Monday, February 27, 2006

Celebrating Ashoura: Hizbullah vs Amal


Early on the very wet morning of Thursday 9, Marcia, Katherine and I headed to the most densely populated Shia neighborhood in southern Beirut. We aimed to attend the Hizbullah Ashoura commemoration in Dahieh.

Ashoura is the 10th (Ashra 10 in arabic) day which celebrates the martyrdom of the grandson of Mohamed, Imam Hussein in 680 AD. This event is (correct me if I am wrong) marks the begining of the schism between sunnism and shiism.

In a modern day context, the narration of the event is recited, told in poetry and reinacted in passion plays, and public rituals.

By the time we got to Dahieh, around 815 am, hords of people were walking in the street heading to watch and ultimately follow the procession. At one of the mosques, an Iman voice was broadcast throughout the street reading scriptures. In response to the recitation, you could hear group wailing and moaning over the death of Hussein.

As we kept on walking toward the main artery were the protest was to take place, we went through a check point.

Our Druze driver, Atif, going through the male side was clearly uncomfortable looking tense and taking deep breaths. This, in his 58 years of living in Lebanon, was his first time attending Ashoura, and probably the first time in the midst of the Shia community led by Hizbullah.

Observing his discomfort, the girls and I agreed with him that he would wait for us at a street corner, while we headed in to one of the veins feeding into the procession. Reports said 1 million people attended the event.

It was the first time I ended up in a male/female segregated procession.

Women all had their hair covered, some of their headdress looking similar to what is worn in Iran. No make up, not tall, and mostly wearing black to mourn the death of Hussein, ladies marched in unison some pushing carriages, or weaving young children through the crowd. On our street alone the may have been up to 20,000 women if not more.

At different times, the ladies would start chanting: "Oh Hussein! Oh Prophet of God!", while thumping their right fists over their hearts.

Different from the male protest, the energy of the chant initially sounded soft, yet the chanting became more vigorous as we neared the male procession passing by perpendicular to our street.

Then repeating a recitation of an iman, the ladies sang different verses to end up throughout their right fist up above their heads yelling out: "We follow you Nassrallah! Death to Israel! Death to America!"

Walking with the crowd for about an hour, the three of us decided to head back, having gotten a pretty good sense of what to expect considering the shere mass of women inhibiting our ability to move in order to get a better view.

As we pushed our way throught the counter-current of female bodies, one lady surprised to see westerners asked whether I was muslim. Considering the numbers, and the mood of the event, I answered yes, and spoke a few words of Arabic to appease her.

With Katherine and Marcia, we agreed that we would watch the rest of procession on TV in a cafe so as to get better perspective of the procession. It turned out that it was lead by men carrying large photographic potraits of Khomeni, Nasrallah, and possibly Musa Al-Sadr. No matter Hizbullah being Lebanese, the opening photos of the procession clearly showed the movement strong allegiance to Iran.

By the time we reached Atif, he had not moved from the street corner. The poor thing stood hands dug deep in his pockets, baring the rain, and looking dour. His face lit up when he saw us, presumably relieved as it meant he was to be released from his position.


Driving to the southern part of the country, we arrived in the town of Nabatiyeh where Amal were commemorating Ashoura.

Differently from Hizbullah which seemed more militaristic in organization, the procession in Nabatyieh attended by die-hard followers was less socially intense but visually gruesome and bordering on surreal.

Men participating in the procession wore a white tunic over their clothers, and cut themselves right above their forehead with a knife so as the constant splatter of blood turned their white tunics red.

Moving along the street, slapping the tops of their foreheads with their right hands, and chanting rythmically the name of one of Hussein servant's who died in battle, the men in the procession seem to go into a strange form of ritualistic trance.

Along the edge of the street, onlookers held their noses to block the stench of the blood. Occasionally, a young man covered in blood, would leave his group, and come over to chat with some of the onlookers, while taking a sip of water, or passing on a message over a cell phone, before returning to the bleeding repenters.

As the day was soggy, foot stands offered melting Arab bread sandwiches, garbage accumulated on the street, and the tarmac glistened with rain water streaming red into gutters. A stand below drumming and recitations added to the noise of the rythmic chanting. I felt like I was at a strange type of religious fair. Maybe something as intense looking as the ritual of reinacting the crucifixion of Christ in the Philippines.

Despite the apparent gore of the scene, there was an incredible difference in the atmosphere between the Hizbullah commemoration and the Amal one.

The Amal procession looked terrifying, but the onlookers were wearing regular clothes, and people were chatting as if out on a Sunday walk. The event seemed more an expression of a male rites to passage, reinacting in a visceral yet folkloric way the death of Hussein.

By contrast, the Hizbullah procession which forbids its followers of any cutting ( a decree set forth by Khomeni when he came to power in Iran) was terrifying for its militaristic appearance, and diehard followers. The control Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah, has over his followers is a site in itself.

If anything, Hezbollah comes across as a political force held together through a strong religious and militaristic over tone. Amal on the other hand, seemed more secular in appearance, and less organized on the ground. Granted, Amal retelling of Hussein martyrdom contextualized in the present day, was equally anti-Israeli, but somehow the crowd seemed less

The contrast of the day is what made the whole experience so pertinent. I think it was a good insight on the Shia political forces, which I think will be a the center of Lebanese politics this spring.

February 13: Reacting to Cartoons

On the day that I came back, a protest against the Danish cartoons published in French papers picked up steam, spinning out of control leading to a riotous mass to destroy property, damage cars, attack western journalist mistaken for Danes, set the Danish Embassy on fire, desacrate a church in the Christian neighborhood of Achrafyie.

This would seem to be the first protest that we have experienced in the past year to have turned so violent as quickly as it did.

As usual different conspiracy theories spread like wildfire throughout the city. Just under 200 hundred were arrested.

National press ran the banner that Syrian and Palestinian elements had instigated the upheaval. As the week went on, this was contested.

Different articles appeared, one of which was excellent written by commentator to the Daily Star, Michael Young. Young skeptical of the accusation, put forth the argument that in fact the protests were supported by Sunni Lebanese political parties attempting to galvanize the more religious popular base, by backing a protest against the cartoons.

The purpose of Young's article is to unveil that hardlline Sunni factions exist in Lebanon, adding yet another layer to the already complex make up of Lebanese society.

While living in central Beirut, it is rare to cross paths with hardline Sunnis but certainly their presence is felt stronger when moving through poor neighborhoods, and up to the northern city of Tripoli, which can sometimes seem to have an oppresive atmosphere for travelers.

In the meantime, on February 10, the Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights in Beirut issued a statement expressing that the reported arrests were not only of rioters. At the press conference, the organization Haya Bina, explained that other arrests took place during the riots and throughout the country.

The non-for-profit questioned the use of Syrians and "outsiders" as scapegoats for a clearly backed Lebanese protest
spinning out of control and becoming violent.

Both Young and Haya Bina point to a face of Lebanon which is not often discussed in the media: an Islamist presence in the country which may take advantage of public events as political opportunities to be heard.

The problem however, is that an outbreak of violence, which draws negative international attention to Beirut, unnerves and increases levels of resentment felt in other communities which make up Lebanon. The country's government holds together with what seems to an outside observer a string.

News reports changed ton over the week so as to make sure that the opposition block made up of Christians, Sunnis and Druze stays together. A classical and harmonious line to keep the peace: blame the outsiders. It makes things easier.

If anything, the country feels fragile, tense. We will have to see what happens tomorrow during the 1 year
commemoration of Hariri's death.

October Thoughts: A Walk in Beirut

I have been focusing my energy differently for the past few month. This time my creative energy has been channelled into the plastic arts rather than in essay or article writing.

I have been busy producing a series of drawings, collages and Cornell like boxes. The three different ways of constructing images often have a common theme. In each approach, there is an attempt to reach order through framing the juxtaposition of colors and shapes with linear structures. The superimposed structure lies atop of the imagery which sets the tone/mood of the piece.

The process described above mirrors my experience in Beirut. When I first arrived, I signed onto a new life: one as a student of the Middle East in the Middle East. Howevery, before I could think of the implications of the experience, I was thrown into a whirlwind of local and regional affairs messily intertwined with international foreign policy struggles over the Middle East. The further immersed I became in the events, I understood the mood, but lost track of the framework.

Arriving around what seemed a pinnacle time in Lebanon's history, I like many others stood witness and lived through a Lebanese's pulse pumping hope, distress and betrayal through the nation's veins. There was joy, anger, and tension.

Despite the optimism felt during the rallies, it was impossible to ignore the unnerving and mostly successful assasinations attempts against anti-Syrian voices, with in the backdrop a persistant bombing campaign blowing Lebanese christian businesses.

It was impossible to ignore the increasingly alienated and defiant presidency; the hot and humid month of August; and by October a depressed population let down by the re-emergence of political squabbles, and the slump of a retarded economy.


After five straight months in Lebanon I was eager to take a break from new experience. However, as soon as I set foot on the plane on my way to Morocco, my chest tightened with worry and regret. I felt that I should not be leaving even if for a few days: "What if something happens?" I thought to myself, "What about Beirut and its people?" I began missing Lebanon and we had not even taken off.

It was an inexplicable sensation which when described to a Lebanese would be received with a nod of recognition, followed by: "Ah, you too you feel it. It is strange though because you are foreigners, and we never understand why foreigners get so attached to this place."

To be honest, I do not have the slightest idea as to why we become attached to this place, and yet at the same time, I could make you a list that stretched the length of the Mediterranean, starting from its fartherst eastern shore all the way down to its narrow neck, the Straits of Gibraltar.


What is appealing about Lebanon and its overbuilt and polluted Beirut?

Each time I walk in the street, I am struck by the densely packed urban landscape with endless layers of facades rising one above another.

"Oh! There to your right, through the dark passageway. Can't you see the framed shot of the facade with the honeyed afternoon light poured all over it? It's just there at the end of this covered short cut to that street... Oh what is the name of that street again... it has been nine months, and I can't believe I still don't know the name of that street there just paralell to Hamra."

Then in the densely layered cityscape, each building and neighborhood is connected through the unruly mass of wires traveling at all heights and depths high above your head, crossing the street or simply moving in the same direction you are walking. Pirated electricity flows over you and connects each building like grey and dirty-white jungle vines.


By the time I returned from Morocco Beirut had changed. Beirut could no longer be defined as a first experience which I shared with the outside world.

As soon as I got off the plane, the familiarity of the airport made me realize I was coming home. Lebanon and Beirut had reached the realm of the personal.

Beirut turned out to be an inspiring place, transforming the frustratition, anger, fear, and joy and happiness into a creative process.

"How can people survive in such a messy place." I thought to myself as I tore another piece of magazine glueing it to a sheet of paper setting up the tone of the collage.

The maddeness and maddening aspect of this city offers an inexhaustible source of inspiration because it is the center for all paradoxes riding simultaneoulsly the second hand of a watch.

Like the electrical wires making everyone's buildings, the business of everyone else's. The density of humanity, and importance of family and friend alliance are fundamental and inescapable in a country which can be driven from its northern frontier to its southern one in four hours, west to east in two.

Like in any other middle eastern city, in Beirut everyone knows everybody in the neighborhood. There is talk everywhere and about everything, and yet the important things remain unspoken. The past, the divisions, the hatred, the suspicion, the religious difference, the fear, the corruption, these themes pertain to the realm of silence.


Beirut is like an eye for the Middle East as it is where all the nerve endings of the Arab world end up. It strives for modernity and democracy, and yet it is machista and paternalistic. Elements of Middle Eastern and Gulfy culture are reinacted in segments of the mosaic society.

The most intriguing aspect of this place is the god Paradox, living like a Roman God- alive and well- right here in our midst.
Paradox appears at all levels of life out here, from the landscape, to the architecture, and community and individual behaviors.

It teases us, sticks it tongue out, tickles us, provokes and makes us laugh and scream all at the same time.
Paradox agitates entropy, with few agreeing cohesively on issues. There are many under-currents, counter-currents, and nefarious presences, which organize this place but make predicting the future impossible.

Lebanon functions, but with a limp. It's curved structures are unsound. Yet, like each great city in the world which may come to be described by its energy , Beirut unquestionably ranks amongst them as it too has a pulse.

It is hard to know why it does until you feel the pang when you get on the plane ready to leave. You didn't even know it happened, but you were bitten by something invisible. Chances are you will be back.

I won't be surprised if I bump into you around Hamra street, or walking up from the American University of Beirut's beautiful grounds along Jeanne D'Arc, right by the corner where the pink building is.