January 2, 2007

Hanging With Hezbollah

“If they (Jews) all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” – Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, October 23, 2002

Nasrallah with Gun.jpg

BEIRUT – After Hezbollah mounted a protest aimed at bringing down Lebanon’s elected government, several thousand demonstrators remained downtown and camped out in tents, effectively occupying the center of the city. They first tried to seize and occupy Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s office in the Ottoman-era Serail. But Seniora warned Hezbollah that if his office were taken he could not control his “street.” Translation: If you seize the state’s institutions, the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon are going to kill you. Hezbollah knew this was true, and so they backed off. It didn’t hurt that the government of Saudi Arabia backed up Seniora on this point. But Hezbollah’s occupation of the neutral parts of downtown continues even into 2007.

I ventured downtown myself the day after the made-for-TV protest was over, when Hezbollah and friends no longer wanted attention from foreign media. Their lack of interest, if I could call it that, was instantly obvious. Ubiquitous security agents with the tell-tale sunglasses and earpieces stared at me coldly and turned their heads as I walked past.

Hundreds of tents were set up in parks, parking lots, and squares downtown, most of them made of white canvass. I snapped a few pictures, and nobody stepped in to stop me.

Hezbollah Tent City 2.jpg

One group of tents in a parking lot across from the Hariri mosque were all made of black canvas. What’s up with the black tents, I wondered. So I walked over and lifted my camera to my face.

Five ear-pieced Hezbollah agents aggressively pounced on me at once. They surrounded me and screamed “No!” Then they physically pushed me away from the tents and got in my face so I could not see behind them.

I’ve been accused of spying many times while in Lebanon, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this is what the Hezbollah agents thought I was doing. Many Lebanese are paranoid – often with good reason – but no one is nearly as paranoid as Hezbollah. (As a side note, one Lebanese man who suspected I worked for the CIA literally begged me to get him a job.)

“Sahafi!” I yelled back at them. Journalist!

“No, no, no!” they yelled and pushed me away. I lowered my camera, threw up my hands, and turned to walk away. Then they left me alone.

It’s almost always like this or worse when I run into actual members of the Hezbollah militia.

The first time I met Hussein Naboulsi, Hezbollah’s media relations liaison, he was perfectly friendly. But he later threatened me with physical violence because I cracked a joke about Hezbollah on my blog. On another occasion I was detained for two hours by Hezbollah because they suspected one of my photojournalist colleagues was a Jew. A reporter friend (and I’ll keep his name out of this) was harassed because of an entirely innocuous article he wrote about them for a mainstream left-wing American magazine. Chris Allbritton, who works on occasion for Time magazine, wrote the following on his blog during the July War: “Hizbullah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”

This is how Hezbollah treats Western journalists. I’d say I’m surprised more journalists don’t mention this sort of thing in their articles. But most journalists don’t write first-person narratives. Industry rules generally don’t allow them to describe these kinds of incidents. Even though it has been years since Hezbollah has kidnapped or physically harmed Western journalists, some may be afraid to rile up an Iranian proxy militia that is listed by the United States government as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah informed me that I’m officially blacklisted (meaning they will no longer give me interviews or even quotes) for what I have written about them in the past.

Some journalists don’t want to burn bridges to their own access and make their jobs harder. I don’t personally care. Last year I interviewed a high-level Hezbollah official, Mohammad Afif, but it was a useless interview that wasn’t even worth publishing. My translator told me that what Afif said matched exactly word-for-word what Hezbollah says every day on their own Al Manar TV channel. Losing access to these guys isn’t that big a deal.

I walked across the street deliberately in full view of the agents who got in my face, sat down on the sidewalk in front of heavily armed Lebanese soldiers, and furiously began taking notes. I chucked inside as I did this because I knew they could see what I was doing.

Leb Army Hariri Mosque.jpg

I knew they wouldn’t do anything to me, and I wanted to let them know that their bullying behavior just earned them bad press. (Israelis who hassle and rudely interrogate journalists in Ben-Gurion airport ought to learn the same lesson one of these days.) I scribbled my furious notes, looked them in the eye, scribbled more furious notes, looked them in the eye again, and scribbled more furious notes.

Hezbollah is not half as media savvy as they like to fashion themselves. Harassing foreign journalists may keep some of them in line, so to speak, but it backfires with the rest of us. Bullying writers who are free of the old school media constraints of “objectivity” is a media war equivalent of dropping a hand grenade down your pants.

At least one of the security agents was smart enough to figure this out. He slowly walked up to me.

“What?” I said as I lifted my head.

He pointed at my camera, said something unintelligible, then pointed at the black tents.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I know, I know.” I went back to writing furious notes.

“No, no, no!” he said.

What?” I said, genuinely annoyed now.

A group of six teenagers between sixteen and eighteen years old saw the commotion and came over to see what was happening. One of them offered to translate.

“He said it is okay to take pictures,” he said.

“It is okay?” I said, and completely dropped my affected hostility.

“Yes, yes,” another kid said. “Come on.” He offered his hand and helped me up.

“Thanks, guys,” I said.

“Don’t worry about them,” a third teenager said. “They are handicaps.”

“Come on!” another said. “Come with us! We’ll show you around!”

They led me back across the street to the black tents. I lifted my camera and snapped a quick picture.

Black Hezbollah Tents.jpg

It’s not that interesting a picture. It has no real value. What a waste for Hezbollah to earn themselves bad press in order to keep this innocuous photo from being released into the world, especially since in the end I was able to publish it anyway.

But I almost didn’t get it. Another Hezbollah security agent saw me take the picture and ran up to me.

“No!” he screamed and waved his arms. He menacingly put his face four inches from mine. “How many pictures did you take!” he yelled.

“Just one,” I said.

“Delete it right now!” he screamed. “You were told not to take pictures!”

Who were these guys to tell me what to do anyway? Lebanon is a free country, Hezbollah isn’t the government, and I was taking pictures of a public parking lot.

“No,” I said, “I was just told that I could take pictures.” I looked at my new teenager friends, waiting for them to back me up.

“Yes, yes, it’s okay,” one of the kids told the agent.

“No!” the agent said. “You delete it right now!”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll delete it on one condition…if you tell me why I can’t take a picture. What are you doing here that you want to hide?”

The truth is I would have deleted it without any conditions. I didn’t care about having the picture, and the last thing I needed was to get in a fight with these people. I just wanted to know what he would say when I asked him why he was paranoid. Of course he would have no prepared answer.

“Never mind!” he said as he threw his hands in the air, turned around, and stormed back into the tents.

“What on earth is their problem?” I said to the kids who stuck up for me and offered to show me around.

“Don’t worry,” said the one who had taken my hand. “They are handicaps.”

They are, indeed, “handicaps,” at least mentally. If they actually thought I was a spy (but I don’t know, maybe they didn’t) their behavior would have told me all I needed to know. It’s obvious which part of the tent city houses the leadership and the elite. It’s the one place, the black tented section, where the agents completely freak out if you show up with a camera. If I were to call up the CIA or the Mossad and give them air strike coordinates (or whatever it was Hezbollah was afraid of) all I’d have to say is “aim for the black tents.”

The teenagers who had volunteered as my guides, translators, and advocates, led me to the much larger section of the camp where everyone lived and slept in white tents.

Hezbollah Tent City 1.jpg

“Which party are you with?” I asked them.

“Hezbollaaaaaaaah,” said the lead kid and grinned. “Here, here, take a picture of this car!” They talked and moved fast with the boundless energy of young people on an adventure.

I took a picture of the car.

Nasrallah Car.jpg

“That’s Hassan Nasrallah. Do you know Hassan Nasrallah? He is a big hero.”

“Why is he a hero?” I said.

“He resists the Israelis!”

“Are all of you guys with Hezbollah?” I said.

“Yes!” one of them said. “We are all with Hassan Nasrallah!” They said this in such a way that they expected me to share their views even though they knew I am American. At least they expected I wouldn’t mind that they support Hassan Nasrallah. I doubt they felt any hostility to me personally whatsoever.

“So, what is it you hope to accomplish downtown?” I said.

“We want Seniora to leave,” one of them said.

“We want to fuck Seniora,” said another.

“I know,” I said. “Why do you want to get rid of him, though? What do you want from the government that you can’t get with Seniora?”

“War!” said one of the kids.

“We want war!” said another.

A third kid slapped the second up the side of his head. The slapped kid laughed and pushed his hand in his friend’s face.

I couldn’t tell if this playful spat was because they didn’t agree about wanting more war, or because they weren’t supposed to admit it in front of a foreign reporter. I have met Hezbollah supporters whom I know don’t want more war with Israel. Some of them truly believe that Israel will attack no matter what and that Hezbollah is Lebanon’s only defense.

White Hezbollah Tents.jpg

“We want to unite Lebanon and have a democracy,” said the kid who seemed to be their leader. He was the most mature and collected, and the others deferred to him with their body language.

“You have a democracy, though,” I said. “You didn’t win as many seats in the parliament as you would like, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a democracy. You can’t always get what you want in a democracy.”

“The American government rules Seniora,” said another. “They interfere in my business.”

“In what ways?” I said.

“America helps Israel against Lebanon and sells them weapons.”

None of these kids wanted to give me their names. I took notes of our conversation, but I cannot tell you who exactly said what. These quotes will have to go unattributed.

“What about Syria?” I said. “America helps Lebanon against Syria.”

“Bush killed all those politicians because he doesn’t want peace in Lebanon.”

“Why wouldn’t Bush want peace in Lebanon?” I said.

“I don’t know!”

“Americans don’t want war in Lebanon,” I said. “It would not serve our interests or yours. Do you think Americans want chaos in Lebanon just for the heck of it?”

“We don’t hate the American people, only the government.”

“Okay,” I said. “So why then does Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly say Death to America?” I asked these questions in the most friendly and casual tone of voice I could muster.

“He only means death to the American government.”

“Why doesn’t he make that clear then?” I said.

“He does!”

“No, he doesn’t,” I said. “He says Death to America. What would you think of George W. Bush if he gave speeches where he screamed Death to Lebanon? Come on, guys. Be honest with me. I want to know what you really think.”

“I want to go to America,” the leader kid said. “I love America and I want to live in America. America is rich and free. I want to be rich and free, too.”

I think the kid was sincere. His politics are a product of Hezbollah’s schools, his community, and his peer group. But politics in the Middle East isn’t as personal as it often is in the West, in part because Middle Easterners are accustomed to having their politics dictated to them by the powerful. Politicians are usually above accountability and beyond control of the people. They assume that’s how it is in the Western countries as well.

Street-level anti-Americanism is sometimes more moderate, complicated, and contradictory than it appears from far away. There is often a vast gulf separating those in the Arab world who incite anti-Americanism and those who more passively go along with it. The difference in temperament between Hezbollah’s bullying agents and the kids who showed me around are just one example.

“So,” I said. “Who do you think won the war in July? Israel or Hezbollah?”

“Nasrallah!”

“We beat Israel!”

“Does that mean you want to do it again?” I said.

“Yes!” half of them said.

“No!” the other half said simultaneously.

One of the kids who said “no” slapped one of the kids who said “yes.” Again, I couldn’t tell if that was because they didn’t agree with each other or because they weren’t supposed to sound like warmongers in front of a foreign reporter.

Most Lebanese will give you their honest opinions, no matter how off-the-wall or crazy their opinions might be. And they’ll do it without showing even a hint of embarrassment. Sometimes, though, I’m not convinced people are being straight with me. This was one of those times.

The gang took me around the tent city and introduced me to their friends. “Check this out! Here, meet these people!”

Hezbollah Tent Gathering.jpg

“Look at that crane. Take a picture of that!”

Hezbollah Crane.jpg

“There’s Nasrallah again. Quick. Take a picture!”

Hezbollah Car.jpg

Some of their friends were clearly a little bit wary. I could read it on their faces. Who’s this American, and why am I meeting him? Most, though, were perfectly friendly. They shook my hand, smiled, and said “Welcome.”

For some now-forgotten reason I thought one of the people I was introduced to was Druze, and I was surprised. Only a handful of Druze support Hezbollah. Very nearly all of them are with Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, who heads up the Progressive Socialist Party, and with the pro-Western “March 14” government. So I was happy to meet one of the tiny fraction of Druze who were outside the mainstream.

“You’re Druze?” I said to him.

He shook his head in confusion, clearly because he didn’t understand English.

“Inta Durzi?” I said. Are you Druze?

A look of horror and disgust washed over his face.

“La,” he said. No. “Ana Shia.” I am Shia.

I didn’t mean to insult him, but apparently I had. So much of what passes for politics in Lebanon is really just sectarian animosity, which is the primary reason most Christians, Sunnis, and Druze are against Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a well-armed Shia militia, the only militia of its kind in the country. The Christians don’t have their own army. The Sunni don’t have their army. And the Druze don’t have their own army. Hezbollah’s very existence is against Lebanese law, not to mention international law. Their existence as a foreign-backed army also violates Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing pact which dates back to the founding of the republic.

“Jumblatt is a handicap,” the leader of the kids said.

“Can I take a picture of you guys?” I said.

Most said no. Almost everyone in Lebanon is paranoid about somebody or other. Most Lebanese fear the Syrians. Hezbollah fears the Americans and the Israelis.

Two of them did let me take their picture, however.

Two Hezbollah Supporters.jpg

I said my goodbyes, genuinely thanked them for their time and hospitality, and walked toward the Beirut city center where most of the restaurants and shops can be found.

Every business was closed. The military blockaded every street leading to the center of town with checkpoints and coils of razor wire. Hezbollah and their friends (apparently) couldn’t be trusted not to vandalize the portion of Beirut that had been rebuilt and refurbished by the Hariri clan whom Hezbollah views as their Sunni enemies.

I approached a Lebanese army soldier standing watch.

“Is it okay if I take a picture?” I said.

He put his hand on his heart. “No, please, not today,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“No problem,” I said. “Thank you, though.”

He must have had no idea why I thanked him. The reason I did is because I appreciated that he spoke to me like a normal human being and like a typical Lebanese – friendly, welcoming, and polite. The contrast between average Lebanese (and I’m including Hezbollah’s casual supporters in that group when I say this) and Hezbollah’s official party members and elite is extraordinary. Most of the people of Lebanon are instinctively decent on a personal level no matter their political views or ideology. Hezbollah itself, though, is instinctively menacing and hostile and belligerent. Their ideology is an alien one, imported from the East, from the extremist regime in Tehran. If they ever end up as rulers of Lebanon – and it will surely mean war if they try – Lebanon will no longer be recognizable.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 2, 2007 6:33 PM
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