Tour de Force
by Annia Ciezadlo
Post date: 08.24.06
Issue date: 09.04.06
Who says Lebanon's tourism industry is dead? Come to Beirut these days and you can take a guided tour of Hell, with Hezbollah as your escort. Every day, the Party of God welcomes visitors to Haret Hreik, in the heart of the city's mostly Shia southern suburbs. Once home to Hezbollah's headquarters and Beirut's most densely populated neighborhood, Haret Hreik is now a smoking swath of wreckage. For the thousands of families who used to live here, the devastation is almost unimaginable. But, for Hezbollah, the ruins of this once-bustling neighborhood have become a tourist attraction--and an invaluable propaganda tool.
Hezbollah began offering tours of Haret Hreik during the war, assembling every morning at eleven o'clock. I went on the first of these excursions on July 20, along with the bulk of the international press corps--about 100 correspondents, from well-known TV anchors to grubby freelancers. Longtime Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Naboulsi showed up with his entourage and delivered a running patter of outrage. "On a daily basis, they come here and turn buildings into rubble, as you see," he shouted, in his frantic, high-pitched voice. "This is where we live! If the Israelis dare to confront us face to face, let them do it on the border, not come with jet fighters from high above in the sky, and just hit civilian targets!" He strode off into the wreckage, still shouting, and we scrambled to keep up.
Every once in a while, as we marched through the rubble, a man (never a woman) would pop out of a destroyed building to shout with carefully rehearsed rage. All of these appearances were orchestrated by Hezbollah for our benefit. Al Arabiya, a Saudi-funded satellite channel that many Lebanese view as U.S.-backed propaganda, even merited its own personal heckler. "Where is Al Arabiya?" demanded a short, angry man, flailing his arms in the middle of the street. "I have something to tell them." When a microphone with the station's logo appeared in front of him, he shouted, "The Saudis want this to happen! These missiles were made in USA, made in Saudi Arabia, made in Jordan, made in Egypt!"
A telling omission from this litany of oppressors was the country that had actually fired the missiles: Israel. (The Saudis don't make missiles, after all.) You can always rely on Hezbollah leaders for anti-Israel rhetoric. But, ever since the war ended, they've been less fixated than usual on their neighbor to the south. Instead, they're cultivating hatred for a larger, more world-historic enemy: the United States. By focusing on the Great Satan, Hezbollah can avoid the delicate subject of who, exactly, started this particular war--and promote itself instead as a defender of the Muslim world against U.S. aggression and the West generally.
Today, the sea of mangled concrete that was once Haret Hreik is a surreal fairground, complete with souvenir stands and parades. Backhoes and cranes are busily clearing the roads, dumping detritus onto the mountains of rubble that mark where buildings used to be. Hezbollah has adorned most of these mounds with giant, red-and-white banners bearing English-language slogans like NEW MIDDLE BEAST, THE DIVINE VICTORY, and MADE IN USA (below which, in smaller letters, it says TRADEMARK). Of the hundreds of signs in the shattered neighborhood, only a few mention Israel.
Now that the war is over, Haret Hreik is a popular day trip. If Hezbollah's wartime press tours were all about obtaining sympathy from the outside world, the current carnival is about stoking domestic outrage. As the United States wades back into Lebanon, promising $230 million in aid, Hezbollah offers Haret Hreik up as a graphic reminder of how the United States helped destroy their country--and of how Hezbollah is rebuilding it. Hundreds of Lebanese walk through the rubble, some with cameras and video recorders, many of them families with kids. Most have come to inspect the ruins of their homes and businesses. Others, including a few Christian families, are simply here to sightsee.
The main attraction is the headquarters of Al Manar, Hezbollah's satellite TV station. To get to it, you pass through a little tent Hezbollah has set up, with flyers directing people to eight registration centers where the party will reimburse them for their lost homes and possessions. There's even a bouquet of flowers on a little table. Outside the tent, dozens of sightseers--all Lebanese, many wearing dust masks--press up against a metal railing, pointing and taking pictures. The mood is weirdly festive, with some people holding up their children and others snapping photos with the latest cell phones. Between the souvenir stands, the dust masks, the earth-moving equipment, and the solemn air of commemoration, it's a bit like Ground Zero in the year after September 11. The smell is the same, too: chalky and toxic, utterly inescapable. It's the smell of the insides of things--pulverized concrete, plaster, asbestos, burnt plastic, cordite, and acrid chemicals. A few veiled women hold headscarves over their mouths to keep out the dust.
The spot where Al Manar used to be is a mountain of charred cement, topped with the remains of people's lives: children's books, pillows, pieces of chairs, an ancient manual typewriter. The apartment buildings from which all this flotsam fell loom above the rubble, ringing the site of the station. Some were destroyed, but others only had their outer walls sheared away so that you can see into the individual apartments: In one, a TV set totters on the edge of the void, its back facing what used to be a wall; in another, an old lady fills a plastic can with oil.
Jutting rakishly from the wreckage, a billboard-sized banner touts the staying power of Hezbollah's radio station--which, like Al Manar, never went off the air despite numerous Israeli bombings of its offices and transmitters. AL NOUR RADIO, it proclaims, A VOICE STRONGER THAN THE AGGRESSOR. "We've been broadcasting live from here all day, from ten in the morning until three," says Ahmed Naeem, the Hezbollah functionary in charge, with pride. "We had everyone! NGOs, ambassadors, even the Turkish foreign minister." According to Naeem, Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister, said the damage was worse than that from the Turkish earthquake of 1999.
"We prepared for this," explains Naeem. "We never kept a lot of people in the main building, even before the soldiers were kidnapped. We were always prepared for attack without provocation. We have a couple of different studios, and we evacuated all of them."
A handful of middle-age men in spotless suits clamber up the mountain: It's the Beirut Chamber of Commerce, coming for a photo-op. Two days later, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora would visit the bomb site as well. Standing in the ruins, flanked by Shia politicians, he denounced Israel's "barbaric acts against Lebanon." As usual, Siniora was in a tight political spot: As a member of the U.S.-backed Future bloc in parliament, he couldn't very well criticize the United States.
Curious to see where all the colorful bunting comes from, I go in search of Hezbollah's graphics unit. I find the army of artists relaxing under a tent, sitting in plastic chairs, while a team of young men pass out posters. These are the guys in charge of the banners and signs that hang everywhere. They've also designed the bright-red trucker hats that many Hezbollah employees are wearing. In Arabic script, the hats declare: NASR MIN ALLAH--literally, "Victory from God," but also a play on the name of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. They've been cranking out the Hezbollabilia the whole time, even while the bombs were falling, preparing for their divine victory ever since the war began.
"The slogans--we've been getting them from the war itself," says Ghassan Darwish, one of the graphic designers. "They're the slogans that the Americans and Israelis are using." In his hands, for example, Condoleezza Rice's "New Middle East" becomes the NEW MIDDLE BEAST, with the word BEAST splattered across the poster like blood. I ask Darwish why so many of the signs are in English. "It's normal for them to be in several different languages, because there are foreign journalists here, asking questions," he replies.
I ask him how people are reacting to the giant signs. "People knew during the war that these were American bombs falling on us, in Israeli hands," he says. "People were receptive to it--especially MADE IN USA."
Copyright 2006 The New Republic