What I saw at the Islamic revolution

May 20, 2007|By Hussain Abdul-Hussain

"Enough soccer; we should go occupy the army barracks," said Ali, whose dad, a religious scholar, had sent him to get us. I was 8 and didn't want to stop playing, but we reluctantly followed Ali to the top of the Sheik Abdullah hill, the site of the biggest Lebanese army barracks in the country. There we saw hundreds of women, all in black cloaks, shouting, "Death to Amin Gemayel" - the former Lebanese president - "Death to America," and "Death to Israel."

It was the summer of 1982, and I had no idea that I was about to take part in the birth of a movement that would shake the Middle East and the world.

For a young boy spending the summer at his mother's village in Baalbek, in eastern Lebanon, the scene was disorienting. I had no clue who Amin Gemayel was, or the point of the protest. Coming from Baghdad, I was used to schoolteachers taking us to the streets to shout slogans praising Saddam Hussein. But Lebanon was different.

Ali's dad told us to go stand behind "the sisters" and shout "Death to America," which we did. After some time, the barracks' guards gave up and opened the gates. As soldiers left, bearded men with khaki outfits in Toyota Jeeps and on motorcycles sped into the compound and occupied the emptied barracks.

This was the first takeover of a state building by a new group I had just heard of: Hezbollah. The non-Arab-speaking, bearded men in khaki uniforms were their trainers and mentors, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

This story of how Hezbollah came to be is quite different from the account given by most scholars and observers.

It was the end of the summer, and we were due to fly back home. But my dad was required to join the Iraqi army, and in order to avoid conscription my family decided to stay in Baalbek, where we lived for the next five years.

In 1982, seven years after the start of the civil war, the Lebanese government was too weak and fragmented to stand in Hezbollah's way. After taking over the barracks, Hezbollah occupied the House of Public Teachers, another state-owned building, and turned it into the Imam Khomeini Hospital. Around that time, Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards had occupied a 19th-century building, the Khawwam Hotel, and turned it into their headquarters. Most walls around the city were painted with murals of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini along with quotes from him promising the destruction of Israel and the end of America, or urging martyrdom.

The owner of the only liquor store in town was shot dead and his business closed. Women wearing outfits deemed un-Islamic risked young militants throwing acidic material on the uncovered parts of their bodies . Celebrations with loud music were usually greeted with the explosion of a frightening "sonic bomb."

Meanwhile, loyalists were rewarded. Word had it that women wearing black chadors and men growing their beards received $300 and $100 a month respectively. The unemployed were given jobs at the newly founded hospitals, schools, militia and radio station.

This was an Islamic republic in formation. Hezbollah's slogan at the time was "the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon." But the Syrian regime was in control of most of Lebanon, including Baalbek, and was unwilling to see an Iranian seed sprout in its backyard. Syria therefore inspired its loyalist Shiite group, Amal, to wage battles against Hezbollah, and these continued until the conclusion of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, when Iran and Syria reached a deal over the role of the party. According to the deal, Hezbollah would be allowed to maintain its arms, but its role would be limited to "resistance."

Hezbollah became a joint Iranian-Syrian venture and turned its slogan into "the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon." Hezbollah was also integrated into the Lebanese political fabric. Later, it would win a parliamentary bloc and gain a say in all of the nation's affairs.

Its history was rewritten. Today, most academics have it that Hezbollah was founded in Beirut in 1985 as a resistance movement against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. The truth is that Hezbollah was founded in Baalbek in 1982 as the nucleus of a hoped-for Islamic republic in Lebanon.

Hezbollah is often depicted as having stayed away from the Lebanese civil war, which is also a fallacy. The truth is that Hezbollah clashed with Amal, the Lebanese Communist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party during the war.

The history of Hezbollah and its intentions for Lebanon should be reexamined. The Lebanese media reported that Hezbollah had taken all compensation money that the government had paid to the people whose houses were destroyed during last summer's war with Israel. The party plans collective reconstruction for the southern suburb that has become its territory since the mid-1980s and will be replacing the destroyed units with new ones - a role that should be reserved for the Lebanese state.

With its own militia, foreign alliances and reconstruction plans, Hezbollah today maintains its own state at the expense of the Lebanese state and its elected government.

When I last visited Baalbek, this winter, I saw Ali. He had broken with the party long ago. He complained that Hezbollah now has banks, schools, hospitals, radio, TV, grocery stores and housing plans. Ali, who owns a grocery, told me that if you were not with them, they would keep you out of their network, and you could barely make enough to survive. I asked him whether he would join a Hezbollah protest today like we did 25 years ago.

"I will join a protest to make them leave us alone," he replied. "We have been pious Shiites since the days of our ancestors, and we do not need the Persians or their money to teach us how to keep our faith."

Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a media analyst, is a former reporter for The Daily Star of Lebanon. His e-mail is hahussain@gmail.com.

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