On Monday, the night before my friend Hassan and I are scheduled to leave Beirut, Hassan is unsure if he will leave. We have arranged for a taxi to Damascus but the roads are dangerous. “The Israelis bomb the road,” he says, “and then a bulldozer comes out and paves it over.” This is characteristic of the Lebanese: their resourcefulness, energy, and optimism to keep rebuilding; but the fact is that after a while, some things are truly broken.
We are sitting at Abu Elie, one of the few bars open Monday night. It’s a communist bar with photos papered over the walls. There’s Lenin and Kemal Jumblatt, the Lebanese Buddhist-Socialist-aristocrat-poet-warlord, whose ambition may have been responsible for the onset of the civil wars in 1975. (After his assassination, one in a string of political murders credited to the regime in Damascus, his son Walid—the current Druze leader—took over.) There are pictures of Fairouz, the famous Lebanese diva, through various stages of her career. A Red Army officer’s hat hangs from a hook in the wall on top of a rifle.
The entire back wall is dedicated to Che, and it occurs to me that the head of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah’s “charisma” trades on precisely the same iconography: the beard and interesting headgear. They were both warriors by “conviction,” and not vocation. The intellectual romance is similar, too. After a recent lecture series at the American University of Beirut, Noam Chomsky visited Nasrallah to heap praise on him, hardly unusual for the
It is a running joke among some Lebanese Christians that virtually every Westerner of a certain type (the political tourist) wants to head to the South as soon as they hit Lebanon. They are off to see Hezbollah-land, visit the resistance museum at Beaufort, buy Hezbollah key-rings and T-shirts. With their gear in tow, they head back to the bars and restaurants of Beirut where they chat up the beautiful Lebanese girls and watch them dance on the tops of the bars and tables. And the Westerners—mostly Americans, though the Germans, Brits, and others are also guilty—get into heated discussions about the Arabs, the imperialist Western powers, and their agents here, the Christians. It is a given among these folk that Lebanese Christians are right-wingers—fascists even—and yet here we are drinking among the so-called fascists, in fascist-owned bars, served by fascist bartenders, chatting up gorgeous fascist girls, because, alas, the heroic Islamic resistance does not traffic in this kind of lifestyle tourism.
I remember one AUB professor, an American, complaining that so many people back home were scared of Beirut. They just didn’t get it, he said. I pointed out that it was worthwhile to remember that the city had been very bad for Americans in the past, especially in predominantly Muslim West Beirut, where the AUB was and where many Americans lived (including myself). One Christian friend spoke of our fascination with the neighborhood contemptuously. “Westerners just adore Hamra, don’t they?”
Hassan is only drinking a coke because he needs to think his decision through clearly. The roads are very bad, but he wants to leave for Germany. His trip was going to be a vacation, but it might wind up being something more. With the shelling of Shiite villages in the South, the apartment where he lives with his mother and father is overflowing with family who’ve come to find shelter in Beirut. This is how the capital came by its large Shiite population to begin with, when poverty, unemployment and war forced them from the South. In 1982, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard capitalized on the demographics and dissatisfaction and trained the Shiite militia that was to become Hezbollah. And of course, that is why, for Americans, the streets of Beirut pose more of a potential danger than the roads to Syria.
It is useful to take the Israelis at their word, that they are going to change the status quo and degrade the Party of God’s operational capacity. Since Hezbollah is Iran’s proxy, that prospect is a good thing for Americans—unless they happen to be in Beirut right now. For as the Israelis take away Hezbollah’s strong positions and force them to other parts of the country, the armed resistance will get desperate, as will the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will see in every Hezbollah setback a further weakening of its own position.