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thedrifter
12-15-05, 07:06 AM
DECEMBER 16 - 22, 2005
Guess Who’s Coming to Iftar
A meal to remember with Hezbollah
by MICHAEL J. TOTTEN

BEIRUT — Syrian occupation troops have withdrawn from Lebanon, but the country has not yet regained its full sovereignty. The radical Shiite Hezbollah militia still controls its own territory in the suburbs south of Beirut and along the border with Israel. The Islamic Republic of Iran props it up with military and financial support, and it is arguably more powerful than the Lebanese army. It ranks high enough on Lebanon’s list of problems that last year the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1559 mandating not only the evacuation of Syrian troops but the “disbanding and disarmament” of all militias, of which Hezbollah is by far the largest. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah recently said it will “cut off any hand that reaches out to our weapons” and “fight them like the martyrs of Karbala.”

Now that the international community is ratcheting up its pressure on Hezbollah, I went down to its militarily held state-within-a-state in the suburbs south of Beirut to see what the group is up to. Hezbollah invited me to an iftar — the first meal of the day just after sunset during the month of Ramadan — where Nasrallah was scheduled to speak.

I expected a warm reception. In October Hezbollah’s South Lebanon Commander Sheikh Nabil Qaouk said the militia wants to build strong relations with American journalists and academics. Yet its attempt to make a good impression on me failed spectacularly.

Thursday night’s iftar — this one was only for women and journalists — was held outside Hezbollah’s territory across the street from the Marriott Hotel. The area was 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 head scarf over their hair.

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 I was supposed to check in.

I showed my passport and press credentials to the man who looked like he was in charge. He stuffed them in his briefcase.

“Which hotel are you staying at?” he said.

I didn’t like the idea of telling Hezbollah where they could find me. Fairly or not, they are listed by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization. But I answered his question. I didn’t tell him I planned to move into an apartment two days later.

A security agent stepped behind me as I scribbled in my notebook while I waited. 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.

I hadn’t noticed, but a military band was assembling behind me. The drummer banged once on his drum like a rifle shot. I jumped in my seat. A Hezbollah security agent who looked distinctly Iranian laughed not with me but at me.

More journalists showed up and were allowed to enter the building with minimal hassle. What was their problem with me? My passport and press ID were stuffed into the briefcase and that was that. They were making me wait for no apparent reason at all.

“What is the problem?” I said. “Why can’t I go in?”

“Just five more minutes, please,” the head of security said. Five more minutes for what? I was invited and I had credentials.

My first meeting with Hezbollah a few days earlier had gone much more smoothly.

I liked Hussein Naboulsi, the media relations liaison, the moment I had met him in the center of Hezbollah’s stronghold in Dahye south of Beirut. His firm handshake, his exuberant warmth, and his permanent grin had put me right at ease with the Party of God.

“I used to live in New York,” he said. That explained his terrific English.

“Really?” I said. “Did you like it?”

He looked at me as though I had asked if he liked rotten cheese.

“You must have lived there in the ’80s,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “It is better now, I know. I have heard about your Giuliani.”

“What do you think about the media in the United States?” I asked him. Hezbollah routinely denounces the American media as “Zionist.”

“I don’t like CNN as much as I used to,” he said. “Just look at Larry King. We need someone more fresh.”

“Have you caught an episode of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart?” I said.

He shook his head no as if he had never heard of it.

“That’s what the kids are watching these days,” I said.

Then he broke the bad news. Hezbollah was more or less closed. I was not allowed to visit Hezbollah’s schools, summer camps or hospitals. None of Hezbollah’s fighters on the Israeli border had permission to speak to me.

“We can’t give you a guide or a tour,” he said. “But you can walk around and take a look by yourself. Just don’t take any pictures.”

“What’s the problem?” I said. Wasn’t Hezbollah supposed to be reaching out?

“I was given a security directive a few weeks ago,” Hussein said. “I am sorry, but I have to obey it.”

Later Hussein did invite me to the iftar. Yet now, days later, there I was outside the iftar hall, prevented by security from going inside Hezbollah’s one open event.

I whipped out my cell phone and dialed Hussein. Perhaps he could get me in faster. The instant the head of security saw my phone he said, “Okay, you can go in now.”

Thousands of conservatively dressed women were being seated at rows of tables in front of me. No one bothered to tell me where to go or what to do. So I walked toward the tables.

“No!” one of the security agents said. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. I was only allowed to stand in this exact spot, which was nowhere in particular. Not three feet over there, but right here.

After I stood there like a dork for several minutes, more security guys finally led me to a small walled-off area where I could sit and eat. This was the “press room.” I could not see any of the thousands of women, nor could I see the pulpit where Nasrallah was going to speak. Of course the journalists, who were almost all men, were kept away from the women. 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 taking orders. “No,” I said. “I am going to sit with other people.”

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 can’t just walk into a Hezbollah event without being vetted.

I thought I had an idea what Lebanon would feel like if these guys ruled it. It would be a micromanaging Daddy State, the very opposite of what it is now. But I had no idea. Not yet.

Now that Lebanon is out from underneath Syria’s occupation it doesn’t look or feel anything like a police state. It’s more or less civilized anarchy here. Peter Grimsditch, managing editor of Beirut’s English-language Daily Star newspaper, told me he hasn’t been to any country in the world where he feels the power of the state bearing down on him less. Not even traffic laws are enforced here. I’m not sure traffic laws even exist.

Hezbollah's stronghold is different.

While only two and a half miles from downtown Beirut, it is like another country.

The Lebanese army, which patrols the rest of Lebanon, is not allowed to set foot in it. Modern 1970s buildings, utterly bereft of beauty, are practically piled right on top of each other. Laundry lines slash across the fašades. Filthy striped balcony curtains blow like ship sails in the wind. Posters of “martyrs” killed in battle with Israel line the streets, as do portraits of Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini. This is not where you want to spend your next holiday.

I asked a Lebanese man who used to live there what would happen if he walked into the street and shouted, “I hate Hezbollah!”

“I’d get my ass kicked,” he said. “No one would do that.”

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 me. 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 residents of the Great Satan.

Suddenly a muezzin screamed in Arabic over the loud speakers. It was a thunderous call to prayer, and it was real screaming. I have heard the call to prayer hundreds of times in Beirut, but I never heard anything like this. It was electrifying and dramatic and 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-Israeli 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 hardly 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.

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 young boy clenching his fingers around a bloody rock.

Slowly, the audience began filing out before Nasrallah was finished. 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.

Israel this!

Israel that!

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 my photographer colleague.

“Come with me!” he said and led Dan away with camera in hand. I followed.

“What’s going on?” I said.

“We need to speak with him,” he said, referring to Dan.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I need to know what the problem is here.”

“You will not speak unless you are spoken to,” Fat Man said.

He led both of us to a table at a security checkpoint just inside the entrance. 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 look like a bully even in a photograph. He had white skin, a trimmed beard, small black eyes and short-cropped hair around a bald spot. A permafrown rippled across his forehead.

“We will conduct our investigation,” he said. “When we complete our investigation we will tell you what you need to do.”

“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 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. My cell phone wasn’t getting any reception.

The security agents darkly discussed the situation, whatever it was, among themselves in Arabic. Fat Man boiled as he failed to figure out how to operate the camera.

“Where do you come from!” he said to Dan.

“What is your first name!”

“What is your family name!” He took particular interest in — and vehemently objected to — Dan’s possibly ethnic middle name, which he thought was Dan’s last name. “Is that your family name?”

At last we were getting down to brass tacks. Hezbollah thinks it knows how to spot Jewish names. It knew all the journalists’ names before letting them in the door. Perhaps that explained the long delay at the entrance to the event: Dan was with me.

“What is your religion!” This was not an investigation. It was an inquisition.

“Is this your first time in Lebanon!”

“Where in Lebanon do you live? Where exactly do you live?”

Two Western journalists, a man and a woman, stopped by the table where we were being 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 of Nasrallah’s speech in real time on the view screen. Lord only knows what he was looking for. The paranoia in the room was palpable. He caught me staring and flashed me a menacing look.

Hussein Naboulsi arrived, all handshakes and smiles as usual. I never thought I would feel relieved to see a member of Hezbollah, but I was glad to see him.

“Hussein!” I 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.

“He is the security chief,” Hussein said. “He is in charge of everyone here. 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 20 minutes. When they finally came out and handed Dan back his camera, almost 50 pictures had been deleted from the memory card. But they said we could go.

I wondered if Hezbollah was playing a game of good cop/bad cop. Perhaps Hussein was good at his job as an artificially friendly face of Hezbollah. Tentatively, almost reluctantly, I decided he was a genuinely nice person.

I was wrong.


Two days after the Iftar, Hussein Naboulsi called me on my cell phone and screamed at me.

“You are a liar!”

“What?” I said, shocked to hear Hezbollah’s “friendly” media liaison in a rage.

“I can’t believe it. You lie about Hezbollah!”

“Slow down,” I said. “What are you talking about?”

“I saw your Web site.” He meant my blog. “You are writing against the Party!”

Welcome to politics, Hussein. This is what democracy looks like.

“What did I say against Hezbollah?”

“You write things that are not true!”

“What on earth did I write that isn’t true?”

“I am looking at your Web site 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 ever even wrote it. “I was making fun of Americans who thought you were going to kidnap me.”

A bit of context is in order.

Several people I know really were worried that I would be kidnapped or worse if I met with Hezbollah. One said I would be lucky to escape with my life. So after I met Hussein, who at the time was perfectly pleasant, I posted an update on the blog saying I met Hezbollah and that nothing bad happened. And I started by gently ribbing and playing into their overblown fears.

“Did you read the next sentence?” I asked Hussein. “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. I also said that meeting Hezbollah was a pleasant experience. That was the truth, and that’s what I wrote. How can you accuse me of lying?”

“You are propagandizing against us!”

“Stop yelling at me,” I said.

“You insulted Hezbollah!”

“Actually, I insulted Americans who know nothing about Hezbollah. Can’t you read?”

“Who do you think we are? We know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live.”

We know where you live. He threatened me with physical violence. And for what? For making fun of Americans on a blog.

The funny thing is Hezbollah did not know where I lived. Two hours before Hussein called me I had moved out of my hotel and into an apartment. The previous tenant hadn’t even left yet, and she witnessed Hezbollah’s threatening phone call. Hussein screamed so loudly into the phone she could hear him.

Two days later I called him back. He nervously denied that he ever threatened me.

“I did not say we know where you live.”

“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. Hezbollah, after all, famously kidnapped American journalist Terry Anderson in 1985 and held him for more than six years. It also kidnapped British journalist John McCarthy, Colorado State University Professor Tom Sutherland and some others. The U.S. accused Hezbollah of killing 241 Marines and sailors with a truck bomb that destroyed the Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983, although technically that was an act of guerrilla warfare rather than terrorism.

“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.

“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.

“Honest to God,” he said, “it is against our principles to threaten people.”

But it isn’t. He had threatened me just two days before. Hassan Nasrallah recently said “Death to America was, is and will stay our slogan.” After the 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 is that if it isn’t a threat?

It’s true that Hezbollah no longer harms Western civilians. If it did, it would be grouped with al Qaeda and destroyed militarily. The group’s leaders are smart enough to know that much.

But reining in the belligerence, the authoritarianism, the intolerance and the menacing — that is too much for it right now. Those things are too much a part of what Hezbollah is. Even its media-relations office, the office that is supposed to establish contacts with Westerners who might sympathize with it, the office that hired the happy-faced, seemingly friendly Hussein Naboulsi, can’t keep its mask on for long. Just the slightest nudge with your pinkie is enough to break its delicate public-relations propaganda system in half.

Hezbollah has made progress since the black years of the civil war that ended in 1990. Every armed faction behaved badly in Lebanon then. Hezbollah, like most Lebanese, has mellowed out and matured during peace time. That’s something.

But it isn’t enough.

Its weapons are an affront to Lebanon’s sovereignty. Its territory looks and feels like a police state, more so than even some police states I’ve visited. When it isn’t in its territory it carries its own portable authoritarian apparatus. It keeps its country in a low-level state of hot war with Israel. It still threatens and bullies Americans. Its belligerence, in my experience, appears instinctive and implacable.

U.N. Resolution 1559 will remain on Lebanon’s agenda until this is resolved.

Michael J. Totten, based in Beirut, blogs at www.michaeltotten.com. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Star and Tech Central Station.

Ellie