My first visit to the south of Lebanon after 2006 was a rather brief one. I was joined in the bus with an energetic American activist from New York who explained to me the many initiatives she tried to take during the July war of 2006 to let it be known to the public in New York that Hizbullah was not a terrorist organization. She’d arrange sit-ins in Central Park, she’d join counter-demonstrations in front of those that supported Israel. She’d wear yellow T-Shirts and shout at Israel supporters on the other side: “Hizbullah are not terrorists! They’re FREEDOM FIGHTERS!” and get shoved from one place to the other by the police.
Needless to say, she didn’t really have a place she could call home, quite literally. She’d be moving from one place to another, hardly identifying her real self on the internet, and all the while she’d be moving around with her “Hizbullah tapes;” those nationalistic songs that sing glory to Lebanese soil and hail the resistance, which she had gotten from an earlier trip to Lebanon. When her sister would visit her with her 3 year-old daughter she’d play the tapes so loudly, hold her niece’s two hands, and dance from one song to the next.
When I first met her at the conference hall she grabbed my arm and spoke carefully to me, “I so wish I could meet a Hizbullah person. If only I could salute them and tell them that American policy does not represent us! That I understand the truth of what’s going on here and I’m with them all the way, and that I’m not the only one! There are so many people like me!”
I didn’t quite know how to break the news for her, but I just had to see her face when I said it. “You mean you’re not aware that we’re surrounded by them?? Look around you! All those handsome men in suits are from Hizbullah!”
“How do you know that?”
“They’re among the organizers, remember? Be careful though, not all of them would want to be officially identified that way.”
“God! They’re so cool! Could they be fighters?”
“I wouldn’t know about that. But I don’t think so. Hey! Maybe we will get to meet a fighter if we go to the south. I wish I could meet one myself!”
I knew I was dreaming. It was often said that Hizbullah fighters don’t really announce themselves to the public. They stay anonymous most of their lives. They could be the waiter that delivers your drink, the taxi driver that takes you to the airport, or even that teacher, doctor, engineer that impressed you in a meeting. There’s no telling who takes up that rifle and shoots at Israeli soldiers.
So on that day we boarded the bus to the south the excitement that filled us was almost embarrassing. We were after all heading towards a war-stricken place. The entire south was still grieving. But to me, that sense of triumph the very look of the rocky mountains gave away called more for celebration. The south had suddenly gotten even more beautiful than it had ever been.
We arrived in one of the border towns very late at night we hardly could see much beyond the immediate scenes of rubble that covered almost everywhere we went. The bus driver had stopped to ask for directions and a strong looking young man hopped in to show him directions. Seeing that most of the passengers were non-Arab, he called out with a beaming smile, “Welcome to my country!”
When we came down from the bus he volunteered to explain what had happened exactly on the spot where we were standing. He began to explain what the bombing was like and how he used to avoid it with his friends. Then suddenly it came out: “I was with them. My brother was with the resistance and he was killed right in front of me.”
I don’t really classify myself as a witty person who immediately reads between the lines, but only judging by the rough, cracked skin on his hands, the sharp look on his eyes, and with some simple deduction, I knew he was a fighter. I ran to find my American friend and took her immediately to meet him. “Here’s your fighter!”
Being the cheerful person that she was, she couldn’t hide her excitement. “Could you please translate what I have to say to him?” she asked, “I don’t know if he is aware that there are so many Americans back home who think that he and his friends are heroes!”
We walked back to him and there was an encounter I never thought I’d see, let alone have to translate. What brings an American young woman all the way to the south of Lebanon to speak heart to heart to a southern Lebanese that fights with Hizbullah? It’s amazing how much empowerment people can inspire just by crossing each other’s paths.
She began by apologizing. “I’m sorry for what our government did to you. Tell me what I can do that would make it up!” He smiled at her and quickly moved his eyes away. He pointed at the rubble around us. There wasn’t a single erect building where we were standing. “I want you to look at this destruction and go back to your country and tell the people what you saw here,” he said. “Tell them the truth about Condoleezza Rice’s ‘new Middle East.’ This is her New Middle East!”
He explained to us that his mother stayed in the village and did not flee with others when the war erupted. “She stayed home and cooked for us. My 8 year-old brother used to deliver the food. Today he wants to grow up to be a fighter too and to die just like his brother; a martyr.”
He took out his mobile phone and showed us a picture of a beautiful little girl. “This was my niece,” he said. “She was killed in her home in an air strike. This is Rice’s New Middle East.”
Her eyes filled with tears and she suddenly said to me, “I wish I could give him a hug!” That was a potential climax!
“He wouldn’t even shake hands with a woman and you want to hug him??”
“I know… I know…”