Tea with Hamas and Hezbollah

I’m sitting on the rooftop of the Hotel Albergo, listening to a favorite old tune, Moon River, and looking out over the Achrafiyeh neighborhood of Beirut.  As at every meal, I’m immediately presented with little glass jars of pistachios and carrot sticks before I’ve even ordered a drink.  I’ve left the group behind at a French restaurant called Paul in the fashionable Gemmayze neighborhood in the hopes that I’ll finally sleep off my hangover from two nights ago and can process what I’ve seen this morning. Today was the first and only day I’ve felt anything that resembled fear and that was fleeting at best.

This morning, we got up early for our back-to-back Hamas and Hezbollah meetings. Both meetings are to take place in a neighborhood I’ve come to know well from the interior of our van, Dayiheh.  It’s all of fifteen minutes away from our hotel, but the scenery quickly changes from chic to shabby with the Armani posters replaced by ones featuring martyrs. In our neighborhood, we have sushi bars, Jacadi and it’s a short walk to the local mall with its Apple store and Tiffany’s.  In Dayiheh, it’s tiny little shops with Arabic lettering featuring everything from Fredericks of Hollywood style lingerie to full burkas.  I wonder if the hidden security have gotten used to us.  This is our fourth or fifth visit to the “hood.” This is the same place we came to meet with Sheik Fadlallah.  In fact, Fadlallah, Hamas and the Hezbollah Media Office are within a few block radius.  I guess that’s why the Israel targeted these blocks during the fighting in 2006.

Our ever-reliable translator and guide, Rawan, meets us at a street corner wearing another adorable outfit and a big smile.  What to wear turns out to be a major preoccupation of my fellow female travelers on the trip, “Scarf?  No scarf?  Long pants or skirt?”  Rawan never seems to mind and typically shows up bare armed and brightly clad, dressed like she’s headed to an American mall.  Our first tea of the day is with Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ representative to Lebanon.  We wait on the street corner for what seems like forever and I notice a white van with a fairly large antenna and point, “Hey there’s some major security and he’s staring right at us.”  David grabs my hand and pulls it down, “Don’t point.  Be normal.”  Oh yeah, normal: I always wake up, have my coffee and head out to meet with Hamas…  Family vacations always involve morning meetings with two groups on the US Terrorism list. NOT!  I’m reminded of one of “N’s” quotable quotes, “We soooo fit in here.”  Finally, a young man with a moped shows up and tells us to follow him. We are about to turn down one of the innocuous-looking driveways filled with construction equipment that I’ve come to recognize when the moped clips the bumper of a dusty green Mercedes.  For a moment, we think we’re going to witness our first major traffic accident in Beirut but the drivers smile, wave and keep going.  David constantly reminds us to leave as much as possible behind in the van as getting our bags searched will only slow us down and, after all, we want to spend as much time with Hamas as possible.   We grab our notebooks, David’s tape-recorder (listen at www.1690wmlb.com) and a few cameras and enter what looks like a dilapidated apartment building and head up the stairs. Along the way, we pass by a grandmotherly looking woman carrying shopping bags.

Wissam Al-Hassan, the press officer for Hamas in Lebanon is there to greet us with a big smile on his face and escorts us into the meeting room.  These rooms are beginning to merge together in my mind. This one features nearly the same faded upholstered couches of the last one.  The floors are flecked tiles and we shuffle about trying to figure out our seating arrangements before Osama arrives.  David and the author typically sit up front.  David, so he can make the formal introductions and the author so he can get in key questions for the research into his book.  The rest of us are happy to be relegated to the sidelines of the shabby couches.  There’s always an overstuffed armchair reserved for Osama in front of a window draped with heavy green curtains and two flags, one the red, green, black and white Palestinian flag and the other the Hamas flag with its crossed swords.  This room is slightly smaller and definitely shabbier than the sheik’s. I cannot help but wonder why they put the local leader of Hamas in front of a window… Still, sitting there in this room, I keep imagining a huge flash of light, followed by a loud explosion.  I manage to suppress my fears since after all, there’s no turning back at this point and after another long wait, Osama finally enters the room.

Unlike our meeting with the Sheik, we’re not required to suit up in scarves but when Osama enters, he first encounters Miranda who puts forth her hand and offers to shake it.  He looks down and says, very apologetically, “I am sorry, I cannot,” and moves around the room, shaking the hands of the men and then looks back again at Miranda and says, “Sorry.”  David goes through the steps of making the formal introductions, this time rushing a bit as we are already worried about being late for Hezbollah. Unlike the Sheik, Osama offers up no formal presentation.  Instead, he seems to prefer a conversation, peppered with questions from us.  He speaks excellent English.

We cover familiar territory, the refugee camps, the status of Palestinians in Lebanon, Israel, resistance and occupation.  For the record, these guys take umbrage with being called terrorists.  Osama’s opinion on the US and what he perceives as their erroneous definition of his group as a terrorist, “When you don’t want to deal with someone, you call them a terrorist.”  I don’t know if he personally is hoping to get an invite to the Lincoln bedroom, but he added as further explanation, “They said a long time ago that Yasser Arafat was a terrorist… but then he was the most important visitor to the White House.”  The issue of being labeled a terrorist clearly rankles everyone from the Sheiks to Hezbollah and everyone we meet draws comparisons from history.

We talked about the tit for tat of Israel and Hamas and Osama feels pretty strongly “when your civilians are being attacked, we have to send a message that we can do the same.  If they are ready to stop killing our civilians, we are willing to do the same.”  I must confess that these conversations don’t leave me filled with hope so I take the opportunity to pose a question about an area that interests me which is the internet, social media and its applications in Iran and here.  After all, in this day and age, you need a good website and a good Internet communications plan.  This clearly piques his interest and he tells us about his frustration of getting his sties shut down by the FBI.

I’m going to get our keen observer Finn to do a post on more of the conversation but will share one last comment from Osama that to me gets to the root of the problem for many people of this region.  He said, “Is it fair to ask the Palestinians to leave this land, this village where their grandfather lived, their great-grandfather lived, their great-great-grandfather lived, their great-great-great-grandfather lived?  You ask them to leave this land for these people, these Israelis who have grandfathers who came from Poland?” I glance across the room at one of the Polish grandkids and he winks, “Time to go.”

Rawan practically pushes us down the stairs to climb into the van.  Hezbollah is waiting and she’s had to leave the room many times to call ahead and let them know we are late.  We’re visiting the offices of Ibrahim Mussawi, Hezbollah’s press officer right around the corner from Osama’s pad.  Our Druze driver is getting the hang of navigating these streets choked with women shopping, construction equipment, stern security guys with all manner of machine guns and the crazy Lebanese drivers.  We arrive at a fairly typical looking office building with a sign out front that clearly states Hezbollah Media Relations.  The stairwell is busy with folks coming down and guys with cameras and film equipment walking up behind us.  This time, we aren’t asked to hand over our cameras and nobody checks our passport or counts our numbers.  (Of course, we’d had to fax our passport info weeks before to get the meeting, which makes me wonder how much they know about us…)  We’re ushered into another room, similar to ones we’ve seen in the past.  This one with burnt orange curtains and flea market find gold couches.  There’s a television set in the corner playing Animal Planet.  We start the waiting game for Ibrahim.  Kathy gets excited when she realizes there is an episode on gorillas on TV, “I’m going to Rwanda for my jubilee year next year!!”  David and the author huddle in the corner, sharing the deep political observations that aside from Finn, leave most of us befuddled.  Suddenly, one of the escorts comes in and urges us to get up and we’re shepherded into the next room down.  “Kathy” quips, “I guess this was just the holding room?”  Yeah,” I say, “kind of like the green room for Hezbollah.’  We find ourselves in a tiny conference room with fluorescent lights, a huge fake cherry wood table that takes up nearly the entire room, black padded office chairs and those same burnt orange curtains against a window as the last room.

Ibrahim enters the room with a big smile on his face – he’s clearly a public relations guy. Actually, he’s more professorial than PR. Indeed he used to teach at the American University of Beirut.  Not only is Ibrahim professorial in nature, but he may have learned to talk from a New Yorker. He speaks so fast I can barely keep notes so my blog comments from this tête-à-tête will be more observational than accurate.

Nearly everyone we meet with mentions their “image problem” in the US, in this case the fact that Hezbollah is regarded as a terrorist group.  Ibrahim tells us right off the bat, “When it comes to Hezbollah, we are being degraded as terrorists by the American administration.  However in the majority of the Arab world, we’re viewed as freedom fighters.”  They are also all quick to distinguish themselves from Al-Qaeda, The American media keeps telling you the same story. They manipulate the story to present us as fanatics. We have no problem with the Western style of life.”  He doesn’t want to let his one go, “After all, we were the first people to condemn the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers.”  Then he draws a comparison that’s not one we hear everyday in your typical conference room in the states, “The people in Afghanistan the Americans are killing. Are they that different in value than those who were killed in 9/11? Are they that different than the housewives and business men on the planes who flew into the twin towers because they don’t have cell phones?”

He talked to us about the roots of Hezbollah and if I understood him correctly, he was trying to explain how Hezbollah really was a grass roots organization that came into being around the time of the US Marine and US Embassy bombings in the early 80’s.  He seemed to want us to believe that there simply was not an established enough group in Hezbollah to have anything to do with these bombings.  Meanwhile there are huge Hezbollah posters all over the neighborhood of Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah terror chieftain who masterminded those bombings, the hijacking of the TWA flight, the taking of hostages and so on…

Rawan, who is not shy, despite her youth and relative inexperience in this crowd, pipes up and asks a heated question, “Why did you refuse to meet with Jimmy Carter when he was here?”  Ibrahim’s sleek PR demeanor leaves him for a second as he confesses that he personally would have agreed to meet with him but it’s not up to him.  He explains that Hezbollah is an organization that has a process and here he begins to punt and we’re not sure what the real reason is until he says, “ You cannot talk to me while you have a sword in my neck.”  He lets us know, loud and clear (and at this point, he’s talking faster and louder) that he feels very strongly that actions speak louder than words and he’s not fond of the US actions and their support of Israel.

Kathy leans forward and is clearly emotional and lets him know she is looking at the situation as a mother when she asks him about the camps, how the people live there. She wants to understand how he can refuse dialogue with Americans, surely it can make a difference.  The hallway is teaming and people keep coming in and ask questions in Arabic. At one point, Ibrahim asks if we’d mind being part of a documentary they are shooting. I immediately glance at Finn, the high level executive, who has her head draped in a turquoise scarf to avoid being photographed in this room. David handles it with all aplomb and explains that he could care less, but there are some Americans in the room might feel uncomfortable.  We can’t get out of any of these rooms without the obligatory cups of sugared tea in matching clear little cups and saucers.  We drink our tea, continue our conversation about Israel, terrorism, the elections and the two-state solution until someone comes in and says in Arabic “times up” and we’re ushered out.

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