Where’s Israel?

It’s not every day that your average tourist itinerary includes a stop at the Musee de Mleeta, affectionately known as the Hezbollah Museum, but my husband, David Lewis, has arranged for us to have a guided tour.  It’s a foggy day when we arrive on the top of a mountain 40 kilometers from the Israel border.  My daughter, Thea, is wearing a cute little black sundress. We know scarves are not required as headdress, but we debate whether it’s wise to enter with an attractive 18 year-old in a mini-dress. David reminds us that they’ll have no problem allowing her entry, but she may get a few good long stares.  Thea lets out an “ewww.” Our travel mate, Mary, offers an oversized striped overlay blouse and we have a solution.

We have called ahead and the Mleeta museum is happy to provide us a personalized guided tour but they will not accept entrance fees from Americans. Zeina, our Lebanese guide will pay so David and Zeina do the hand-off in the parking lot like they’re acting out a bad drug movie.

Like many museums, this tour starts off with a movie. Our guide leads us into an elaborate screening room. The windows are covered with heavy gold drapes with tassels at the bottom. The film starts off with a bang.  I think: “Leni Riefenstahl move over.”  If you could imagine “Patton” combined with a “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack and lots of bearded guys in war scenes, you have the Hezbollah museum film covered. I don’t know all the characters in the film but do recognize Hassan Nasrallah and Abbas Mussawi. Mussawi is a dude who was famously killed by an Israeli missile shot from an Apache helicopter while riding in his car with his wife and young son. The last time we came to Lebanon, my husband took me to his mausoleum where we got to see the burnt shell of the car and elaborate displays of what he and family were wearing when he was killed, his Koran, etc….  “Don’t say I never take you anyplace nice,” my husband reminded me on the last trip.  Same is true and more this time because when I say “museum” and “Hezbollah” you are probably thinking some large Soviet style concrete structure. Think again.  This place is more like the Georgia Aquarium and the Coca-Cola museum rolled into one.  Beds of deep red roses and huge flag posts flank the wide well-groomed pathway up the hillside to a series of modern buildings, gardens and sculptures on the top of this mountain, which for years was a main Hezbollah outpost.  Before it’s multi-million dollar makeover, this was filled with Hezbollah’s underground bunkers, training operations and who-knows-what.  Now you can walk into the bunkers and see all the weapons Hezbollah captured in their battles with Israeli troops.

After the film, our guide, Mohammed, takes us to the sculpture garden.  The garden is a huge circular affair featuring a wide array of Israeli equipment, helmets, tanks, barbed wire and cannons, all creatively laid-out as “art” of a sort.  Mohammed proudly points out the mockup Merkava tank at the center which has its gun barrel curled into a tidy knot,  “The Israelis were so proud of their Merkava because it’s so big and supposedly indestructible but we destroyed lots of them.”   There’s an area of the garden that highlights cluster bombs and Mohammed bows his head and says, “I regret to inform you that the Americans are still manufacturing them in violation of international law.”  We know all about cluster bombs because the last time we came to Lebanon we traveled South to the border and got the stern lecture not to go wandering off any path in the woods, lest we stumble upon a small rock which is actually a bomb waiting to go off.  The hillsides in southern Lebanon were filled with them after the 2006 war.  We’re trying to figure out the circular design of the sculpture garden when Mohammed offers up, “It’s designed to look like a tornado…  Do you see?  And the enemy is at the center of the tornado.”  As in the film, our guide rarely uses the word Israel or Israelis, preferring “Zionists” or “the Enemy.”

We gaze upon the sculpture garden while groups of “Gulfies” and their young children scamper up the circular pathway to the “tornado”.  “Gulfies” are rich families from the Gulf countries like Dubai who come to Lebanon for vacation.  We see them at all the major tourist sites.  Two days ago we visited the Jeitta Grotto, which is in line to be listed as one of the wonders of the world. The grotto was also filled with women in fashionable burkas and husbands in polo shirts with hordes of little children between them.  After the tornado, Mohammed takes us on a pathway into the woods and reminds us to keep an eye on the trees.  According to Mohammed, every tree has war written all over it and indeed we see shelled trees with burnt limbs.  There are also life-like mannequins dressed to look just like Hezbollah fighters properly accessorized with AK 47’s.  We visit the bunker where Mussawi allegedly prayed with fighters and to “Make me a martyr”.  He got his wish courtesy of that Apache gunship.

The culmination of our romp through the woods is a visit to the cave and tunnel system Hezbollah forces carefully dug out by hand through solid rock to house fighters.   I’m a bit claustrophobic, so the notion of wandering into a narrow dugout to see the Hezbollah kitchen and war room is not my idea of fun.  David grabs my arm and gently reminds me, “The guide told us we have to stay together.”  I try to nod towards the two darting-eye, no-smile guards at the entry and David just gives me that stern look which I know I won’t argue my way out of.  The cave is an elaborate affair with tunnels leading deep under the mountain.  We do finally see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and Mohammed turns around and says, “There’s only one word to say when you step outside,” and indeed, we all say it, “Wow.”  We exit onto the most amazing view of the hills of Southern Lebanon. Despite the fog, we can see for miles.  Dee, our travel mate looks at Mohammed and asks, “Where is Israel from here?”  Our chatty guide looks momentarily blank, lets out a breath and says, “Israel is nowhere.”

Disclaimer: I am only reporting on my experiences at Mleeta.  The comments and opinions expressed by the guide and/or the film are simply what I witnessed.  My visit to the Hezbollah museum in no way is an endorsement of Hezbollah or their activities.  We understood very clearly that what we were hearing was propaganda but it’s part of understanding all the viewpoints that make up this complex country.

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