What it is like to grow up in Hezbollah culture
POST! This one’s a journey. Sit back.
This is a story and critique of what it was like to be raised in Hezbollah culture. Let me start it at another place:
I know a couple who lives atop a hill in a wood in the American Midwest with a dog and chickens and a portable greenhouse. They are kind, decent people who keep to themselves, and who have opened their home up to me as their son’s partner. The mother is an astoundingly beautiful and gracious woman, and happens to be the most amazing cook I’ve ever met. She’s given me recipes, has fed me her food. This is a bonding thing to me, the foreign girl from a tiny Mediterranean country halfway across the globe, to be given food and warmth. I am from a place where welcome is expressed through generosity of spirit and extensive hospitality. By the standards of my culture, there is love here.
They live on a hill in a wood for a reason. The wind cradles this house with dark wood paneling and walls of amber and blue, a glowing shell of warmth among the tall trees. But the basement beneath the refined warmth above is a dusky cave with freezers full of preserved livestock and game, a furnace, guns, and shelves and shelves of canned goods. The house has its own rain purification system, its own generator, sprightly rows of herbs and vegetables growing around it. The old barn houses equipment, seed, rabbits, and chicken. It is not a farm designed out of a necessity for sustenance; the couple both have professional jobs, a chemist and a property inspector. The clamoring need for self-sufficiency from these people leading them to spend years creating and maintaining this system is ideological, based in a belief in a grand mythology about an impending apocalypse, a tale of destruction and salvation so tangible to them that they have built their very home around it.
There is more. The town at the foot of the hill, where their children went to school and they went to work, is a tight-knit community with an intense church at its center—Jesus-Camp-like, with practices like speaking in tongues and snake-handling. Children are indoctrinated as a matter of course, encouraged to have conversations with God and shun the voice of the Devil.
There was a woman, once, belonging to this town. She happened to be the daughter of the couple on the hill, my partner’s sister. She was a holy woman, revered as saint-like, a member of Campus Crusade for Christ at her university, a missionary. She traveled to several countries worldwide to spread her mission, funded by door-to-door canvassing in her town, supported by them for what was perceived as blessed work in bringing enlightenment to people of color. When she came back from her last trip, she had changed. She felt disturbed, overburdened by the sin she perceived around her. It weighed her down with existential anxiety. She strongly criticized the members of her community and church for the sins in their lives, left Cru, and changed her lifestyle. Jesus-like, she wanted to be humble. Jesus-like, she gave up all of her possessions to the poor and moved back in with her mother on the house on the hill. She gave up most food as well, fasting for 40, 60, 80 days at a time, sustaining herself with occasional liquids. She listened to God, as she had been encouraged to do her whole life, except now it was his literal voice she heard in her head. Jesus-like, after giving up her possessions and consorting with the homeless poor as one of them, she took it one step forward and walked away into those woods, wanting to follow her savior into the wilderness, a strange literal spin on the message of the New Testament. She came back every few weeks to raid that basement for supplies, rarely speaking to anyone. Eventually, she stopped coming back altogether. Her community gathered in prayer for her instead of looking for her. They assured themselves that she was with God, that she was chosen, and all was well. She was missing for years. Her body was found recently and identified via dental records, only a few hundred feet away from the house on the hill.
And the couple on the hill maintains their apocalyptic fortress, at least outwardly unquestioning of the ideology and methods of indoctrination and enabling of extreme behavior that led to their daughter’s death. At her memorial she was praised as a saint, a chosen spirit. It reminded me, as I sat in the church with my lips closed to the prayer around me, of the funerals of martyrs back home.
This story is an analogy to what the Shia, most of whom belong to Hezbollah culture, are like in Lebanon. I tell it because it presents things in familiar terms to many Western readers. When people ask me what it was like, to grow up in the lands where Hezbollah structured the predominant culture, I hesitate to answer, because I want them to understand. I want it phrased in a way that transcends reductionist buzzwords such as ‘terrorist Islamist organization’ that somehow create images of dirty, bearded men with convoluted security fortresses in caves, carefully plotting evil. I want it phrased in a way that accurately highlights the differences between an organization such as Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, because they are utterly different in many relevant ways (and are in fact enemies of one another—just a few days ago Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing in my hometown Beirut in order to coerce Hezbollah to give into their demands). And yet they are lumped into the same category and (as far as I have encountered) are largely understood in the same way.
But I grew up in Hezbollah culture, and I want to phrase the experience in a way that allows people to understand what I mean when I say that Hezbollah, for all their extreme views and controlling practices, are largely a community of everyday citizens, forming, no less, an entire religious demographic in an entire country, rather than being a fringe group of hoarded-up conspirators in terrorist cells. Because there is a cognitive disconnect there, between the idea that people can do and think terrible things and have insidious, pervasive control and power, and still be normal people. We want to believe that the extremists on TV are fringe outliers steeped in evil ideology, radically unlike us. To suggest that the sort of deep-run Christian conservatism rooted in much of the Bible Belt is anything like Hezbollah might seem incredible. After all, even though many of these people are racist, controlling of women, stick to their guns (literally), and shun, ostracize, and attack those with alternative lifestyles, they don’t look different or other on the street. They are even kind and welcoming. They are considered normal, even if they commit some horrible deeds. They make you food. They give up their seat on the bus for you. They will treat you with civility on the street. They’re not wholly painted in a brush of otherness that you cannot understand.
I draw this analogy because it is another story of people with an intense adherence to delusional and destructive values coupled with a strange sort of inability to question their ideas, even when heart-rending costs are associated. There is no doubt that civilians who lose family members under the clashes of continuous Hezbollah-Israel enmity, that the mothers who lose their sons to guerilla warfare in South Lebanon view those deaths as martyrdom, part of a grand, worthy plan. There is no doubt, too, that the mother on the hill loved her daughter and views her death as divine choosing, immortal sainthood rather than tragedy. But it is difficult, sitting in the living room in the house on the hill around a Scrabble board with coconut cream pie, to pinpoint the darkness pulsing underneath.
And this is not wholly a condemnation. There has been much giving, there. In my kitchen stands a wooden table and set of chairs that sat in my partner’s mother’s barn for many years, that my partner ate upon as a child. When my partner and I moved in together, we ferried our furniture using his stepdad’s truck, with his mother helping us collect and carry things from house to truck and back. I had my first Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations in the house on the hill just a few months ago, and we gather around that table not infrequently with the rest of the couple’s children and grandchildren. There are birthdays, graduations, the Fourth of July, and always good food. There is cheer, friendly conversation, and after dinner, we tend to clear the dining room table off and do a crossword or play Boggle or Scrabble or other word games. In a family in love with words, I feel at home. But there are so many other serious ways I differ from them. I am a brown girl from a Muslim-majority country, an atheist, a woman living in sin with their son, and on those evenings I sit welcomed among this white conservative Christian family in a small hick town in a red state. Frankly, I am treated in this home with more welcoming and respect than I honestly in goodwill expected. When I walked into the house on the hill on Christmas Eve, there was a brand new stocking with my name sewn onto it hanging among names that had stood in a row for dozens of Christmases. A gesture of that magnitude put stillness in my steps.
And it reminds me of the ways in which neighbors, friends, and family back home would spread whole banquets of food on their tables for visitors, engage in friendly banter with foreigners and activists, come back from travels with gifts for everyone in their apartment buildings and workplaces, help each other out in need. Much like communities with churches, homeless centers, and charities forming the infrastructure of their towns, the Shia demographic, largely Hezbollah’s supporters, constituents, and members, spreads its resources in such a manner. Hezbollah has founded dozens of orphanages, boarding schools, mosques, day-schools, charity organizations, and hospitals. They organize camping trips for children and young adults.
They have boy and girl scout organizations with cute, cheery uniforms, very similar to those here in the US, where they learn a plethora of basic life skills, play games, hike, and help out their communities. They have personally funded much of the rebuilding of destroyed homes and schools after the 2006 war completely obliterated the South’s infrastructure. Admittedly it was a war they had not insignificant responsibility in instigating, and they would have suffered a severe blow in their popularity had they not showed loyalty to their supporters by rebuilding, but they nonetheless saved the fortunes and livelihood of hundreds of civilian families. They have members in parliament and ministers in cabinet, making them an acknowledged part of government even by other political factions from other religious backgrounds. They are not fringe. In some ways comparable to the Republican Party, they are a normalized, accepted entity with social and political structures with a civilian supporting body. Clearly they are in many other ways different, with some forms of extremism more radical than any I’ve personally encountered in the States, and with the shaping influence of constant war in their backyards. But they are not unrecognizable—and it is important that they be recognized rather than othered, because solid critique stems from understanding.
They are of course much more than the above as well, and this piece is not a defense. Before we get into talk of points and outcomes, I’ll preliminarily assure that I have no love for them. I’ve given a plethora of critiques of the detrimental religion-enabling in Lebanese culture, and told the story of how the Hezb abducted me—I have no love for them. But representing them accurately is *essential* to the robust critique I’d like to make.
In Lebanon, I lived in Beirut’s suburbs, but we’d go South for weekends and holidays to spend time with family. We’d sit in chairs under the grape arbor after dinner with tiny glasses of tea, and my family would discuss the narratives that form the underlayer of Hezbollah ideology. They are epic, apocalyptic narratives that I’m always reminded of when visiting the house on the hill. The Shia (short, in fact, for Shia Twelvers) believe in a divinely-ordained hierarchy of 12 Imams as the rightful descendants and successors in leadership to the Prophet Mohammad. The 12th Imam is a second Messiah, a Savior, a man who was born hundreds of years ago and has been in hiding since, traveling the globe and observing Muslim communities, assessing their deserving of his coming. His name is the Mahdi. The narratives are complex, with many characters—the Mahdi’s two right-hand men are told in ancient stories to be two Sayyeds (direct descendants of the Prophet) titled Al-Yamani (of Yemeni origin) and Al-Khurasani (of Persian origin). Many Lebanese people believe these two men are actually Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, whose family came from Yemen several generations ago, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamena’ei, who, in addition to being Persian, fits in with descriptions of Al-Khurasani having a wounded arm. Thus many of the Lebanese Shia believe themselves to be in the current midst of the side of right in a grand, epic turn of events. The stories also tell of the Anti-Christ, termed Al-A’war Al-Dajjal, who will be a limping man with a bad eye, a traitor emerging from a coup on Syria (the current slaughter in Syria conveniently fits into this narrative) before the Mahdi arrives, and the second coming of Jesus Christ down to Earth, descending from the heavens to be the Mahdi’s right hand. Jesus and the Mahdi will appear at the same time in Mecca, the Mahdi proclaiming God’s oneness such that the entire world will hear him and *know* intuitively who he is. Jesus will pray to God alongside the Mahdi, and Christians will realize they’ve been mistaken to deify a man and convert. The stories say that the Mahdi will conquer evil and create peace and stability on earth, ruling justly for 300 years. But a lot of momentous things must happen before his arrival, and the Muslim Ummah must be ready for his coming.
And largely an entire religious demographic believes all of this. They lead their lives in fairly normal ways despite this information, going to work, raising kids, buying groceries, cooking, going on picnics, swimming in rivers on weekends. But, much like the couple on the hill with their apocalyptic fortress, their lives are structured with constant, underlying work towards these events they believe are imminent and arguably worth *everything*. They believe in them so thoroughly that the tales Hezbollah perpetuates of actual angels raining down from the sky to assist Hezbollah guerrilla fighters during dire battles, of saintly bodies not decomposing, of dead relatives and saints appearing as apparitions to guide wounded and lost men are spread around as tales of everyday miracles, and believed wholeheartedly.
This ideology is also largely what drives Hezbollah’s existence in its current form (ie, with a military wing). At first, Hezbollah was founded in order to defend the land from foreign occupation, which spurred the fledgling movements of various Lebanese factions back in the 80’s. But to this day Hezbollah adamantly defends—with revolutionary, insidious rhetoric—keeping its own weapons arsenal and militia independent of the government. They still publicly rest their justifications in having to defend Lebanon from the imminent threat of re-invasion. I hasten to say that self-defense is a cause that anybody who lives in Lebanon and sees the real, unjust, pervasive transgressions and terrors inflicted by our southern neighbors will value in ideology, while perhaps acknowledging that Hezbollah has itself used methods that have often been unjust, including instigating conflict that has thrust the entire country into war, thereafter having the audacity to term the whole endeavor a victory, because to them martyrdom is the highest level of merit and death and destruction serves some godly purpose. But defense—actual or professed—is no longer the only reason Hezbollah sticks to its literal guns. The Mahdi narratives tell of a Jewish nation being founded and lasting for 70 years, and state that Jerusalem must be liberated from the Jews before the Mahdi’s coming —Jesus himself is meant to return and pray in the free city. Because the liberation of Jerusalem is a precondition for the much-wanted arrival of the Mahdi, it forms a core part of Hezbollah’s internal religious ideology, even though they do not speak in those terms publicly for PR reasons. The claim of self-defense is no longer sufficient for justifying Hezbollah’s armament—Lebanon’s liberation from Israeli occupation has not been enough reason for Hezbollah to turn its forces over to the official government military and no longer operate in a renegade manner, making decisions that implicate an entire country. But they demur, shout self-defense, and implicitly wield the threat of their manpower.
And although the Mahdi narrative is not spoken of on official channels, during morning living room chats and evening courtyard smoking sessions the Shia of South Lebanon talk about the imminent liberation of Jerusalem—ironically almost necessarily involving an invasion of Israel when Hezbollah was originally formed to combat invasion as inherently unjust—as one of the ultimate goals to aspire to. There is talk, as well, that Iran is attempting to build highways straight to Mecca for the Mahdi to utilize when he comes—the irrationality of allocating so much time, energy, and resources to the realization of an epic narrative is, I think, not unheard of in the West. After all, I know a couple on a hill who have spent their whole lives building a fortress in anticipation of a similarly strange and unlikely tale of angels and demons and worldly destruction. The difference is of course in the power and destructive effects of these beliefs—the religious beliefs utilizing rhetoric of apocalyptic narrative in the US do not happen to have military power (as far as I know), it’s true, but when it comes down to the followers and constituents of similar beliefs in Lebanon, the stark majority of Hezbollah culture do not have access to arms either. In order to maintain its support of its smaller military branch, the care and structuring of the societal fabric of Hezbollah culture must be far more widespread, maintaining a loyalty and firm religious sensibility—thus most Hezbollah supporting and affiliated persons are common workers, teachers, doctors, engineers, mothers, caretakers, everyday citizens whose greatest danger are in the ideas they perpetuate rather than any physical actions their hands commit.
All of this is knit together with a perfect conception of the Muslim Ummah needing to not only be materially prepared for the Mahdi, but spiritually so. There is consistent striving to perfect the character and religious devotion of the everyday community, in large part those who do not bear arms. Religious teaching is a core part of Hezbollah’s humanitarian endeavors, going so far as to try to enlist the support of those Shia who follow other sub-communities. For instance, the recently deceased Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon was a cleric with a significant following who was outwardly politically supported and respected, but who many quietly tried to undermine because many of his fatwas and ideas—including his interpretations that women do not need parental permission to marry, may engage in temporary marriage, and may masturbate, in addition to ruling any type of suicide bombing, even in self-defense, forbidden—were considered radical, immoral, and severely misguided by more mainstream Shia avenues, and were not practices the Hezb wanted its demographic to normalize or engage in. And thus, teenagers who admired Fadlallah’s rhetoric of love and revolutionary interpretations would be slowly coaxed by the Hezb into finding spiritual guidance elsewhere, speaking of Fadlallah in a respectful, doting manner while making him seem silly, fuzzy-headed, and misguided at once.
This is good example, I think, of the avenues where Hezbollah exerts its most inhumane actions—through a very clever sort of religious rhetoric that makes them seem like the epitome of good in order to ensure the backing needed to exert the unjust control they have over their own demographic and other Lebanese factions. And Hezbollah is very much viewed as good by a large part of the Shia demographic in Lebanon. The South especially, where the majority of Lebanon’s Shia reside, which lacks the privilege and cosmopolitanism of Beirut, and is in many places steeped in poverty, torn down by unjust war in far-too-often intervals, with several Palestinian refugee camps (my father grew up on one) with clearly visible effects of displacement and diaspora even a generation or two later, where life can be so dire, difficult, and unjust that a religious sensibility has grown and been nurtured, offering a sense-making narrative to the destruction and injustice all around, placing a dire strength of belief in a transcendence that would make a miserable existence not only matter, but matter absolutely, immortally, with complete and total redemption. In the 70’s and 80’s in the South prior to the occupation and the Iranian revolution, religiosity was not nearly so prevalent nor adherence to strict codes so stringent—my mother, aunts, and grandmother started wearing hijab in the 80’s, influenced by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which was to them a successful, impassioned uprising by the Shia against a corrupt regime. They were in fact following an entire wave of religious sensibility sweeping over the South. Coupled with the tragedies of the civil war and the Israeli occupation, religiosity in South Lebanon snowballed in response to creating meaning from those circumstances.
Today, over 30 years later, Hezbollah, and by association its religious ideology, is heralded as a saving good. Hezbollah, as per the belief of the Lebanese Shia, liberated Lebanon from occupation. Hezbollah built schools, hospitals, orphanages, mosques, and support systems. Hezbollah took care of widows of martyred men. Hezbollah’s members were neat, clean, soft-spoken, humorous, respectful, and supportive. Hezbollah was a defender, a good, a literal Godsend, all this corroborated by the epic Mahdi narrative of an even larger version of extreme saving, where the whole world would be put into order, and the unjust suffering my people received would be eradicated worldwide. It is incredible how my people are willing and able to immediately deny any reports of Hezbollah committing horrible injustices, or to try to justify their actions. Every unethical military move Hezbollah has made—down to entering our neighboring Syria and participating in a slaughter and war they have no business in—is justified using the rhetoric of defense, justice, and a new order, even to the extent that the murderous Syrian regime is defended based on the publicly given justification that if Syria falls, Israel will invade and occupy the entire Levant, in addition to unbelievable lies (that are nevertheless believed) that there is a huge Western conspiracy of importing Al-Qaeda terrorist groups and others of their ilk to slaughter Syrian civilians and make it look like the regime is doing it, absolving the regime of all blame. Those who object to such unethical distortions of truth, and point out Hezbollah’s personal interest in having allies in power in Syria (Syria is the weapons gateway between Iran and the Hezb) are immediately, in a disappointed older brother sort of way, shamed and asked whether they would support a Zionist invasion and takeover of Lebanon.
And this is why the rhetoric is insidious—because it is a perfect front for the growth and proliferation of mechanisms of control, presenting a face of kindness, giving, and support, with a dark underlayer of shaming and control. It is difficult for me to describe how pervasive and convincing their rhetoric can be, because it is so solidly steeled in intuitively-good fronts, but here is an example of how long it had me duped:
When I ran away from home at 18, Hezbollah gathered its resources to locate me, move me from the area of Beirut I was in, where they did not have power, and secure me in an apartment in another area that served as their stronghold—had I physically resisted any of this, they were on standby to stop me, but they did not use that type of force at all, and made all but a suggestion of it incredibly invisible. Instead, they presented themselves as attempting to help me. They’d send groups of people in turn with sympathetic, concerned demeanors, claiming they wanted to help reconcile me to my family, that they could help solve whatever problems I had, hoping that I could be made to comply by manipulating me into agreement. But even though I told them about the abuse I endured and stated multiple times that I did not want reconciliation with my family and just wanted to go, they only continued to close in, faster and closer, with their emissaries and coaxing and sweet-talking. When I still would not budge, they simply brought my father and uncle in and escorted all of us home. In the weeks thereafter, I was visited and spoken to by more Hezb members, who probed into my personal life, asking questions about my sexuality. They had confiscated my hardware and looked through my files as well under the flimsy excuse of a possible security threat. They had no fundamental respect for adult human autonomy or a right to self-determination.
It seems somewhat clear, reading it presented like this, that in the guise of helpfulness were efforts to coerce me to comply to their values and codes of behavior. But it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that their attempts were actually manipulative and controlling, were not goodwill offers of help and resources, but rather part of a system of regulating their demographic and making sure its members complied to visible standards of adequate religious sensibility. I learned this in years thereafter, after I had time enough to process my trauma, and piece together the strange, unsettling blips in the virtuous veneer of the value system surrounding me. I realized the Hezb had turned an active blind eye to both reports of violence from my father and threats of violence he gave in their actual presence. I realized that the discomfort I felt towards them was not just because their attempts to help me were based in a value system I didn’t really subscribe to, but because those attempts were actual mechanisms of coercion. It wasn’t about disagreement and reconciliation at all. And I realized how prevalent this behavior is as I observed their interactions in the coming year, when I heard other stories from other girls. A friend approached by a friendly neighborhood Hezb patrolman as she was walking down the street at night was also subjected to a supportive, concerned demeanor, and actually felt relief that it was ‘just’ a Hezb guy and not a predator, but when she declined his help, he blackmailed her into telling him her identity and drove her home to her father, because girls don’t walk alone on the street at night, and he viewed it his place to enforce the order of female modesty required in Hezbollah-dominated villages and towns. Through such insidious means of presenting people as ill or in need of help and shaming and ostracizing them, the Hezb exerts a tight mode of control designed to keep people in line—especially women, who need above all to comply to suppressive standards of modesty and containment. All with such smooth, rote justification that even those taking part in it believe it themselves, and truly believe that what they are doing is a form of good, of order-keeping, of expounding virtue, rather than anything close to injustice or coercion.
And in some ways, this is worse than the outright, raging coercive and violent rhetoric many other Islamist and non-Islamist organizations engage with. It has the ability to slowly spread in control while remaining normalized, accepted, and undetected. And I fear it for those reasons, because it requires a lot more versatility, creativity, and resourcefulness to try to understand it and then address it as a pervasive problem of society. At least often societies do not need convincing that a group that publicly shouts straight-up death threats is a problem to be dealt with. To problematize Hezbollah to begin with is the problem, especially as any Western opposition, apostate (ie, defector) critique, or Lebanese non-Shia opposition to it strangely only serves to strengthen its position, because it corroborates the victim narrative that Hezbollah so largely rests upon.
This is not to say, though, that there are not thousands of others like me within the Shia demographic who come to the same realizations, make the same arguments that I am making here, that this is an intractable social problem with no ability to change or be addressed. I think laying out its nature is a crucial first step, however.
And here, now, in the United States, I feel such resonance with my old life, because insidious rhetoric designed to suppress and control is no stranger to some places and institutions here. Rhetoric that claims to be rooted in love, support, and giving ends up only controlling and creating misery. Every pastor proclaiming love and offering to help confused, gay Christians exercise discipline and realign themselves makes me think of the Hezb. All the motherly advice given to girls about their dress and conduct from a seemingly-supportive place so they are not taken advantage of is an alarming sort of victim-blaming disguised as common helpfulness. The strings of ma’ams and sirs and pleases and thank yous that intertwine in friendly words laced with racism, too, remind me of Hezbollah. The strange ability of many people to overlook, justify, or explain away military transgressions and atrocities on the part of their government in the name of defending freedom (oh, such resonance!) also reminds me of Hezbollah culture.
And you know what this is too. You know what it’s like. This, it is not other. I’m asked to explain my experiences of Hezbollah, and I feel like I’m expected to string some tale of strange, intense oppression that serves only to perpetuate a demonization narrative that you good people dearly want to believe, and I hesitate. The narrative you want to hear is not the narrative I have to tell, and you know it far better than you think you do.
But here it is. Not the demon you were thinking, but another animal: sly, insidious, dangerous. Familiar.