Discovering the South of Lebanon Post-War
I’ve known Bilal Sharara since 2003 and he is not only a good friend but also a mentor. He is the Secretary General of the Lebanese Parliament and a reputable member of Amal's politburo.
There are some issues that we may not see eye to eye on, but I learned that it is always wise to be open to different views. For the people around him it is impossible not to notice that Bilal Sharara deeply cares about Bint Jbeil, that he not only has a sharp mind but also a good heart, that he is a popular figure in the South and in the high circles of Beirut. Despite all the above, he is a modest man. After touring villages in southern Lebanon with Dennis Kucinich and his entourage I was invited to spend a few days in Bint Jbeil at Sharara's family residence. I wholeheartedly accepted the invitation, looking forward to seeing again the beautiful family of Bilal Sharara.
Bint Jbeil is known as Hizbollah's stronghold. It is only a few kilometers from the Israeli border and thus it comes as no surprise that it is of strategic importance to the party. When I went to the outskirts of Bint Jbeil I received a welcoming message on my mobile phone from the Israeli company Cellcom. It is that close.
When I think of the South I first think of Hizbollah and its many members and supporters. But there are also Christians and Christian villages there. Regardless of their sect, the people of Southern Lebanon share a similar life. But there is more to the South than Hizbollah and its many billboards. This is merely the obvious but people should focus on getting the story behind the story.
I am not a morning person but in my second day in Bint Jbeil I was up at 6am. Knowing that Bilal is a very busy person, I thought it wise to be up and ready just in case he had plans for the day - which in fact he did.
During tea and breakfast on the terrace we discussed the fact that Qatar adopted a few southern villages. When looking at Qatar's foreign policy and actions in the region in the past 2-3 years it is easy to observe a more active Qatar. In Lebanon it has troops under UNIFIL’s umbrella and it promised to rebuild four villages (Bint Jbeil, Aita al-haab, Khiam, Ainata) and compensate the people who lost their properties or whose homes were heavily damaged. The problem is that the Qatar delayed the payments. They offered payments in 3 installments. So far they have paid only one. People wonder why Qatar is acting in slow motion and consequently how many years they will have to wait till starting and/or finishing rebuilding their homes. Since Qatar adopted Bint Jbeil, the Lebanese government is exempt from covering the reconstruction. If this is a plus for Qatar it is also a minus for the government.
Besides Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (among others) offered help either by adopting a village or villages or by rebuilding bridges, hospitals, schools etc. All in all, the Lebanese government appears to continue to be absent from Bint Jbeil and the South in general.
The center of the village has been completely destroyed. Some of the houses were 200 – 300 years old. Someone said the "Israelis wanted to destroy our past and legacy." After seeing the magnitude of the destruction, it is difficult to argue otherwise. Lives were lost, houses, schools and infrastructure damaged. It won't be easy for Southern Lebanon to recover. On a people level, will they forgive and forget? I very much doubt it. On the other hand it is true that in the Middle East nothing stays the same forever. Alliances and enemies change. But there is something that might not change and that is the love - the attachment Arabs have for their land. It is a symbol of one's past, family roots, present and future. In the West we have a different emotional and pragmatic approach towards land, but here it seems that it is worth dying for a piece of land. It is like man and land become inseparable.
At some point I entered into a conversation that to no surprise turned into a debate with an intelligent yet inflexible young man about religion, Israel, Jews, Christians and Israelis. I have often heard people in Lebanon - especially in the South – make a difference between Israelis and Jews. Yes we have a problem with Israelis but we don't have a problem with Jews. I call it pure semantics. Rockets and bullets do not distinguish between Jews and Israelis. Either you have a problem with Israel as an entity and thus with all of its people, or you don't. Needless to say, what started out as a friendly and open talk led to two people revealing diametrically opposed views that ended in a very cold tone. I felt bad but one has to tell the truth no matter what the context. I was astonished at that moment as I realized just how easy it is to lose a friend and gain a potential enemy when stepping out of reason and entering into a faith realm. We lose perspective of the fact that no matter what we believe in, whether it is Jesus, Prophet Mohammad or Mahdi we all need to live side by side if we want to have a future. This is not a case of my way or your way. It has to be a compromise so that we arrive at our way. The alternative is mutual annihilation is not a viable alternative.
I had the chance again albeit briefly to see Father Choufani in Rmeich. He is always eager to receive guests. Bilal and the other people who were with me were courteous enough to let me speak in private with Father Choufani. The last time we met, our conversation was carried out mostly in English with a mix of Italian and Spanish on my side and a little Italian on his side. Father Choufani is a man of peace. During the July war he said that the Christians of the South as well as those from Beirut and Mount Lebanon helped their fellow citizens who happened to be Muslims.
Then we moved to one of the UNCHR offices where the Assistant High Commissioner, Erika Feller and her staff were there to find out the needs of the people of Bint Jbeil, how the war affected their lives and what the UN can do for them. Bilal Sharara told Ms. Feller about the problems the village has with infrastructure, electricity, sewer and water utilities. Not all of these problems are because of the war, but the war did worsen these decades-old problems.
In the afternoon, I was invited to attend a cultural event that evening in the village. I actually intended to return to Beirut but I am glad I decided to stay for one more day. Around 9pm I was asked to get ready to go to the center. Truth be told, by that time of day I thought there would be no event. The center is in a building with a simple architecture similar to what I see in Romanian small towns. There were many cars parked there; people were talking and laughing loudly outside and there were also a few army men present who had a post nearby. Inside there were 30 - 40 people, mostly men but I counted nine women, me included. I sat down in the back of the hall where I saw a few unoccupied chairs. I listened carefully to the men (mind you it is an event open for women, too) who took the microphone. From their voice inflexions I understood it is poetry and knowing something about the affectionate side of the Arabs it was clearly a poetry night. Here and there I picked up a few words and names. When Lebanon was mentioned people started to clap, the same when Hassan Nasrallah’s name was mentioned. From the reaction of the people in the audience, one of the men seemed to have been quite talented because they kept asking him to say more. After an hour and a half the town meeting was over and I heard my name and Bucharest in the same sentence so I figured out that my host is presenting me. Everyone turned to the back of the hall and my face turned into various nuances of red. Let's just say that I am not a person who enjoys the spotlights. After one odd minute people headed to take coffee, water and sweets. One of them came to say hello and to shake my hand. With my three (slightly more) sentences in the Arabic language, I was able to mumble something polite. Organizing weekly these types of events is Bilal Sharara's idea. When I asked why the effort he simply said that the people of the South need a break from their tough life and these events do help. Similar events take place in the nearby villages as well. There, it does not matter if you are rich or not or who you support politically. It may look as less significant from Beirut but in fact it is an exceptional way of motivating people, bringing them together and promoting culture.
When I went to what was the center of the village the next day, I had mixed feelings. Did Hizbollah use this very populated area and is this why it was destroyed? Is it true what the villagers say - that Israel destroyed it because it wanted to and not because the fighters were there? Who is lying and why? Everywhere people spoke with admiration of Hizbollah's brave fighters referred to as the “ghosts” (because no one knows who they are and where they are).
It is one thing to tour the South, stay there for a few days, sip tea and eat labne, tabbouleh and other tasty local dishes and a very different reality to live there and feel that you are a victim of the system and of your neighbor. The truth should be told of both neighbors. Is it politics, group interest, foreign interest, government lack of interest or a victim type of mentality that has its roots in Karbala? Most likely, it is all of the above and more. But when one is told that the Koran says that the vicious Jews will take Palestine but in the end they will be completely defeated, how should one respond? Clearly when one mixes faith with politics it’s like entering a minefield. In many circumstances religion is used as a tool to maneuver the masses, but there is more to it and we should not be fooled into thinking that religiousness is yesterday’s news.
Talking with the people and observing their lifestyle offered me incredible insight into what it is like to be Southern Lebanese and helps me to understand the reasons why Hizbollah and Amal are so popular there. Until more people see Lebanon as one state for one people with one army and the same set of interests and then act accordingly on the ground, the pictures of the martyrs and the flags of the resistance(s) will continue to fly high.