My grandmother loves Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah. She is confident that he will lead the Shia in Lebanon to a better life, with dignity and pride. She believes every word he says and even cries during his speeches. Undoubtedly, he is her only hope. Decades of war and a lifetime absorbing collective memories of oppression and injustice have made my grandmother and many other Shia in Lebanon prefer a world without shades of gray.
For my grandmother, there is no real difference between a Jew and an Israeli. There are no distinctions to be drawn among the Israelis themselves. “They all despise us, and all they want is to see us powerless and defenseless,” she has told me since I was 6 years old.
My grandmother does not like questions and arguments that would challenge her comforting bubble of stereotypes. It is very simple for her: Jews are evil; Hezbollah is good. Black-and-white reasoning is the easiest way to live in the south of Lebanon, under constant threat of another war between Hezbollah and Israel. Either you question Hezbollah and its divine power, and thus face fears of what another war could bring, or you believe blindly in the “wisdom and power of the Party of God.”
All her life my grandmother struggled to raise her seven children and create a home for herself and her family—a home that is at risk of being demolished each time a military conflict erupts. Yet she cannot tolerate arguments related to Hezbollah and its credibility. “Hezbollah is defending our land. They know what they are doing,” she tells me with the confidence of an elder who knows better. “The Iranians are helping us and we can only thank them for their support.”
She believes strongly in wilayat al-faqih, the doctrine that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran embodies the will of God. You cannot doubt the sacred.
And yet despite invocations of the sacred and the ancient, the mood that prevails among the Shia in Lebanon today is new, formed by the Israeli withdrawal of 2000—what is known as the “liberation of the South”—and the war with Israel of 2006, known as the “divine victory.” These two events gave my grandmother and many other Shia a strong sense of identity that shields their inner fears of war, destruction, and death.
“Hezbollah made us proud when they liberated the South in 2000 and then defeated the Israeli army in 2006,” Walid, a cell-phone shop owner in my village told me. “And be assured, the Sayyed”—an honorific referring to Nasrallah—“made it very clear to the Israelis that they can never instigate another war on Lebanon.”
I love my grandmother. But every time I go to the South, a sense of sadness fills me. It is not the South that I know. It is not the South where I lived as a child. Slogans of death and martyrdom fill the streets, and people stopped laughing long ago.
Black is everywhere. More women are draped in abayas, and segregation between the sexes is almost a rule in public ceremonies. Colors have faded inside houses, where pictures of Khomeini and Nasrallah prevail. If you’re not religious, you’d better hide it; otherwise, you will not be regarded as a decent person. People drink in private, dance in private, and scorn Hezbollah in private.
My village is not small. It is a coastal town near Saida, a port city about 25 miles south of Beirut. The village’s population is close to 50,000, but the heavy weight of war and Hezbollah’s arms keep personal plans on hold. Hezbollah controls the only public spaces for young people or families to meet. People tend to stay indoors, leaving the streets bereft of life.
I left the village at the beginning of the 1990s to pursue my undergraduate studies in Beirut. I was fleeing to a new life. Two wars with Israel have happened since I left, and with each one, I felt more distant from my people and my family, not for lack of love. The increased infatuation with Hezbollah, the repeated justification of its violence, pushed me away. I feel that I am open to other opinions, but it is difficult to communicate with people who have been imprisoned, who have imprisoned themselves. The rhetoric and reasoning of the Party of God have turned them into different people.
How fast can people and their individual and collective memories change? The question fascinates me. In 1982, during the Israeli invasion of the South, I was 8 years old. I remember one scene from the beginning of the invasion vividly. I was on my grandmother’s balcony with all my aunts and uncles, watching the Israeli tanks force themselves through the narrow streets of my village. All the neighbors’ balconies were full of people throwing rose petals and rice at the Israeli tanks.
I remember my mother telling me that people were happy because the Israelis were helping us remove the Palestinians. It was not that people no longer believed in the right to resist or the validity of the Palestinian cause. It was that the Palestinians failed to integrate into the Shia community. After the Israelis, too, began to overstay their welcome, Hezbollah convinced the Shia that resistance was essential to their political and social empowerment. That is why the 2006 war was endurable. My village was bombed, and many people died. But destruction and death are endurable if they are perceived to be necessary costs of achieving a common cause.
The people of my village say they are not afraid anymore. “Because Israel will never dare to start another war with Hezbollah after its defeat in 2006,” my grandmother, uncle, and cousin attest. All three generations live in denial of the defeat that we, as Lebanese, as people of the South, suffered.
Who lost more lives? Whose houses and infrastructure were destroyed? The facts don’t lie. Yet they refuse to see the reality, because Hezbollah has convinced them over the past two decades that “dignity is above all.” Slogans of dignity and honor flood their everyday lives through Hezbollah’s media channels, Nasrallah’s speeches, and street slogans.
But who can blame them? Without the conviction that they won, the pain of loss and the fear of more agony would be too much to bear.
Yet the rhetoric of fearlessness, so often heard in the South, vanishes the moment a security incident happens. A single rocket launched toward Israel could cause a traffic jam of people trying to flee from the South to Beirut. “We cannot tolerate another war,” Rasha, my childhood neighbor said. “Look around you. We haven’t finished reconstructing our houses yet. But what we think does not count.”
Hezbollah’s “divine victory” in the summer of 2006 provided a sense of closure to the years of grief the people of my village suffered; but Hezbollah cannot afford another “divine victory.” “I feel that because of the resistance, we are risking our land, houses, and lives,” Rasha tells me, adding that she doesn’t express her feelings out loud.
My grandmother loves Hezbollah, but she also loves peace. She hates Israel, but she also hates war, death, and destruction. The collective dignity of the community makes her proud. She knows that it is not enough to be proud, because she had to suffer the humiliation of fleeing under bombs in 2006. However, the closure of the “divine victory,” mixed with dignity and pride, offer her a way to go on living a life in which she feels comfortable and, in a strange way, secure.