The Hangar, the sheikh and the Hezbollah. Incursion in the Dahiye...
Isabelle Mayault - 01/02/2010
Dahiye: the word seems to drain a lot of stigmatisation. In Arabic, the word simply stands for “suburb”. In Lebanon, it designates the southern suburbs of the capital city. Its connotation is all but friendly. In Beirut, the Dahiye has the reputation of being a poor, anarchic area dominated by the presence of the Hezbollah who has located its headquarters there in the 1980’s. It’s a belt of misery (hizam al-bu's) that’s not worth being passed by. It’s easily accessible via the old green line that used to mark the impassable border between West (Muslim area) and East Beirut (Christian area) during civil war. However, the southern suburb is only a few stone-throws away from the city centre. All you have to do is turn on the left before the airport driving parallel to the racecourse, not far away from the Palestinian camps of Sabre and Chatila. This is where, in the family home of the engaged intellectual Lokman Slim, the double entity Umam Productions/the Hangar was born. Lokman and his partner Monika Borgmann, the two founders, describe the cultural centre as “private and transparent”. Paced up and down by researchers, intellectuals and talkative sheikhs, the corridors of the cultural centre echo a voice that is strange to the rhetoric of the Hezbollah’s resistance: that of subversion.
Haret Hreik, picture of the place
The chiite working class area of Haret Hreik is known for sheltering an important concentration of the Hezbollah’s offices. At first sight, it’s just an ordinary working class district where fruit and vegetable stands overflow with tomatoes as big as watermelons and Lebanese bananas freshly picked up on the coast. Contrary to what the violent declarations of the inhabitants of Beirut – be them Muslim or Christian – may suggest, the streets have nothing to do with a chiite ghetto. To such a point that it is difficult to immediately tell the difference between Haret Hreik and the Christian part of the Dahiye.
Things start indeed to be more precise as one goes further in: several long thin bright coloured ribbons hang on windows and trees, leaving a trace of all the pilgrims who came back from the hajj. Here and there, one can notice buildings riddled with bullets, uglier than in the rest of the city. They carry the scars of the furious bombardments on the district in 2006 by the Israelis. The green flags of the Amal Movement and the photos of its martyrs follow the pink and violet pennants announcing the way of the marathon of Beirut. And then, on a wall, hangs the 2x5m portrait of Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the Hezbollah and his slogan: “because the party of God will be victorious”.
The invincible hangar...
Lokman Slim and Monika Borgmann have established their offices in a big white house surrounded by a luxuriant garden. The neighbouring Hangar serves as a meeting place, a place where exhibitions and film projections are organised. “It’s the window of the cultural centre,” states Lokman. Not to mixed up with Umam, the twin association of the Hangar, equally orchestrated by Lokman and Monika. The rest of the house is dedicated to another cause, as important and the cultural one: the storage of archives created by the two intellectuals in 2004 and the digitalisation of all the data gathered since then.
Zana, one of the employees of the Umam Association shows us around the premises with enthusiasm. It’s a Sunday but she has come because she had “something to finish”. She is an information technology student and has been working for Umam a few days a week for a year. In a first room, piles of newspapers are kept in plastic, from the ground up till to the ceiling. In the next room, different boxes labelled “war”, “chiite literature”, “Hussein Fadlallah” (spiritual leader of the Hezbollah) or “elections” sit on high shelves. Zana opens the “Hezbollah” box. She takes out a sort of yellow and green banner, in the colours of the “Party of God’. She explains: “we keep everything. Books, leaflets, pamphlets, invitations… not only official documents.”
What about the origin of the initiative? Creating a unique database in Lebanon that would gather audio and video testimonies and any other document related to the premises and the outcome of war. All this is done with the purpose of introducing a duty of memory in a country that has launched a vast “state of oblivion”. On Umam’s website, we can read that “Ironically, the state of documentation in Lebanon perfectly matches with the tradition of the amnesty laws that punctuate the painful episodes of its history”. In fact, in 1991, a general amnesty law is promulgated in Lebanon, offering absolution for all crimes committed during the war. “As if the law and the archives shared the same philosophy here…”
...a thorn in the neighbours’ side?
If the Hangar and Umam are situated in Haret Hreik, it’s not only because Lokman’s family house is there. First of all it’s “to bring the inhabitants of Beirut here in the Dahiye”, admits Lokman with a smile. And also to shake the partisans of the Party of God. To be more precise, Lokman continues: “I grew up here. For me, the Hezbollah, is not an abstract moral person, it’s sometimes a person with whom I went to school. Therefore, reality is much more complex.” But he ends up by admitting that the opening of Umam and the Hangar, centres described as “private and transparent” by its genitors, did not please completely everyone.
Because Umam, is a thorn in the Hezbollah’s side. Like the weed that grows again in spite of the ravages of war. In 2006, the Israeli bombardments in the southern suburbs did not spare the cultural centre. An entire wall fell down, transforming a sizeable mass of gathered documents into dust. Since then, paradoxically, help and assistance have increased. “Without being cynical, we have noticed that we have received more replies after sending photo of the archives destroyed during the war”, Monika explains. The suffered losses have encouraged Umam to launch a vast digitalisation project, which ensures today the durability of the archives. The website containing a part of the archives’ database will soon be available online, in English and in Arabic. Moreover, Haret Hreik’s archives are accessible to researchers according to “entirely subjective” criteria, as Monika confides. That it “to people we can trust” she states in a good mood.
A subversive chiite sheikh
While having a Turkish coffee in Lokman’s office, the sheikh Mohammad Ali Al-Hajj has accepted to talk about his experience in the Dahiye. The religious representant, leader of a chiite “non politicised” association, gently answers the questions without leaving neither his mobile phone and nor his rosary beads. He came to the Hanger on the occasion of a book fair dedicated to the husseini literature. The sheikh is preparing to celebrate the Achoura, the biggest annual celebration of the year for the chiite Muslims. Known by the Western media for its impressing public lashing parades in Iraq, the Achoura is nevertheless the most peaceful commemoration of the death of the imam Hussein. Mohammad Ali explains that according to him the Achoura feast has been “deformed by political instrumentalisation” and regrets that it has become “populist and traditional”.
The sheikh Mohammad Ali did his religious studies at the Dahiye in the 1990’s. When he became sheikh, he stayed there and he left to settle down in the northern suburbs this year only because he was offered a stable job. And as he confirms, after the bombardments of 2006 he felt like settling down in a calmer area. However, he comes to the Dahiye everyday for his association and defends the region with conviction against the prejudices that seem to be the same among the inhabitants of Beirut and Western journalists. “Mixing up the Dahiye and the Hezbollah, is forgetting the political, economical and social reasons that led to this situation”, states Mohammed Ali. The monopole – the real or the claimed one – of the Hezbollah today has not always been on the agenda. The Hezbollah has settled in the Dahiye as from 1988 after a fratricidal war against the Amal chiite movement founded by Moussa al-Sadr. This military and security control has only been possible thanks to the absence of a Lebanese state at the end of the 1980’s.
“Overrepresentation always hides security domination,” comments the sheikh. The Amal Movement, Hezbollah, the same struggle: the militia uses the same techniques to seduce the crowds. For instance: attracting people with job vacancies and attractive materialistic advantages. Mohammed Ali often remembers a friend of his, an active leftist intellectual who became one of the big leaders of the Iranian cultural centre managed by the Hezbollah. A monopolistic game that implies an atmosphere of surveillance perceptible in the simplest everyday chore. This is what Lokman calls “the elder brother’s eye”. “If you rent an apartment in the Dahiye” explains Mohammed, certain persons visit you to establish information lists on you with details that can be very personal.” And secondly the marks of the Hezbollah’s identity of the Dahiye supplants different tendencies, even though they’re real, of what the sheikh describes as “the chiite mosaic”: left political parties, secular parties and pan-arabists, among others.
The Hezbollah, endangered specie?
Lokman and Mohammed Ali agree on the fact that there’s no fatality, that the situation is not a dead-end. According to Lokman the Hezbollah’s program is simply not viable on the long run and the party is probably doomed to disappear in “10 or 20 years”. The proof? “No one has ever wanted their so called divine victory in 2006. When they threatened to start a new conflict with Israel a year later, the passport demand has exploded in the South of Lebanon. Doesn’t this prove the disavowal of the people?” If it’s not a disavowal, it’s at least the fear of a new conflict. The sheikh gives the same version; even if he admits that both the Amal Movement and the Hezbollah “are going round in circles”, he believes that a loss of power or money will divert their support of the Party of God. To benefit whom? Difficult to say.
Nevertheless, a few breaches seem to appear in the security system. A month ago, the opening of a bar in the Dahiye – without alcohol – made big news. The Arab press like for example the Lebanese daily leftist newspaper As-Safir, has greeted the creation of a social niche likely to get away from the Hezbollah. Lokman is more discreet on the subject. He prefers to talk of an “epiphenomenon”. He doesn’t perceive the mini revolution the articles have talked about but on the contrary, for him this it a sign of a “withdrawal into oneself”. He believes that “people will no longer have to go out of the Dahiye to find a different place”. The struggle against social stigmatisation in the southern region of Beirut seems to really complicated.
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech