The Hezbollah War Museum

One year after the Lebanese war, Hassan Nasrallah leads the cheering.

Celebrations in Lebanon. Click image to expand.
Hezbollah supporters 

AL-DAHIYEH, Beirut—On a dry, flat playing field in Beirut’s sprawling southern suburbs, tens of thousands of Lebanese assembled Tuesday night awaiting a figure of some celebrity. Just after 9 p.m., four gigantic plasma screens flashed the image of Sheik Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s opposition Hezbollah movement and, that night, the master of ceremonies in a commemoration of the first anniversary of the end of last summer’s grueling 34-day war with Israel. Despite Nasrallah’s spectral presence (his physical whereabouts remain secret), the air was unabashedly festive, even jubilant.

“Brothers and sisters of Lebanon,” Nasrallah intoned, “the 14th of August this year falls on the first anniversary of the divine victory, the divine empowerment, and the divine promise to empower the oppressed.” Some women in the crowd fashioned veils from Hezbollah’s trademark yellow scarves. Others bore the movement’s logo (a raised arm clutching a Kalashnikov) on their T-shirts or, occasionally, tube tops.

Nasrallah, characteristically charismatic and beaming, called upon the Lebanese people to remain strong “as the Zionists and Americans are beating the drums of war.” He lambasted attempts to brand Hezbollah’s mission as sectarian (“this is a victory for all of Lebanon”), praised the resistance, and warned against the foolhardiness of an attack on their forces, cautioning that any aggression would be returned with a “colossal surprise likely to change the fate of the war and the region.” This last gesture inspired swells of applause. The memory of last summer’s war is strong in this neighborhood, which makes up Hezbollah’s principal support base in and around Beirut.

In mid-July of 2006, Israeli planes dropped flyers from the sky, warning residents that carpet bombs would soon follow. Dozens of buildings, including Hezbollah’s security headquarters and the building housing Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, were severely damaged or completely leveled, sending most of al-Dahiyeh’s inhabitants scrambling to central Beirut or farther north as refugees. On this evening of festivities, the high-rises around the field—some of which also bear the pockmarklike scars of the 1975-90 civil war—were crowded with families peering out from their balconies.

“Hezbollah has shown the world that we can stand up to the strongest militaries in the world,” said Mahmoud, the young man standing next to me. Last summer, his family’s living room was sheered off by an Israeli bomb. Only one week after the cease-fire, he walked to the nearby Al Qaem mosque, where Hezbollah handed him $12,000 toward the reconstruction of his home. The group’s reconstruction wing, Jihad al-Binna, swiftly tended to the repairs. As we spoke, my eye caught his lapel, which held a pin bearing a tiny image of Ayatollah Khomeini, the late architect of Iran’s Islamic state. Khomeini was crucial to Hezbollah’s evolution in the mid-1980s from a ragtag Shiite militia to a formidable military and political force. Iran is not only Hezbollah’s principal inspiration, it is also almost certainly bankrolling at least part of the organization’s massive postwar reconstruction efforts. Only days before, a ceremony had been held to commemorate the opening of a new pedestrian bridge in al-Dahiyeh, courtesy of the Iranian state (it was not unlike the unsightly concrete ones that hang over Tehran’s wider boulevards). “In a world that does not understand us, the Iranians are our brothers,” Mahmoud told me.

Just across from where we stood, families, young men, couples, and balloon-toting children were circling an enormous rectangular placard advertising Beit el Ankaboot, or the “House of the Spider.” Its name a reference to the state of Israel (“this enemy is weaker than a spider’s web,” Nasrallah declared), the House of the Spider is a makeshift, temporary museum erected on a grassy knoll in al-Dahiyeh, curated by Hezbollah’s Media Activities Unit. On the evening of the anniversary celebration, its grounds were brimming with people.

Camouflage cloth, movie-set rocks, and cacti were clumsily strewn about to suggest desert combat. A captured Israeli tank greeted visitors, along with a life-size re-creation of a Hezbollah bunker. Inside were two less-than-convincing mannequin soldiers, one seated before a shiny PC and the other reclining, clutching a pocket Quran. A radio sputtered reports from the front. The subtext was clear: Hezbollah is both pious and technologically savvy, traditional and modern.

Farther along hung unsmiling—indeed unflattering—portraits of protagonists from the summer’s war. Condoleezza Rice gazed out, her now famously blundering words, “This war is part of the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” written below in English and Arabic. Also on display were portraits of Israel’s wartime Defense Minister Amir Peretz (menacing), former U.S. Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld (bumbling), and President George W. Bush (inexplicably holding a turkey). Helmets, bloodied boots, and weaponry looted from the enemy were artlessly housed in glass cases mounted under the floor. “The resistance will stamp out the enemy,” my guide admonished. Photographs of bandaged children injured during the fighting hung on one wall, alongside artillery shells and a lone teddy bear. Painfully intricate posters stuffed with data about the Israeli and Hezbollah arsenals adorned all the walls.

Toward the end of the labyrinthine exhibition was a black tent marked “audio-visual room.” Inside, accompanied by an overwrought symphonic score and puffs of disco smoke, plays a 10-minute film of the battlefield experience, cutting to images of worried-looking Israeli generals, and climaxing with Nasrallah standing before a crowd, fists pumping. As visitors exited the space, small video screens flashed martyrs’ testimonials, a gleaming plastic box called out for donations, and a mannequin of a peg-legged boy stood alone, looking out at the rubble-strewn landscape.

In some ways, the House of the Spider evokes the various martyrs’ museums of Iran, with their emphasis on the cult of sacrifice and their use of wax figures, or the 1973 war memorial in Cairo, with its collection of captured Israeli tanks and histrionic acoustics. But Beit el Ankaboot is also a place for socializing and most poignantly for expanding Hezbollah’s popular appeal. The message is clear: We are victorious. No enemy is too great for us. Join the divine cause.

In the mind-numbingly byzantine game that is Lebanese politics, the House of the Spider may simply represent one faction’s heavy-handed attempt to fashion its own version of history—particularly as the tensions born of impending presidential elections, due in late September, threaten to bubble over. But it is also testament to the success with which the Party of God has managed to weave itself into the fabric of Lebanese life.

As Nasrallah’s speech came to a close, biker boys with gelled hair did wheelies in the street, crowds cheered, and children shot budget fireworks into the sky. Making my way through the crowd, a car swerved in front of me, nearly taking out my companion. It was a BMW, from which two scantily clad ladies lifted their arms in an iconic “V” for victory. I thought of a quote by Nasrallah I had seen in the exhibition: “The flame won’t be put out.” I realized that, for the time being, he was probably right.