On a humid July afternoon, two friends and I piled into an un-air-conditioned sedan in Beirut. We headed south to a place I call “Hezbollahland.”
We’d found an affable taxi driver, a Shiite Muslim from the south named Ali, who was excited to show us around his home turf. As we entered his car he reminded us not to speak English where we were going and in fact to avoid speaking with anyone. He was glad to hear I had Iranian roots and reminded me that Hezbollah “likes” Iran. (My friends didn’t get the same approval. One was half-Lebanese, which won a few points, and the other was a pure Anglo-American.)
Ali insisted he knew all the back roads, so we didn’t need permits for the Hezbollah checkpoints. Since we hadn’t bothered to get permits, not wanting to deal with the bureaucracy, we were pretty much at Ali’s disposal here. We nodded enthusiastically, then spent the next three hours driving south, slightly terrified: We all had American passports, and Hezbollah often takes hostages.
Hezbollah (“Party of God”) was formed in the mid-’80s to expel Israeli troops, as well as all other non-Islamic interests, from Lebanon. Israel had invaded in 1982 during the Lebanese civil war to banish the PLO, and in 1983 it set up a “security zone” ranging nine miles over the border. To drive Israel out, Hezbollah members engaged in suicide bombings, and many credit the organization with the attack on the U.S. Marine garrison in Lebanon that killed more than 200 soldiers. After Israel withdrew from the security zone in May 2000, Hezbollah, which has received funding and guidance from Iran and Syria, solidified its gains in southern Lebanon. These days, it holds seats in the legislature and continues to advocate an end to the Israeli state.
The territory unofficially under Hezbollah control starts an hour south of Beirut. It’s a world apart from the flashy capital city, where billboards depict half-naked women. The shabby roads here are lined with giant posters of Hezbollah martyrs and turbaned men toting Kalashnikovs. Along our route we stopped a few times to sightsee at the Qana Memorial, where an Israeli bombardment killed more than 100 civilians at a U.N. shelter in 1996, and Fatimah Gate, the border crossing where Edward Said famously threw rocks from Lebanon into Israel. Finally, we reached the site Ali had assured us he was saving for last—the Hezbollah Museum, formerly known as the notorious Khiam prison.
The South Lebanese Army, Israel’s proxy, ran Khiam. Israel claims to have had no authority over the prison, a former French outpost, which opened in 1985. The prison held people without charges or trials—some for as long as 10 years—and among its prisoners were Hezbollah guerrilla fighters and their relatives and people who refused to cooperate with the SLA and their relatives. On May 23, 2000, when Israel withdrew, 145 inmates were liberated from Khiam and the complex was turned into a museum.
At Khiam’s entrance, two young guys sat and eyed everyone who entered. Ali had apparently been here several times, so he hung back, but he reminded us once again to avoid speaking English. It was a strange request in some ways because Hezbollah had transformed the compound into a tourist attraction, with everything labeled in English and Arabic.
We moved through the prison’s six buildings, all spread out over single floors, and peeked inside its 200 cells. Rooms had been left as they were, many still with clothing in them. We saw decomposing, urine-drenched bathrooms; solitary-confinement spaces the size of a nightstand; rooms described as torture chambers in which electrical wiring hung from the walls; and an area labeled “A Room For the Boss of Whippers.” The International Red Cross did not start monitoring here until 1995. In several cells we saw graffiti, mostly curses against Israel. “Faq you, Israel,” read one, with a drawing of a middle finger and the Star of David. About 100 other tourists joined us in walking the prison grounds—mostly Middle Eastern, but some Europeans mixed in.
The maze of passageways eventually led to an outdoor space with two massive murals. The first was an enormous Israeli flag with a Katyusha rocket-launcher exploding through the Star of David. Beneath the flag, written in Arabic: “Israel will be annihilated.” The second mural showed a dove flying through a jail cell window, with a message that read, “And with God’s help, victory will be ours.” An old Israeli Jeep in the courtyard was draped with Hezbollah flags.
After 45 minutes or so we finished our tour, grabbed lunch at the busy Khiam cafe, and headed for the Hezbollah gift shop—a must for any visitor. It was a long, narrow room, stocked with two wide aisles of Hezbollah keepsakes. They had yellow Hezbollah flags in every size and Hezbollah clothing—T-shirts, sweatshirts, baseball caps. Along one wall were display cases of various stickers, posters, lapel pins, and key chains, and pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader Musa al-Sadr, and the current Hezbollah secretary-general, Nasrallah. A few photos even caught these men cutting loose with smiles. A table near the back of the room featured video tapes of successful Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops.
The children’s section (yikes!) featured coloring and comic books, one of which I had to bring home. The back cover illustrated a little boy running with flowers in his hand, birds and butterflies in the background, his foot is about to detonate a landmine decorated with the Star of David. Inside was a child’s poem about Al-Quds (Jerusalem) with an illustration, as if drawn by a child, that depicted a little boy throwing a rock at a soldier who is wearing a helmet emblazoned with the Star of David. The soldier has a large, bandaged hook-nose, and he’s wincing in fear.
I had been in Jerusalem before coming to Lebanon, so as I approached the bearded man behind the cash register to pay for my souvenirs I accidentally blurted out, “Kamo zeh oleh” in Hebrew. I froze as the man scrunched his eyebrows together and said, “Shoo???!”—a rude form of “What?” in Arabic. I recovered, and in a louder voice asked in Arabic how much I owed, marveling at how the Islamic movement had grown so far that it had to finally merge with capitalism. I put my money on the table, making a reluctant contribution to Hezbollah.
My friend grabbed my arm and pulled me from the counter, making me promise not to open my mouth until our Hezbollah holiday was over.