It was a tale of two cities. Or rather, two parts of one city. Beirut: even more divided than usual.30 October 2019
Beirut’s divisions are starkly evident as I drive away from the demonstrations in the centre of the city that, for the last couple of weeks, have brought banking, business and parliament to a grinding halt.
Beautiful blue-domed mosques and white-walled churches inset with golden mosaics give way to a much more downmarket cityscape.
A portrait towers above a coffee shop showing a soldier who was killed a year ago, say streetside young men, by fighters from ISIS, or at least from an Islamist extremist group, in the north Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli.
A few hundred yards further away I swing onto the Imam Khomeini Highway, a name showing obeisance in this part of town to the Iranian Ayatollah who, after sparking its 1979 revolution against the Shah, imposed a strict form of Shia Islam on his country. He also pledged to spread his revolution and doctrine worldwide.
Lebanon is in some ways a test case.
Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the longtime leader of Lebanon’s militant Shia Muslim military and political movement Hizbullah, used to describe himself on his website as the Ayatollah’s “personal representative”. He is now considered just as close to Khomeini’s successor as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The area into which I have driven, Dahiya, is the Hizbullah stronghold in Beirut. It was bombed by Israel in wars in 1982 and 2006, but its many damaged buildings have long since been rebuilt.
So has Hizbullah’s formidable war arsenal — – though in recent years its fighters have been deployed eastward to fight battles inside neighbouring Syria, rather than southwards to confront Israel.
Despite reports of a recent attack from an Israeli drone, there was no sign of any damage at the Hizbullah media centre, an essential stop for any visiting journalist.
“We Lebanese are so used to conflict we know how to restore things,” says one of the media centre’s warm and welcoming officials. She wears a black head-scarf but does not cover her face.
In the streets outside some young women show their hair, walking alongside others who don’t.
“This is not Saudi Arabia,” says Hassan, a lightly-bearded man in his thirties. “We are much more tolerant here.”
One of three friends sitting alongside Hassan on the pavement’s white plastic chairs concurs. “I even have a brother who doesn’t believe in God,” he declares.
Hassan took me to Hizbullah’s most sacred site. At the edge of a large road, almost inconspicuous, is a large building that contains the graves of the movement’s fighting heroes.
Many have died in fighting Israel, but more recently it’s been mainly young men who died in supporting the dictatorial rule of President Assad inside Syria.
Pride of place, or Grave of Honour, is taken by Imad Mugnieh, commander of the Hizbullah’s fighting forces and former hijacker of civilian planes. He died in 2007 when a car he was driving in Damascus blew up — an assassination widely believed to have been carried by, or at the behest of, Israel’s spy service Mossad.
I had been at his funeral — or rather, had been kept out of the stadium where the tributes were being paid by a combination of heavy rain, chaotic crowds and gun-toting security.
The day before I had been to Mugnieh’s home village. So intimidating is the Hizbullah’s blanket of silence in Lebanon’s Shia-dominated south that no-one would tell me anything about how he grew up, and why he turned to Islamist militancy.
Like most things in this war-ravaged country, there is so much that remains hidden – and dangerous.