses and ear-pieces stopped staring at me, stopped tracking my movement, and stopped getting twitchy when I took pictures. They are strikingly obtuse individuals if wearing a scarf is all it takes to blend in.
So I picked up a scarf at the stand. Flags, t-shirts, and rear-view mirror ornaments were also for sale. Noah bought the biggest Hezbollah flag he could find.
A Lebanese woman walked by and smirked as she asked us where we were from.
“United States,” I said.
“And…” she said. “You like Hezbollah?” She tried hard not to laugh at us.
“Not really,” I said under my breath so the vendor couldn’t hear. “We just want souvenirs because we think it’s funny.”
She smiled and knowingly nodded.
I bought a Hezbollah t-shirt in Baalbeck last year — because it’s ironic and funny, not because I would ever actually wear it. A Lebanese army soldier watched me hand the vendor five dollars, and he shook his head sadly in grave disappointment. He was twenty years older than me, and I doubted he would understand the flip ironic GenX/Southpark sense of humor. Surely he thought I was a duped useful idiot.
Noah and I paid for our items. I put the scarf around my neck and felt as ridiculous as I must have looked.
Oh well. Hezbollah’s security brutes left me alone, so it was worth it. (Needless to say, I would not dare wear that scarf in any other part of Beirut.) Noah’s complexion allows him to pass as Lebanese (or as someone from anywhere else around the Mediterranean) so his appearance wasn’t a magnet for the paranoid and the suspicious.
He and I walked toward the tent-city and passed an angry-looking group of young women on their way out. One woman narrowed her eyes at me.
“Where are you from?” she said. She looked me in the eye, looked at my Hezbollah scarf, looked me in the eye again, looked back and my Hezbollah scarf. Then she yelled at me: “Are you from the States?!”
“Yes,” I said. “We’re from the States.”
For a second I thought she was yelling at me because she was anti-American. We were at the Hezbollah encampment, after all. But that wasn’t it. She yelled at me because she thought I was a stupid American who supported Hezbollah. (Not everyone who ventured downtown during the sit-in supports the “resistance.” Some were there as horrified onlookers.)
One of the young woman’s friends took her by the shoulders and turned her away from Noah and me. As they began walking away she nodded her head and flexed her hands as though she were trying to restrain herself and calm down.
Some Westerners really do show up in Lebanon and support Hezbollah, or at least get defensive on Hezbollah’s behalf. (Meanwhile they spend all their time in the liberal parts of Lebanon where Hezbollah is hated. So on some level they know who their friends are.) I wasn’t at all annoyed that this young woman yelled at me. She reminded me of a man I met last year while hitchhiking in the mountains.
“Tell me something,” he said. “Lots of Americans come here and think we like Hezbollah. Why? We hate that. We hate Hezbollah!”
So Noah and I walked the grounds without getting any attitude or even attention from Hezbollah security. We did, however, get some unwanted attention from Hezbollah’s fans.
The restaurant district of downtown Beirut was closed by the army to prevent vandalism
Next to the closed-off area of downtown where most of the restaurants are located is a small Roman ruin site. It was discovered for the first time in the 1990s when civil war-era rubble was cleared out of the way.
Noah and I leaned up against the railing next to two young Shia women wearing headscarves. Noah snapped a picture.
“Look,” one of the women said and pointed down at the ground next to a pillar. “It’s a picture of Hassan Nasrallah.”
Sure enough, there is was.
“Yeah,” Noah said. “It’s down there with the trash where it belongs.”
“Noah,” I said under my breath. “No need to be rude.” I did agree with him, though, that Nasrallah belonged in the garbage.
We talked amongst ourselves, about what I don’t remember. I smiled at the two women so they wouldn’t feel bad.
Then an older man walked up to Noah and me. He said something in Arabic, something I did not understand. Then he plowed his shoulder into Noah’s and knocked Noah sideways. He hadn’t heard Noah’s insult directed at Hassan Nasrallah. Nor could he have possibly known our political views. He was just mad because he heard us speaking English. My Hezbollah scarf didn’t ward everyone off. It only seemed to work with the oblivious security agents.
“Hi,” Noah said to him as though nothing had happened. “What’s up?”
I braced myself for anything. Our rude new “friend” said something else unintelligible and stalked off.
“Merry Christmas!” Noah said to his back.
Beirut is a cosmopolitan city when Hezbollah doesn’t squat in the middle of it.
Aside from this guy and two other random hostile individuals, Hezbollah’s camp-out was more mellow than it was the first time I went down there. The passion had cooled. Fewer people screamed slogans. The energy level was lower. Most appeared to have succumbed to some kind or torpor. It isn’t easy to be hopped up on protest adrenaline for several days in a row. Eventually you have to sit down, eat a sandwich, and smoke a nargileh.
The environment downtown was very different from what most Westerners would likely expect from a civil disobedience movement mounted by a Syrian-Iranian proxy militia.
Prominent figures gave public speeches to roaring applause, not to bullets shot into the sky.
College students made circles with chairs and held teach-ins.
Patriotic and Arabic pop music blared through speaker towers.
Snack stands were set up all over the place.
“Dude,” Noah said. “It’s like a Phish concert down here. Only it’s a Phish concert for terrorists.”
We walked the maze of tents and snapped pictures, looking for someone who seemed approachable enough to be interviewed. Few people paid us any mind, and we sat on a curb to drink a soda and smoke a cigarette.
Three young men walked up to us.
“Hello,” said the first. He introduced himself as Jad. “Where are you from?”
“We’re from the U.S,” Noah said.
“Welcome to Lebanon,” he said. “What is your impression?” Lebanese often ask me this question.
“You mean, what do we think of the political situation?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Eh,” I said. “We’re Americans. We’re not the biggest fans of Hezbollah.” The contrast between what I said and what I was wearing (the Hezbollah scarf) did not seem to register.
“Where are you from?” Noah said.
“From Beirut,” said another of the young men.
“Do you mean the dahiyeh?” I said. Dahiyeh means “suburb” in Arabic. It specifically refers to Hezbollah’s “capital” of Haret Hreik just south of Beirut.
“Yes,” he said. “From the dahiyeh. Have you been there?”
“I have, he hasn’t,” I said and gestured to Noah.
“This is your first trip to Lebanon?” Jad said to Noah.
“Yep,” Noah said and sipped from his drink. “It’s great.”
The five of us discussed Lebanese and international politics. The conversation was perfectly civil and pleasant even though they supported Hezbollah and Noah and I (obviously) did not. I didn’t write everything down, so I can’t quote very much. The discussion was more social and less of an interview. But I did take some notes when Noah asked a very important question.
“So,” Noah said. “What do you guys think of Iran?”
“Syria and Iran are helping us,” Jad said. “We don’t want them to rule in Lebanon. I like drinking and chasing girls and having a good time. We don’t want to be like Iran. If Hezbollah tried to make us like Iran, that would be a big problem for us.”
They were secular Shia. And yet they supported Hezbollah, an Islamist militia that is controlled by an Islamist dictatorship. As a noteworthy counterpoint (and I’ll write much more about this in the near future), I met a Shia cleric in the dahiyeh with a PhD in religion from Qom in Iran who is a strident opponent of Hezbollah.
Counterintuitive as it may be, Islamists are sometimes supported by secular people while facing hostility from the religious. The Middle East is rarely as simple as it appears.
The Shia have long been politically and economically marginalized by the Sunnis and Christians of Lebanon. Hezbollah, you might say, is the revenge of the Shia. Their appeal is much more sectarian and political than it is religious.
Two men heard that we were speaking in English and, once again and for no other reason, felt compelled to come over and harass Noah and me.
“Where are you from!” the first man yelled.
“United States,” I said and looked away from him, uninterested.
He grit his teeth, leaned forward, and jutted his face up next to mine.
“Do you like Bush?” he demanded.
“No,” I said passively.
“Do you like Olmert?” he said, referring to the Israeli prime minister in a particularly nasty tone of voice.
“No,” I said. “No,” I repeated more forcefully. I was honest with him, too. Ehud Olmert is arguably the worst prime minister in Israel’s history. Huge numbers of Israelis agree with that assessment, and even many Lebanese I spoke to said they wished Ariel Sharon (who is seriously hated in Lebanon) were prime minister instead of Olmert.
This guy really looked like he was spoiling for a fight. If I were Olmert’s biggest cheerleader I would likely have kept my mouth shut at that moment. He was satisfied, though, when I said I didn’t like Olmert. So he and his buddy walked off.
An older fat man in a red shirt interjected himself into our conversation. He had the wide open eyes of an agitated extremist. He got into a mildly heated political argument with Noah, who remained calm and collected throughout. I was having my own conversation with the more civil and interesting young man named Jad. I did catch two telling points from the enraged man in red, however, and they bear repeating.
“Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!”
This, of course, is nonsense on stilts. Israel does not receive weapons from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or any other Arab country. Don’t write off what he said as just another Middle Eastern conspiracy theory, though. He is aware that an important geopolitical shift has occurred.
Sunni Arab regimes — most notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia — took Israel’s side during the opening of the July War. And every Arab government in the world except for Syria’s supports Lebanon’s government against Hezbollah’s “resistance.”
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has a new talking point that seems to be filtering down. He’s accusing Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora of being a tool of the “Zionist Entity.” Seniora is continuing the July War on Israel’s behalf, according to Nasrallah, because he’s pushing for Hezbollah’s disarmament.
Seniora gets a lot of grief from commenters in the West for not moving quickly or decisively enough against Hezbollah. Look, though, at what he has to deal with.
It’s also worth pointing out that Al Qaeda accuses Hezbollah of being Zionist tools because Nasrallah won’t allow Sunni terrorists to come into Lebanon and use the south as a launch pad for strikes into Israel.
Six Arab governments — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia — say they will pursue nuclear weapons programs now because Iran’s atomic bombs need to be countered. None of these Arab countries sought nuclear weapons to offset those acquired by Israel. They fear and loathe the Shia of Lebanon and Iran (and most likely Iraq, as well) more than they worry about the Zionists regardless of what they may say.
The wider Sunni-Shia war in the Middle East, whose epicenter now is in Baghdad, may supplant the Arab-Israeli conflict some time in the future. For now, though, the Arab-Israeli conflict is used by both sides of the inter-Islamic divide to score propaganda points against the other.
“We have one enemy,” said the angry man in the red shirt. “The Israeli army. Us and the Yehudi people are friends.”
Hardly any Jews in the world are silly enough to believe Hezbollah are their friends. Israel does have friends in the Shia community, however, even though they are a minority.
This should not be too hard to believe. When Israel invaded South Lebanon in 1982 to evict terrorists in the (Sunni) Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Shia of Lebanon hailed the Israelis as liberators. This was the natural, instinctive, default position of Lebanon’s Shia as recently as the 1980s. It was only after Israel stayed too long and behaved obnoxiously during the occupation, and after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards infiltrated the area and whipped people up into a radical frenzy, that the current Hezbollah-Israeli conflict took shape.
Israel’s Lebanon proxy — the South Lebanese Army — later was formed in the south to combat the “resistance.” It started out as predominantly Christian, but most of its members were Shia at the end.
I was slightly embarrassed on Lebanon’s behalf after showing Noah downtown. He hadn’t met any liberal or moderate Lebanese people yet. Hezbollah would like you to believe that their warmongering and bigoted conspiracy theories are mainstream, but it isn’t so. Even their Christian “allies” in the Free Patriotic Movement part ways with them on this stuff. Only Amal, the other major Shia political party, defends Hezbollah as a militia and a state-within-a-state any more.
No matter, though. First thing in the morning Noah and I had plans to take a road trip to the South, to Bint Jbail and the surrounding region, with serious professional Lebanese enemies of Hezbollah. They were well-trained in combat and they knew the safest roads in the area. It was time to go looking for civilians who were used as human shields during the war. Our time together in Beirut was over.
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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak