The islamic resistance as a tourist destination

I spent the past weekend in the south with a mixed group of Lebanese and foreigners to visit  friends in the village of Yaroun, just outside Bint Jbeil. On the way there, we stopped off at Mleeta, where Hezbollah has constructed its first permanent museum of the resistance. In the tried and true fashion of the party of god, it is a large-scale, comprehensive and well-organized effort to shine a light on the power, dedication and success (not to mention the god-fearing attitude) of the islamic resistance. As was the case in the temporary 2007 exhibition celebrating Hezbollah’s 2006 expulsion of the Israeli invasion – Bait al-Ankabout (House of the Spider) in Dahiyyeh – Israeli soldiers are only shown wounded, dead, defeated or retreating. A large part of the site is given over to displays of captured Israeli weapons and equipment, from helmets to tanks, and there are large maps showing the targets – complete with coordinates – within Israel which Nasrallah has promised to hit in any future conflict. But the most impressive section of this ‘Resistance Tourist Landmark’, as it is called on the road signs pointing the way, is the tunnel complex dug out in the mountain top. The Mleeta museum celebrates in the first place the achievements of the resistance during the Israeli occupation of the south (1982-2000), which eventually succeeded in driving Israel out of (most of) Lebanon. The tunnel complex at the centre of the exhibition was an actual fighting post at the time: inspired by techniques successfully used by the Vietcong to drive out the US occupation of Vietnam, a gigantic network of tunnels and rooms has been dug out in the mountain which offers a strategic view over large swathes of the south including Saida, Nabatiyyeh and the Iqlim at-Tuffah region. The complex contains everything from living quarters to first aid posts, munition storage and communications posts and artillery bunkers controlling the valley below. At the end of the walk, a movie theatre plays films about the history of the resistance, and everywhere kids and adults alike can – and do – study the weapons of both the resistance and the enemy for future reference, helped by useful informative displays mentioning the range, calibre and documented uses of the arms in question. The exhibition is obviously conceived as an educational experience for the children who will become the next generation of fighters and busloads of mothers with children arrive there all through the day. But no doubt Hezbollah would welcome any Israeli ‘spies’ to come visit and take the message back home. The international press has actually already been doing that extensively for them in the two months since the museum was opened to the public, but they have missed out on another, more innocuous and peaceful, but possibly even more provocative site: ‘Hadiqat Iran’.

The ‘Park of Iran’, located in Maroun Al-Ras, a village near Bint Jbeil which overlooks the nearest Israeli settlement, seems to mockingly reverse the situation in the West Bank, where Palestinians live down below in the valleys, in permanent fear and under incessant siege of the heavily armed Israeli settlers in their surrounding hill top colonies. Here, the situation is reversed – in several ways – with the Israeli border village of Saliha being overlooked by a cute picnic place and family amusement park in full view of the Israeli border guards and villagers, where families are already coming in large numbers to enjoy barbecues in cute little picnic pavilions with grills provided, looking down on the enemy while sitting under the flags of Hezbollah and Iran, their kids occasionally climbing up on the lookout towers which are actually still under construction. No weapons or threatening installations of any kind are on display here, and there is actually a sign in Arabic at the entrance of the park admonishing visitors to ‘avoid discussing politics’. If you ignored that sign and the flags, you could actually be mistaken into thinking you were in some tourist Raststatte next to a German or Austrian highway. This incongruous feeling is only enhanced by the fact that every picnic pavillion is adorned with a discrete billboard advertising visits to a specific Iranian town or region – it turns out the park doubles as a promotional effort to entice the Lebanese to the charms of holidaymaking in Iran.

It seems the commercialization of the resistance is in full swing, and it is in fact a neat and clever new way to build self-confidence for the future and celebrate past achievements without actually resorting to any violence whatsoever. Both places emanate a typical islamic ‘family-day-in-the-park’ atmosphere, with ample mosques provided and plenty of toys and amusement opportunities to keep the kids happy. This innocuous ‘Iranian’ presence on their border probably worries the Israelis a lot more than if they would actually cone under rocket fire – in any case, it would become a PR problem the size of the flotilla raid if they would choose to get rid of it…

PS I didn’t mention it at first because I presumed it was common knowledge, at least in Lebanon, but Maroun Al Ras is of course one of the great battlefields of the July 2006 war. The IDF elite forces tried twice to capture and occupy the village and twice they were beaten back by the resistance suffering heavy losses. Several of their ‘impenetrable’ Merkava tanks were destroyed there too. Which makes it an even more salient location for the Park of Iran, of course.

Two remarks about loosely related issues: this weekend, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah died. He was one of the most progressive, modern and liberal among the Shia ‘marajia’ or ‘sources of emulation’. Much of the mass media claim he was the ‘spiritual guide’ of Hezbollah, but this is manifestly untrue. Contrary to sunni islam, where anybody who can recite a few verses of the Koran and climb the steps of a minaret can issue fatwas which may or may not be followed, in shia islam there is a strictly controlled procedure involving many years of study, the writing of a risala or dissertation, and a peer approval process which determines who can become a marja. This makes for a rather higher level of education among the shia clergy, as well as lively scholarly discussions among them on various subjects, and specifically on the topic of the wilayat af faqih – Khomeini’s thesis that the state should be led by clerics, which is actually a revolutionary new concept in the traditionally quietist and non-political shia clerical tradition. Shia believers choose a particular marja to follow and pay their religious taxes to (the khums, or 20% of their disposable income). Many shia in Lebanon (and many more abroad, including in Iran) follow Fadlallah and other ‘non-political’ clerics such as Sistani in Iraq. Hezbollah as an organization has from the start followed Khomeini and after his death his designated successor Khamenei, and decidedly not Fadlallah, with whom they were actually in open conflict in the nineties. You can read more about the relationship  between Fadlallah and Hezbollah here on Angry Arab’s blog. A short biography of Fadlallah in English is published here on Naharnet.

Another related remark: to travel to ‘sensitive’ border areas in the south of Lebanon, as we did this weekend, foreigners need a special permit from the army which has to be obtained from the army barracks in Saida. At checkpoints in the south, this permit is supposedly strictly controlled and checked with HQ in Saida. The procedure lost us about an hour on the way to Yaroun, much to the distress of a few German co-travelers, who consequently missed their team’s first goal of the world cup game… But later that day, two Belgian friends came to join us, without the permit, driving down in their motorhome with Belgian license plates, and were simply waved through by the soldiers manning the checkpoint. On the way up the next day though, when they in their turn went to visit the resistance museum in Mleeta, Hezbollah checked and copied their passports. This just to give you an indication why most Lebanese tend to trust Hezbollah more with their security and defense than the Lebanese Armed Forces…


4 thoughts on “The islamic resistance as a tourist destination

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