Near the Syrian border northeast of Baalbek.
I had not planned to watch Obama’s Cairo speech on June 5, since I had an appointment in the plush Bekaa Valley, near Baalbek-Hermel with Shaykh Subhi Tufayli one of the founders of Hezbollah and its first Secretary General.
Shaykh Tufayli, still a revered cleric, was a participant in the August 1982 First Conference for the Downtrodden which, I argues in a forthcoming volume, was the essential organizing event at which Hezbollah can be said to have come into existence.
At the Conference with Subhi Tufayli, twenty seven years ago, were Lebanon’s now senior Shia cleric, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, Shaykh Muhammad Yazbak, the martyr Shaykh Raghib Harb, Shaykh Afif al-Nablsi and others who are still active in the Party.
Like Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadallah, Shaykh Tufaili disconnected from the core of Hezbollah, for political, personal and religious reasons, but remains an important figure in terms of social welfare services, especially in the Bekaa Valley.
Even though Shaykh Tufaili has not been active with Hezbollah for more than 17 years he was nonetheless placed on the US terrorism list by the Bush administration on October 12, 2001, one month and a day after 9/11, during that period of frantic State and Treasury Department compilation of T-list names. One thing students learn while engaged in research in Lebanon is just how flawed US intelligence has often been here this past quarter century.
On route to Hermel, and having received a call from a Baalbek journalist about a pending lawsuit against certain media outlets regarding wild and unsubstantiated claims about Hezbollah being involved in Hashish farming, I dropped in on an extended family that I have known this past year and who are true experts on this subject. The father had just returned, after six weeks of laying low, from one of his hideouts after he was alerted that things had quieted down, pre-election, around Baalbek. Since December 2008 the Lebanese Amy and Internal Security Service have been conducting raids on suspected hashish growers.
“Where is Ali, Marwan and “Bin Laden”, I asked, not seeing three of his bodyguards I had gotten to know from previous visits.
“All in prison”, I was told. The new team was just as heavily armed, muscled and edgy. As we were served fine pastries by Sri Lankan maids, my Shia journalist friend joined us, arriving by taxi , because, as he explained, if his car tags are recorded in this particular area the army might try to arrest him for involvement in the alleged business of our host and his roughly 60,000 member extended family.
“Al Arabia TV said I have 4000 warrants against me and that is not true! There are only 40 warrants against me. I am suing them and others who claim I am mafia or a drug baron”, our host explains as the assembly laughs.
I asked our host, who grew up just two miles from where we were meeting if the Army might come and attempt another arrest that afternoon.
“No they will not come because there will be a war if they do and they know that. These men will shoot anyone who comes near this house. Our family will fight them and will revenge any spilt blood and so the authorities will avoid a clash. Don’t worry, they will not come and after the election, especially if Hezbollah wins, we will negotiate a solution to this problem. Around 30,000 people in the Bekaa Valley having warrants against them for just trying to earn a living or subsist. We cannot continue living like this.”
While we were sitting in the living room with a huge TV screen and half a dozen couches filled with heavily armed men, three women arrived with about 14 children, most of whom I met previously and we exchange hugs. One of the women, whose husband is currently in Washington DC awaiting trial for allegedly trying to import drugs to the US, asked if we were going to watch President Obama who was giving a speech in Cairo.
My friend turns on the TV and started to explain about the election and how in the Bekaa Valley there are three electoral districts: Western Bekaa-Rashaya, Mid Bekaa – Zahle and Baalbeck-Hermel. In Zahle there is Majority-Opposition competition as there is in the Western Bekaa. In Baalbeck-Hermel, there is no competition and Hezbollah will win handily. Naturally, Hezbollah is competing and pouring electoral resources only into constituencies where there is competition. Where there is no competition, like in South Lebanon and parts of South Beirut (Dahiyeh) , the Party is asking supporters to vote in huge numbers as if it is a referendum on the Lebanese National Resistance, its arms and its call for a post election unity government.
In heavily Christian, Zahle and the Western Bekaa, Rashaya and the Mid Bekaa, Hezbollah is backing the Opposition slate against the pro-US Hariri slate. The Opposition candidate slate in these areas does not include Hezbollah members.
Interestingly, since the dozen men in the room are from the Baalbek area, and ten of them are Shia (two of the hired guns are Palestinians from the nearly base of Ahmad Jibribl’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command) not one of them supports Hezbollah. “ That seems odd, Why not”? I ask.
Some of their reasons had to do will family/tribal feuds. Hezbollah arrested a couple of them for various reasons, one said. He claimed he was held 10 floors underground in Dahiyeh until his large family sent a tribal elder to Hezbollah and explained they would fight them if he was not released. He said he was out the next morning and explained how his order of loyalty was to God, family, tribe and then Lebanon.
Others complained that Hezbollah has not done enough for the people of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in terms of employment and infrastructure, that Hezbollah tends to take their support and votes for granted, and has not helped with political ‘cover’ with their agricultural business pursuits, or getting their comrades or relatives out of jail etc.
Hezbollah’s response to these oft-heard charges is that it is not them but rather the central government that is ignoring the Bekaa. They explain that during the 1960s the Bekaa residents were told that they should not expect help from the central government due to the fact that the people supported the Shia leader Imam Musa Sadr and his “movement of the dispossessed”. Then since the 1980s the residents have been told in the Bekaa that as they are loyal to Hezbollah they should look to them for infrastructure and government services and not the central government.
Hezbollah’s response in Parliament and to the residents of the Bekaa is that there are certain things and services that the central government must do that a Party or Resistance movement cannot do. Hezbollah has promised that after the election, if the National Lebanese Resistance wins, it will set up a Baalbek-Hermal Development Zone, and also an Akkar Development Zone (Muslim Sunni and Christian area near Tripoli in the North) and bring services that every Lebanon has the right to, such as water, electricity, medical care, and jobs. Government services have been absent from these areas from the days of the Ottomans and the French colonial powers, up until today’s “modern” government.
On the big TV Obama was giving his speech which was then followed by analysis. Those is the packed living room liked what the American President said about Islam, his commitment to setting up a state in Palestine, getting rid of the settlers, and his language about there being seven million Muslims in America, a mosque is every state and the necessity of combating Muslim stereotypes.
“Obama Qwess! Qwess!” (good), two or three said.
As the kids were climbing over the couches and gleefully fingering, pointing and holding some of the weapons including pistols, AK-47’s and two Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers, my rather worthless Alfee mobile phone rang.
It was Press TV from Tehran. Would I be willing to come to their Bir Hasan Studio near Shatila Camp for an on-camera interview, the caller asked. I explained there is no way that this is possible because I am in the Bekaa Valley, two hours east of Beirut plus I have appointments.
The lady with a nice voice asks if we could do a phone interview. I asked my friends if his TV gets Press TV. It does.
So as one of the kids found the right channel, and the News Headlines were read the Screen cuts in with my file photo and the kids and gunmen drop their jaws and do a double take and stare as my friend explains what is going on. How I can be with them and on TV from Iran at the same time.
It was a funny spectacle, trying to hear and respond to the questions from the interviewer from my phone with live bounce-back sound from the TV screen, in a crowded room with kids holding and playing with guns and me hoping one isn’t accidentally discharged.
We got through it with this hilarious kid-squealing and finger-pointing event with me mumbling about how Obama at least did not use the word terrorism, and was obviously trying to redirect post Bush relations between the US and the Muslim and Arab world, and that all is all it was positive etc.
My gunmen interlocutors proved the rule about the Lebanese.
Whatever their job or activity or age or confession, they are often way more astute politically than many of us.
The Bekaa Valley seems to like Obama, are hopeful that American will finally stop enabling Zionist colonialism in their part of the World, and will be a friend and ally for Lebanon.
Even Shayke SubhiTufaili appreciated the humor of what happened on the way to my dialogue with him. He like many here believes the days of Zionism are numbered and the growing global Resistance, after June 7th, will welcome dialogue with President Obama’s administration. He believes the US will be among the first in line to work with Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran to bring an end to the injustice that the Palestinian have endured for so long.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon. He can be reached at email@example.com.