Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was greeted upon his arrival in Beirut by a rapturous crowd. Thanassis Cambanis takes us inside the organization that teaches Lebanon's children to love the Islamic Revolution.
- By Thanassis CambanisThanassis Cambanis, author of Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story and A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @tcambanis.
The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah gave the world its clearest indication yet of the surprising strength of the “Party of God.” Over more than a month of combat, Hezbollah was able to frustrate Israel’s stated aims, allowing Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to declare a “divine victory” after the conclusion of fighting. Thanassis Cambanis traveled to Lebanon to tell the stories of Hezbollah’s supporters, and to understand the roots of the party’s strength. In this excerpt from his newly-published book, “A Privilege to Die,” Cambanis visits Hezbollah’s youth movement in south Lebanon.
A Privilege to Die
Inside Hezbollah’s legions and their endless war against Israel By Thanassis Cambanis
In the year since the war, the Mahdi Scouts had nearly doubled its national enrollment to 60,000. They had run out of capacity to admit more, he said, but they were expanding as fast as they could. Hezbollah policed its community tightly, but not without concern for its mental well-being. Constant warfare (or mobilization for such) took its toll, especially on children and on the families of martyrs.
One goal of the scouts was to comfort the afflicted. The scouts tried to maintain a state of normalcy — at least as Hezbollah defined it — for its most vulnerable members. If left to their own devices, [the chief of Hezbollah’s scouts] Bilal Naim said, the children of martyrs would isolate themselves and develop emotional problems. “We try to raise the children in the community and find new husbands for the widows,” he said. “Otherwise the children become complicated, and develop unhealthy behaviors like aggression.”
On a rainy Sunday in December, we drove to Khiam to visit the scouts in action. We were an hour late because we had trouble with military intelligence when we tried to enter the border region. The former Israeli occupation zone of South Lebanon remains officially off limits to foreigners. Anyone wishing to visit the area — including foreign passport holders of Lebanese descent who have family homes in the South — must get special permission from Lebanese military intelligence. Mine had expired the day before, and we had to call in a favor from a sympathetic officer who let us through the checkpoint at the Litani River.
Mohammed Dawi, the sweaty and plump scout leader, met us at the entrance to Khiam town. He was a redhead with freckles, and looked more Irish than Lebanese. The younger scouts were waiting in the basement of a high school a mile or so from the prison. The troop leader led them in a chant of welcome. Most of them wore blue shirts with epaulets, white scarves, and oversized badges featuring a photograph of a scowling Ayatollah Khomeini. Two boys who looked about ten wore full military fatigues.
It seemed the day’s activities had been planned with my visit in mind. The children marched downstairs single file and broke up by age group. The “buds,” six or seven years old, assembled for a puppet show, emceed by a man in a worn panda suit who sang lines from Nasrallah’s speeches. The “sprouts,” eight to ten years old, sat around tables at the rear of the room drawing pictures, their ideas inspired by a chubby and soft-spoken young woman named Malak Sweid. She was a graphic design student and zealous party apparatchik.
In “guided drawing,” the kids drew pictures of Israelis weeping in defeat, denoted by Stars of David on their helmets, or of Israelis stepping on Lebanese. Other children, with evident direction by Malak, depicted crosses and crescents, symbolizing the Lebanese Christians and Muslims, chained by vicious Stars of David. Other pictures spoke less to the conflict with the Jews than to Islamic values. One child’s picture showed women in low-cut gowns holding martini glasses and cigarettes in old-fashioned holders. “Smoking Harms Your Health” was the title.
At the front of the room children jostled with the man in the bear suit and another man in a mouse suit. One child struck the bear-man in the head. A six-year-old boy with a thin high-pitched voice recited from memory a speech of Nasrallah’s. “The Israelis target the innocent! We will destroy the Israelis!” intoned the child in his choirboy’s treble. The scoutmaster hovered over the children, sweating and incessantly eating bits of candy he had secreted into every one of his pockets. The library of scout manuals showcased better than any single document the essential ideology of Hezbollah. A quick scan of the selections on the shelf showed the party’s priorities:
How to Learn the Koran
A Day in the Mosque
I Love My Country
How to Manage a Household
How to Read
I Obey My Leader
Dawi gave me a handful of scout manuals, which helpfully encouraged children through cartoons to brush their teeth thoroughly and help the elderly across the street. Fun puzzles at the end of every lesson featured standard children’s fare like mazes, but with Hezbollah themes — a bearded Hezbollah fighter at the start of the maze, with an Israeli bunker at the far end. The occasional illustration featured bearded fighters charging Israeli soldiers cowering behind sandbags.
But the overwhelming substance of the scout manuals, like the programming itself, wasn’t about spreading hatred of Israel — that was already taken care of out in the community. It was geared toward constructing an identity in which a child’s entire moral sense flowed from a strict interpretation of Islam administered by the jurist, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and his conduit, Hezbollah. Many illustrations depicted a small Satan hovering over a little boy’s shoulder, egging him on to steal, litter, or misbehave. In the Mahdi Scouts, the little boy learned to resist devilish urges.
Success in the Scouts led to an invitation to join Hezbollah as a probationary member. The most promising boys were recruited to join the ranks of the fighters. During the summer, scouts spent weeks at camps in the South and the Beqaa, where they practiced fitness and learned survival skills along with serious religion courses that imparted both the doctrine and vernacular that made so many of Hezbollah’s activists sound identical when they explained their convictions.
After the show in the school basement, Dawi drove us around Khiam to see what the older scouts were doing. We stopped at one house where two teenage girl scouts were cleaning and shopping for a housebound war widow. Dawi picked two apples from the grocery bag they had brought the old lady and devoured them in a minute. At a new playground in the lee of the prison, another group was planting trees. Dawi looked on with satisfaction, joked with the teenage boys, and shoved an entire Kit-Kat bar into his mouth in a single bite.
Malak, the nineteen-year-old assistant troop leader, explained to me that while the activities were fun, the most formative part of her scouting experience had been the religious education. Each week in the Scouts during her childhood she and her peers would study a single word or passage from the Koran, under the guidance of a Hezbollah member. Gradually, she said, she absorbed the party’s faith-a more stringent practice of Islam than her parents’-and from that flowed all the rest the politics, the lifestyle,
the community, and eventually, her entry into Hezbollah’s ranks.
Malak was a product of the new Hezbollah age. When she talked to me about personal matters, she sounded like any college freshman. She aspired to a top-flight graphic design job at a satellite television network; she hugged her little sister Jana sweetly as she admired her drawings; and she asked me with a lot of concern how much I thought her education would disadvantage her on the job market-she was studying at a private school in Nabatieh with an American curriculum but second-rate professors.
Whenever conversation turned to matters of politics or religion, though, she was like an automaton. I’m sure she believed everything she said, but it was eerie how her language almost word for word repeated the speeches of Hezbollah leaders. She mouthed the same jokes about Condi Rice’s “New Middle East” and the perfidy of the Jewish children who sent missiles to Lebanon, and enumerated the same justification for Hezbollah’s militancy and the same mock-sad resignation: “All we want is peace. Unfortunately a neighbor like Israel will never allow it.”
The Scouts implanted from a young age the idea that everyone in the homeland was an individual with aspirations and temptations, while everyone in the land of the enemy robotically contributed to a war machine. They humanized the Islamic fighters for imbuing their military struggle into every aspect of life, and demonized Israelis who did the same thing.
Mohammed Dawi, almost twice Malak’s age (he was born in 1971), came from a different Hezbollah generation. The young scouts, and the recently-minted adults like Malak Sweid, never knew an alternative reality; in their universe, Hezbollah had always been omnipotent in the community and under threat from Israel. The Party of God always had been their patron and teacher, and the Jews always had been their enemies. Mohammed Dawi was more hard-bitten, and hadn’t grown up with the same kind of certainty.
The younger Hezbollah members often projected the calm inner focus of the religious acolyte. They lived and breathed Hezbollah’s credos, like Rani Bazzi’s children who took their father’s word that Islamic purity applied to lunch and exercise in addition to jihad against Israel. In contrast, Mohammed Dawi appeared focused yet impatient, without the Zen forbearance of the elite Hezbollah members I had met. Earlier he had leaned against the wall in the school basement smoking directly in front of the children’s drawings warning against the perils of cigarettes. Although he seemed to genuinely like all the kids and know them by name, he seemed bored by the sedentary indoor indoctrination activities. Drawing pictures about Israeli evil was clearly an important step in acculturating young children to the perpetual war, but Mohammed Dawi much preferred the spontaneity of getting outdoors or visiting Hezbollah families in their home where he could lead unscripted conversations about war and Islamic justice. He seemed like he’d be more in his element at a picnic or on a camping trip.
He took us to the home of his predecessor as Khiam’s Mahdi Scout leader, the martyr Ahmed Sheikh Ali, killed in the 2006 war. Mohammed Dawi and Ahmed Sheikh Ali had spent several years together in the Khiam prison. Their children were friends and the redheaded scoutmaster clearly felt at ease with the Sheikh Ali children. The eldest son, Mahdi, was ten. He leaned against Dawi and smiled. The scoutmaster wrapped one arm tightly around the boy, and with the other shoveled candy from the coffee table into his prodigious mouth. Four teenage girl scouts delivered gifts to the four children of the martyr, and stayed for a long visit. Each scout focused on one of the children, and discreetly but persistently encouraged them to stick with their old activities and turn to the Hezbollah community whenever depression nipped at them.
Young Mahdi seemed to enjoy the visit and the attention from this friend of his father’s. He was an active scout, Dawi said, one of the best in the troop; he was destined, God willing, to follow his father’s footsteps. “This is our role in the Mahdi Scouts: to transfer our ideas,” Dawi said. “We want to live, but we don’t want anyone to forget the enemy. Mahdi here is a child. His father died. Will he forget the enemy? No. The idea will be in his mind forever. It’s something he will hold close.”
Mahdi giggled. “I want to be like my father when I grow up,” he said. It seemed as if he was about to speak of his dreams of being a soldier, to which his mother already had alluded, but Dawi cut him off. He didn’t want the boy talking about death to me; he was trying to put forward a sanitized version of Hezbollah, and his theme all day had been about loving life.
“You’ll be a doctor of the resistance,” Dawi said.
Mahdi didn’t miss the cue. “I’ll be a doctor!” he repeated unconvincingly, not fully aware why he was supposed to say so, but happy to oblige Uncle Mohammed.
Back at the school about a hundred younger kids waited for their parents to pick them up. They were jubilant.
“What have you learned in the scouts?” I asked one of the boys.
“I’ve learned singing, camping, drawing,” he said, the words tumbling out. “I’ve made houses out of paper. I’ve learned to make weapons out of paper. I ask the Mahdi Scouts to let me prepare to become a real fighter. I want to sing you a song!” Several of his friends joined in with their sweet young voices.
We are men. We are flowers.
It’s my flag, it’s my nation.
We sacrifice our blood.
The ten-year-old, his name Ahmed, felt even rowdier after the song. He switched from Arabic to halting English. “I want to fuck Israel!” he said. “America, America, Fallujah, Fallujah!” He collapsed in convulsions of laughter.