Here is the third part of an excerpt from my new book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel. Parts I and II are here and here if you missed them.
Hezbollah’s iftar was segregated. Only women, journalists, and VIPs were allowed in. It was held outside the dahiyeh across the street from the Marriott Hotel in an area controlled, if that is the word, by the Lebanese government.
Dozens of people, nearly all of them women, walked up a flight of stairs toward a double set of doors. Most wore an enveloping black abaya or a headscarf over their hair.
Dan snapped a photo.
A group of men abruptly stood up from a bench and walked toward us.
“Salam Aleikum,” I said. Peace be upon you.
“You took pictures without permission,” one of them said, even though we were standing in a public place.
“Who are we supposed to ask?” Dan said.
“Come with me, please.”
The man led us up the steps to the front of a wide and squat concrete building. There were two separate entrances, one for women, the other for journalists and VIPs. A gaggle of Hezbollah security agents manned the doors. Several sat behind a long table. This, apparently, was where we were supposed to check in.
Dan and I showed our passports and press credentials to the man who looked like he was in charge. He stuffed them in his briefcase. Then he confiscated Dan’s camera.
“Hey,” Dan said. “Give me my camera back.”
“Just one minute, please,” he said and set the camera aside.
I sat in a chair next to the table. Dan remained standing.
“Which hotel are you staying at?” the man asked me.
I didn’t like the idea of telling Hezbollah where I was staying, but I answered his question. I didn’t tell him I was moving into an apartment two days later.
They kept us waiting for almost half an hour for no discernable reason while thousands of people, including at least a dozen journalists, got in ahead of us.
“What is the problem?” Dan said.
“Just five more minutes, please,” the head of security said. Five more minutes for what? Our names were supposed to be on the list, and we had credentials.
A security agent stepped behind me as I scribbled in my notebook. He craned his neck and tried to read over my shoulder. I frowned at him and abruptly turned so he could not read what I was writing.
Dan paced back and forth in front of the security table.
“What is the problem?” the head of security asked him.
“I have a job to do,” Dan said.
“I have a job to do, too,” he said.
“You’re doing a great job so far!” Dan said.
Our first two meetings with Hezbollah had gone smoothly enough. Hussein was friendly. And he invited Dan and me to the iftar. Yet now, just a few days later, we were prevented by security from going inside Hezbollah’s one open event.
I whipped out my cell phone to dial Hussein. Perhaps he could get us in faster. The instant the head of security saw my phone, he said, “Okay, you can go in now.” He did not know who I was calling and seemed to fear I had a personal connection with someone in Hezbollah who outranked him.
Another agent led me and Dan away from the security gate, through a metal detector, and to a random space past the entrance far from everything else. He wanted us to stand in this exact spot. Not three feet over there, but right here.
“This is a parking garage,” Dan said.
No cars were inside, but he was right. Parking spaces were clearly marked out on the parts of the ground not covered by tables, chairs, security booths, or movable walls. Thousands of conservatively dressed women sat at rows of tables in front of us. No one bothered to tell us where to go or what to do. So Dan raised his camera to take some pictures.
Three security agents descended on him.
“No photos,” one of them said.
“I was invited here so I could take photos,” Dan said.
“No photos right now,” the man repeated.
Though we weren’t allowed to photograph the women at the tables, we at least wanted to get a better look than we could from where we were standing. So we started walking.
“No!” the agent said.
It seemed we would even have to ask to use the bathroom in this place as though we were children. Or prisoners.
After standing in no place in particular like dorks for several minutes, more security guys finally led me and Dan to a small walled off area where we could sit and eat. This was the “press room.” We could not see any of the thousands of women, nor could we see the pulpit where Nasrallah was going to speak. But at least we could sit. And of course we were segregated. This was Hezbollah.
“Sit over there,” an agent said and pointed to a table away from where other, mostly male, journalists sat.
I don’t like control freaks, and I was done taking orders.
“No,” I said. “We are going to sit with other people.”
Dan and I sat at a set table draped with a clean white cloth. Yellow chicken, fatty beef, brown and white rice, hummus, yogurt, and vinaigrette salads were spread out in front of us. There was plenty of bottled water to go around. The food didn’t look great, but it looked okay. (And it was.) I smiled when it occurred to me that my meal was paid for by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was about time they did something for citizens of the Great Satan.
The man sitting next to me introduced himself as a Lebanese journalist named John.
“Where are you from?” he asked me.
“United States,” I said.
“Ooh,” he said. “Don’t tell them that.”
“They already know,” I said. You couldn’t just walk into a Hezbollah event without being vetted.
Suddenly a muezzin screamed in Arabic over the loudspeakers. It was a thunderous call to prayer, and it was real screaming. I had heard the call to prayer hundreds of times in Beirut, but I never heard anything like this. It was electrifying and dramatic and, strangely enough, it gave me a thrilling shot of adrenaline.
Ominous military music threatened to blow out the speakers. Then the sound system switched, briefly, to music from Star Wars. It switched, briefly again, to the soundtrack from The Terminator.
Someone, perhaps the same muezzin, screamed anti-Israel incitement over the music. You didn’t have to be fluent in Arabic to figure out what that was about.
After dinner, a security agent summoned all the journalists to the women’s side of the wall. A small press area was roped off a hundred feet in front of the pulpit.
Secretary General Nasrallah emerged to a standing ovation. Then he droned on for an hour, so softly I could barely hear a word over the post-dinner chitchat. Perhaps these women didn’t show up to hear him at all. Maybe they just wanted free food.
Dan snapped photos. I sat and passively perused the “resistance” posters on the concrete pillars and walls. Scenes of explosions, gunmen, and mayhem were plastered up everywhere. Just over my head was a photo of a child clenching a bloody rock in his fingers.
Slowly, the audience began filing out, even though Nasrallah was still speaking. He wasn’t so much a blowhard as a bore. Even his “base,” at least the female half of it, didn’t think he was worth sticking around for.
Soon the hall was almost half empty. Maybe Nasrallah realized he had to get to the point. Perhaps it was scripted this way. Either way, he suddenly started to scream.
Oh, snore. I didn’t want to be rude, but I could no longer physically stop myself from rolling my eyes.
Then a belligerent fat man grabbed Dan.
“Come with me!” he said and led Dan and his camera away.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“You can stay,” he said to me. “We need to speak with him,” he said, referring to Dan.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I need to know what the problem is here.”
“Did I take a picture of something I wasn’t supposed to?” Dan said and swallowed hard.
Fat man fumed with rage and refused to answer. He led us to a table at a security checkpoint near the entrance to the garage. Four security agents followed and sat us down in chairs. Two stood behind us. Two sat opposite us at the table. Fat man tried to look at the pictures on Dan’s digital camera but had trouble figuring out how.
This guy would have looked like a bully even in a photograph. He had pasty white skin, a trimmed beard, small black eyes, and short cropped hair. A permafrown rippled across his forehead. He wore a thin blue button-up shirt, the kind you would find at a clearance sale at a Walmart.
“What did I do?” Dan said.
“You will not speak unless you are spoken to,” fat man said. “We will conduct our investigation. When we complete our investigation, we will tell you what you need to do.”
Dan and I looked at each other. “What we need to do?” I said.
“What you need to do,” fat man said. “Give me your passport,” he said to Dan. Dan reluctantly handed it over. Fat man’s older bespectacled sidekick copied Dan’s passport and press ID information into a notebook by hand.
I fished my cell phone out of my pocket. Once again, it was time to call Hussein Naboulsi.
“Do not call anybody!” fat man said. It was no use anyway. We were still in the parking garage, and my cell phone couldn’t pick up a signal.
Dan and I sat in silence while the security agents darkly discussed our situation, whatever it was, among themselves in Arabic. Fat man boiled as he failed to figure out how to operate Dan’s camera.
I thought about grabbing Dan and his camera and making a run for the exit. Inside was Hezbollah’s mini police state. Outside was free Lebanon. But unspoken threats of violence were barely concealed beneath their swaggering postures. I knew they had guns, even though I couldn’t see them. Being detained by Lebanon’s Party of God was not exactly like being detained by the Republican or Democratic parties in the United States.
“Who are you!” fat man bellowed as he squinted at Dan’s passport.
“Daniel _____,” Dan said.
“Where do you come from!” He barked his questions the way drill sergeants give orders.
“The United States,” Dan said, clearly annoyed. Obviously, he was from the United States. Fat man was looking right at Dan’s passport.
“What is your first name!”
Dan sighed. “Daniel,” he said.
“What is your family name! Is your family name Isaac?”
At last we were getting down to brass tacks. Dan hadn’t taken pictures of anything sensitive. Hezbollah had fingered him as a Jew because of his name.
They knew our names before they let us in. Perhaps that explains why they almost did not let us in.
“Isaac is my middle name,” Dan said. “My last name is _____.”
“What is your religion!” This was not an investigation. It was an inquisition.
“Christianity,” Dan said, as though it should have been obvious.
“Are you sure!” fat man demanded.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Dan said nervously. “I’m Protestant.”
“Is this your first time in Lebanon!”
“Yes,” Dan said. “This is my first time in Lebanon.”
“Have you ever been here before!”
Like when? And how? As a soldier during the Israeli occupation? I knew Israeli journalists sometimes used second passports to travel to Lebanon and even to meet with Hezbollah. It was an open secret. And if I knew it, Hezbollah knew it.
“This is my first time here,” Dan said truthfully.
“Where do you live!”
“I live in Gemmayze,” Dan said, referring to a gentrified bohemian neighborhood in East Beirut.
“Where exactly do you live?”
“In an apartment next to Gemmayze Cafe,” Dan said. I wished he hadn’t.
Two Western journalists, a man and a woman, stopped by the table where we were detained. Fat man’s bespectacled sidekick took the woman’s video camera and rewound the tape. He sat there and reviewed every minute of footage in real time on the view screen. Lord only knows what he was looking for. The paranoia in the room was physically palpable. He caught me staring and flashed me a menacing look.
An hour or so later, Hussein Naboulsi arrived, all handshakes and smiles as usual. I never thought I would feel relieved to see a Hezbollah official, but I sure was glad to see him.
“Hussein!” Dan said. “It is so good to see you. Will you please tell us what’s going on?”
“I don’t know yet,” he said, “but I will take care of it.”
Hussein happily spoke to fat man in Arabic. Fat man glowered and growled.
I took Hussein aside. “That man is rude, hostile, and belligerent,” I said. Hussein seemed surprised that I would say this. “And he won’t tell us why.”
“He is the security chief,” Hussein said. “He is in charge of everyone here.”
“We didn’t do anything,” Dan said.
“I know,” Hussein said. “I am sorry about this. I am on your side.”
Hussein, the security chief, and a handful of agents took Dan’s camera and went to a room in the back. They stayed there for twenty minutes. When they finally came out and handed Dan back his camera, almost fifty pictures had been deleted from the memory card. But they said we could go.
On our way out the door, the chief said to Hussein that Dan and I were no longer welcome at any of Hezbollah’s events, as if we would ever want to experience something like this again.
I thought I had an idea what Lebanon would feel like if these guys ruled it. Lebanon in 2005 was a libertarian’s paradise. Under Hezbollah, though, it would be a bigoted, authoritarian, gender segregated, micromanaging bully state.
After Dan and I reached the safety and comfort of the free Lebanese streets, I turned to him. “Do you think Hussein is genuinely a nice person?” I said. “Or are they playing a good-cop, bad-cop game with us? Maybe he’s just good at his job as the artificially friendly face of Hezbollah.”
“I think he’s genuinely a nice person,” Dan said.
“So do I,” I said and nodded.
We were wrong.
Two days later, I moved from my cheap hotel in East Beirut into a two-bedroom apartment with Dan in West Beirut. I took the bedroom just off the living room. He wanted the room down the hall.
Lisa, the previous tenant, was still packing her boxes as I came in.
“Welcome home,” she said and handed me the keys. “Enjoy Beirut. I’m off to Dubai.”
My cell phone rang. According to the caller ID, it was Hussein Naboulsi.
“Hussein,” I said as I answered. “What’s up?”
“You are a liar!” he screamed.
“What?” I said, shocked to hear Hezbollah’s “friendly” media liaison enraged.
“I can’t believe it. You lie about Hezbollah!”
“Slow down,” I said. “What are you talking about?”
Lisa paid me no mind and placed some of her books into a box. She didn’t know whom I was talking to.
“I saw your website,” Hussein said. “You are writing against the Party!”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“What did I say against Hezbollah?”
Lisa glanced over at me, slightly interested in my conversation now.
“You write things that are not true!” Hussein said.
“What on earth did I write that isn’t true?” I hadn’t written an article about Hezbollah yet and thought he might have me confused with somebody else.
“I am looking at your website right now.” He quoted my own words back at me. “You wrote, ‘The goons picked me up at my hotel. They stuffed me in the back of the car, blindfolded me, drove me around in circles, then took me (I think) into the mountains to a safe house to talk to the sheik.’”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I said. “That was a joke.” I had forgotten I even wrote it. “I was making fun of my American readers who thought you were going to kidnap me. Did you read the next sentence? In the very next sentence I wrote, ‘ Actually, that’s not what happened at all.’”
“I read everything!” he said.
“Then you know it was a joke. I said it was a joke. How can you accuse me of lying?”
“You are propagandizing against us!”
“Stop yelling at me,” I said.
Hussein was screaming so loudly at me through the phone now that Lisa could hear him. She could see that I was annoyed and concerned, and she stopped packing her books.
“You insulted Hezbollah!” he said. “Who do you think we are?”
And then he said something I won’t ever forget. “We know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live.”
I pressed the “End Call” button on my phone as fast as I could. Lisa just looked at me. She still wasn’t sure who I was talking to.
“That was Hezbollah,” I said.
“Oh, shit,” she said and took a step back.
“They said they know where I live.”
Her eyes slowly widened as the gravity of what I just told her sank in. She turned and looked at the door. No one was banging on it from outside in the hallway or prying it open with a crowbar.
“Well,” she said and gulped. “You’ve been living here now for, what, ten minutes? They can’t possibly know.”
She was right, of course. Hezbollah thought I was still back at the hotel. No one who worked there knew where to find me, so it would be a waste of time to ask about me at the front desk.
Still, I was nervous. Terrified, actually. And I had no idea what I should do.
I called Charles and Dan, told them what happened, and said I needed a drink.
We met at a bar a few minutes later.
Dan was concerned.
Charles was furious.
“You need to threaten him back,” he said.
“What?” I said. “Threaten Hezbollah? Are you joking?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not joking.”
“I can’t do that,” I said.
“Sure, you can,” he said. “You can’t imagine how paranoid Hezbollah is. You’re an American. Not only do they dare not touch you; they are afraid of you.”
I didn’t know about that, but Charles was right that Hezbollah was paranoid. I spoke to a half-dozen Lebanese sources and friends, and they all agreed that Hezbollah was all scream and no action when it came to American journalists. No one from the Party of God would actually stalk me at my apartment. It had been years since any Western journalist had been harmed in Lebanon. I knew that already. And if Nasrallah decided to change the rules all of a sudden, Hezbollah almost certainly would not start with me.
But I couldn’t get Hussein’s threat out of my head. Once, on my way home from dinner, a slightly creepy individual followed me for a couple of streets and all the way into my building. We got into the elevator together. I lived on the sixth floor, but I stepped out on the fourth and walked the rest of the way up so he wouldn’t know which apartment was mine. I knew I was just being paranoid, but I couldn’t help it. And I couldn’t keep living like this.
I needed Hussein off my case. And I was sure he wasn’t accustomed to being yelled at by Americans. So I steeled myself and called him back.
“All-oe?” he said.
“Hussein!” I said in a sharp tone of voice. Then I paused for effect. “This is Michael Totten.”
He instantly started screaming again. “I can’t believe what you write about Hezbollah!”
It was as though two days hadn’t passed, as if he picked up our conversation exactly where it left off when I hung up on him. This time, though, I wasn’t nervous. I was angry.
“Hussein!” I said. “You need to shut up and listen to me.”
He kept screaming about how I insulted the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon.
“Hey!” I said as loud as I could. “Shut up for a second.”
He finally stopped screaming at me, surprised, I think, by the tone in my voice.
“You will never call me and threaten me again,” I said. “Do you understand?”
“What are you talking about?” he said.
“You know what I’m talking about,” I said.
“I didn’t threaten you!” he said.
“Yes, you did,” I said. “I remember exactly what you said. You said, ‘We know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live.’”
“I did not say we know where you live,” he said.
“Don’t lie to me. I know what you said.”
When Hezbollah says “We know where you live,” it makes an impression that is hard to forget.
“I meant we know who you are.” He sounded anything but convincing.
“You said you know where I live.”
“I did not say that. I did not say that. If I did say that, I was just stressed out.” He didn’t know what he said. “Do you think we have agents out in the streets or something?”
“Of course you have people out in the streets!” I said. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
“If I said that, yes, it would have been a threat,” he added. At least he didn’t try to say “We know where you live” meant he wanted to send me a Christmas card.
“It won’t always be like this between us,” he said. That was a lie. Someone else in Hezbollah’s press office later told Dan that he and I were both blacklisted for life. “Honest to God,” he continued, “it is against our principles to threaten people.”
That was bullshit. He had threatened me just two days before. Hassan Nasrallah had recently said, “Death to America was, is and will stay our slogan.” After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he went even further. “Death to America is not a slogan. Death to America is a policy, a strategy, and a vision.” What the hell was that if it wasn’t a threat?
It had been years since Hezbollah hunted Western civilians in Lebanon. That much was true.
But reining in the belligerence, the authoritarianism, the intolerance, and the menacing—that was just too much to ask. Those things were too much a part of what Hezbollah was. Even the media relations office, the office that was supposed to establish contacts with Westerners who might be sympathetic, the office that hired the happy-faced, seemingly friendly Hussein Naboulsi, couldn’t keep its mask on for long. Just the slightest nudge with your pinkie was enough to break their delicate public-relations propaganda system in half.
Hezbollah had made some progress since the black years of the war. Every armed faction behaved badly in Lebanon then. The men of Hezbollah, like most people in Lebanon, had mellowed out and matured a bit during peacetime. That was something.
But it wasn’t enough.
Their weapons remained an affront to Lebanon’s sovereignty. Their territory looked and felt like a police state, more so than even some police states I’d visited. They still threatened and bullied Americans. Their belligerence, in my experience, seemed instinctive and unrestrainable. And they remained on a war footing with Israel. I wasn’t yet certain, but I had a very bad feeling that Hezbollah just might blow up the country. And I was right.
You can read the rest by ordering a copy of The Road to Fatima Gate from Amazon.com.