On my relative Muhammed from South Lebanon (II)

On my relative Muhammed from South Lebanon (II)
Bint Jbeil (South Lebanon)
Driving south, Hezbollah's photos and posters are fewer in number and the traces of wartime destruction, once so widespread, have all but disappeared. Bridges have been erected and the roads smoothed and tarred. The road surfaces and the areas beneath the bridges bear testament to dedication. Rubble has been cleared and evidence of the bombardment has been removed from all but the most out of the way corners.

As the signs of war have faded away so too have the flags and posters that coloured Southern Lebanon green and yellow for almost two years. So strange is the scene and so clean and new do these villages and towns appear that the casual observer might conclude they were built only yesterday. The South is like virgin territory whose inhabitants have only just arrived to build their homes from scratch. It's an achievement of dizzying speed and accomplishment. As rapid and ruthless as was the destruction of 2006, the restoration and construction has been no les impressive. It's as if the wreckage caused has been an opportunity to do away both with what remained of poor-quality slum housing and old rural architectural traditions.

Liberal compensation packages and the generosity of donor agencies has allowed the construction of houses like modern villas, kitted out with all the modern conveniences and architectural stylings more commonly associated with tourist brochures and the luxury lifestyles. It would be no exaggeration to describe what has happened here as an architectural event. Homes and houses in the villages of the south were never built with the aid of architects and their plans. Their owners would buy the cheapest materials they could lay their hands on. Many of these homes were never plastered over, their living rooms were the same size as the kitchens, and so on.

This, then, was the style prevalent in the south. To set themselves apart and demonstrate their improved material circumstances returnees from abroad would build extravagant, gaudy villas on raised ground outside the villages or on banks overlooking roads the better to flaunt their wealth and success to locals. The poorer and more difficult the life in exile had been, the more flagrantly luxurious the home. To eradicate memories of their poverty and humble origins these individuals would spend a much greater proportion of their newly acquired riches on their palaces and villas.

At any rate, this was the case prior to 2006. After the war, as donations poured in from foreign countries, government agencies and political parties, those whose homes had been destroyed took the opportunity to build new homes with the best materials under the supervision of professional architects and contractors. Everybody felt obliged to acquire a luxury home, a villa big or small, appropriate to the newly wealthy society in which they now lived.

This architectural event consisted of more than construction and fancy designs it also brought with it a transformation in employment. The returnees’ villas were located outside the villages. The majority of their inhabitants had no intention of returning to village life, abandoning the community for a life on the high ground and hilltops. But their homes turned into summer getaways, somewhere for the holidays but not a real home.

One effect of the architectural revolution initiated and administered by Hezbollah and aided by unstinting contributions from Arab states (save Syria, which, with the exception of two or three villages, is yet to make good on its promises) is that the inhabitants are convinced, or at least have managed to convince themselves, of the following: it's inconceivable that anyone who has devoted so much effort and money would lead us back into war. In other words, would never "smash it all up again".

Hezbollah does not want a new war. Their insistent repetition of this belief seems designed to finally shrug off a particularly dark and oppressive concern from their shoulders. One can almost hear another thought tucked between their words, namely: "What's to stop another war?" In my conversations with them they go to great lengths to convince me that Israel "learnt a lesson". So I ask them what's the lesson they have learnt, not just their experiences of Hezbollah and the Israeli occupation, but also those older lessons, from the days of "Fatah Land" and the National Movement (i.e. the 1969-1982 wars). They respond that Al-Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah was right when he declared that, "Israel is more fragile than a spider's web", and so on. They fear war and support Hezbollah at the same time.

My aunt told me that to cure her high blood pressure she must take two pills daily and that I mustn't criticize Hezbollah on TV. In her own gentle way she was showing her displeasure at my politics. The villagers were short with me, and my own relatives kept reminding me that "you can't escape your own skin", meaning, of course, that I wasn't allowed to follow my own political whims but must cleave to the loyalties and beliefs of my sect. My uncle took me to visit my father's grave. When we got there he asked me to accompany him to the august and imposing "Garden of the Martyrs" (for those who fell in the 2006 war). He led me round, acquainting me with the name and personal history of each and every martyr. On the way home he suddenly announced that criticism of Hassan Nasrallah was not allowed: "He is pure... He is like a saint". His voice was calm and firm. Questioned about Nasrallah miscalculating the effects of July 12, 2006, he compared it with the Prophet's error before the Battle of Ahad, in which the Muslims were defeated, a battle that took place some 1,500 years ago. I fell silent: the silence of surrender, not conviction. He informed me that my beliefs were too much for my family to bear and asked me not to walk in Bint Jbeil’s main square.

Over cups of thick black tea, so welcome in the morning, the conversation starts to flow, and you begin to see how the people of the south regard Hezbollah the resistance movement as utterly distinct from Hezbollah the Lebanese political party. They attribute the events of May 7 2008 (the assault on Beirut by Hezbollah and its allies) to the "aggression of the people of the New Way against ordinary people and passers-by". To quote them on these events: "brawling by the Amal movement, the Baath Party and the nationalists." They have completely edited out Hezbollah's involvement. When we start to get into detail over politics you find they don't think much of Muhammed Raad, choosing Muhammed Fanish as their idea of good representative of Hezbollah.

Discussing the reasons behind the Lebanese government's decision that triggered the event of May 7, I ask those sitting with me, fellow residents of the Beirut's southern suburbs about the foreign intelligence agencies with offices there. They admit that there's a lot of them but they refuse to recognize their legitimacy.

I tell them that tonight Al-Arabiyya is showing the Muhammed Suwaid film "Ma Hatafit li-Ghairiha". The film addresses the myth of Lebanon's transformation into the "Arab Hanoi", while Hanoi wants nothing more than to be like Hong Kong, between Beirut and Hanoi lies Dubai. It shows how our choices between war and peace, Hong Kong, Dubai and a new Hanoi are indicative of nothing more than missed opportunities. They reply that they never watch Al-Arabiyya. They can't stand it because "it spreads poison".

On the road to the village they've erected a huge picture of the parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, under which is written, "What will become of us when you're gone?" I've no idea what to make of this pained and plaintive plea. Is it simply premature fear of every man's preordained fate? Is it a declaration that without Mr. Speaker no one will be able to manage their lives, unprotected by his munificence and cunning? That when he goes they will be weak, lost and powerless? Can it mean that he, and he alone, protects from numberless evils that swarm around them? Is it the cry of inadequates still clinging to a father figure? I can't be sure what it means, but shortly afterwards I saw another picture of Mr. Berri at the entrance to another village, this one bearing the legend: "Is there anyone to compare?" This is a question that contains its own answer: "Nobody!" I was tickled by this idea... he's incomparable!

On my way back home at five-thirty in the morning the driver turned the car's stereo to Hezbollah's Radio Light. The first bit of news was, "huge success for the [March 8] opposition in the Lawyers' Syndicate elections." Half and hour later on the Phalange's Voice of Lebanon station it was reported that "the [March 14] loyalists have won the Lawyers' Syndicate elections." Everyone in the car laughed. The report itself was in fact two reports, each according to its station. It was up to you to choose your station, to choose your news and acclimatize to it.

Every group in Lebanon has its own news. Lies are the business of poets and poetry lovers.

Youssef Bazzi

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