BEIRUT, Lebanon—For anyone hoping that the Middle East is moving in a democratic direction, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon this week comes as a blow.
I was one of those people. I arrived here last month to write about how young Lebanese are using the Internet and social media to push for social change. And I found what I was looking for: impressive bloggers, tweeters, and Web activists who utilize Facebook to organize protests against the destruction of historic buildings in Beirut and push for laws to protect domestic workers from abuse and exploitation. I took to heart Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech about Internet freedom, in which she said: “Now, in many respects, information has never been so free. There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.” I came to Lebanon searching for the seeds of democracy, tolerance, and openness that I believe the Internet can help plant, and I wasn’t disappointed.
But standing on the airport road Wednesday morning, watching the crowd of thousands shower Ahmadinejad with rose petals and rice as he waved from his black SUV, the uphill battle that activists and democracy-dreamers face here seemed formidable. Young children shook Iranian and Lebanese flags energetically, while over the loudspeaker a voice urged onlookers to welcome Ahmadinejad and warned about the Great Satan that is America. “Welcome, people of the resistance,” the voice said, as old women ululated. One tiny baby had her fingernails painted green—the color of Islam. Many held up their fingers in what to my naive eye looked like a peace sign but turned out to be a V for victory. Victory against Israel, that is. Iran backs the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, which went to war with Israel in 2006.
For Ahmadinejad, Lebanon is a symbol of resistance in the region. So he must have been pleased by the street scene: hundreds of camera phones snapping as families captured their loved ones holding posters of Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Some in the crowd were there to support Ahmadinejad, while others turned up out of idle curiosity. One group of young men took photos of each other, turning their posters into turbans and waving their Iranian flags vigorously. “This one is going on Facebook,” one guy beamed.
Hassan, a barber, wanted to show his appreciation for Iran’s help. “I just came today to say welcome to our home,” he said. “Iran helped to rebuild Lebanon, and most of all, they helped in building a strong resistance, the first to defeat Israel, the strongest army in the region.”
Not everyone here was impressed by Ahmadinejad’s arrival. Lokman Slim, a Shiite activist and founder of Hayya Bina, a civil-society organization that works in the Shiite community, believes only 10,000 or so people gathered Wednesday morning—a small showing given that crowds of as many as 1 million have attended previous political events. I set off early this morning, expecting large crowds and tight security, but I was one of only a few heading in the direction of the parade. Buses drove children to school, and workers headed to their jobs as on any other day.
Even Ahmadinejad’s supporters seem to be torn between their love for the Iranian leader and their desire to live in the United States. A 22-year-old woman wearing a veil said she really liked Ahmadinejad, but in the same breath she told me that her father had lived in North Carolina and that she dreams of going to America. “Take me with you,” she pleaded, half-jokingly. She saw no contradiction.
This is Ahmadinejad’s first visit to Lebanon, and he couldn’t have picked a better time to provoke outrage. Israel and the United States have criticized the timing of the visit, which comes in the middle of the Middle East peace talks. (Rumor has it he will also throw a stone at Israel—not exactly a gesture of peace.) But tensions were already rising around expectations that the U.N. tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will indict members of Hezbollah soon. For the last month, friends have warned me that another war could break out between Hezbollah’s Shiite allies and current Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Sunni supporters if and when the indictment comes down (Saad Hariri is the son of Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a car bomb in February 2005.)
But if the morning’s parade was a disappointment, tonight’s rally was a resounding success. Tens of thousands of supporters gathered in Raya Square in Dahieh, a southern suburb of Beirut that is a Hezbollah stronghold. In the women’s section, where I was standing, young girls cheered every time Ahmadinejad’s face appeared on-screen. Few could understand his speech—he spoke in Farsi, and it was hard to hear the translation—but it didn’t seem to matter. Here, Ahmadinejad is a rock star, a sex symbol. “He’s cute,” the niece of a friend cooed when I asked why the young girls were so excited to see him. He didn’t say anything that related to these girls’ lives, but by coming to Dahieh, a poor area that is ignored by everyone, even the Lebanese government, Ahmadinejad made a powerful point: You are important, he was saying. I care about you. I am here for you.
Ahmadinejad addressed much of his talk to the United States, calling on people around the world to form an “independent and neutral team to examine the facts and determine the truth of the Sept. 11 events.” He also advised Washington that “the best exit for the occupiers of Afghanistan and Iraq is to leave the region, apologize to [its] peoples, and compensate for losses.”
There was one only odd note. While Ahmadinejad took the stage proudly and faced the throngs of well-wishers, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah remained in hiding for security reasons, appearing via video link.
This morning, after all the rose petals had been scattered and Ahmadinejad’s car was long gone, I walked back toward Beirut, stepping on discarded flags and posters along the way. That’s when I noticed that a small crowd had gathered. Camels, which I had seen earlier in the morning as they were being driven to the event, had been sacrificed, their long, graceful necks slit open. The men who slaughtered them held their butcher knives and the camels’ heads as they smiled for pictures. Beside them lay three goats.
“In Arabic poetry and in the Quran, camels are one of the greatest gifts, because they are a means of survival,” Lokman Slim told me. “So it is an honor to sacrifice them for a guest.” Or, he added, you could cynically interpret their slaughter as representing the bodies of Rafik and Saad Hariri—one assassinated physically, the latter politically.
As I got into a taxi, I saw the camels’ bright red blood running into the gutter and heard the click of a camera shutter as people took photos to commemorate the moment.
Update, Dec. 7, 2010: A thank-you line was removed from this article at the recipient’s request.