Time Zones: Beirut, Lebanon

Book-Lined Refuge Bridges East and West

Shafiq Musawi, head of the Fadlallah Library in Beirut, is opposed to the censoring of books.
Shafiq Musawi, head of the Fadlallah Library in Beirut, is opposed to the censoring of books. "The world is open," he says. (Photos By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 28, 2006


It is a little before 9 a.m., and with practiced motions, Hoda Jaloul runs a dust cloth over books stacked six shelves high at her workplace -- the Public Library of His Eminence, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, or, in the vernacular of the hardscrabble Shiite Muslim neighborhood in south Beirut, simply the Fadlallah Library.

The dusting done, Jaloul straightens the volumes, among them a biography of Ariel Sharon, the incapacitated Israeli leader reviled by most Arabs, and a book by former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, banned in the rest of Lebanon.

Nearby are the autobiographies of Bill Clinton and Malcolm X. There are tomes on Che Guevara, Muhammad Ali and the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Behind Jaloul is a memoir of Richard Nixon; alongside that is "My Life," the autobiography of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president. The memoir of the late King Hussein of Jordan sits on another shelf. "It's Not Easy to Be a King," the title reads.

Jaloul, 32, a black and tan veil covering her hair, is a stern woman, with the seriousness that accompanies a sense of mission. "There must be everything available in a library," she said.

The Fadlallah Library, a two-story underground refuge in a part of Beirut that was once one of the Lebanese civil war's most dangerous, is on the front line in a struggle between East and West in which the front lines aren't always well defined.

It is overseen by Fadlallah himself, Lebanon's leading Shiite cleric and an example of how perceptions in East and West so rarely reflect through the same lens. Abroad, the 71-year-old ayatollah remains most famous for his reputed role as the spiritual leader of Hezbollah at the time it was blamed for attacks on Marines and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

In Lebanon, he's considered a respected, liberal voice among his clerical peers, his moderation evident in his quick denunciation of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and insistent calls for dialogue with the West.

The library is his gesture toward bridging a divide he sees as bridgeable; knowledge, he says, is the foundation of that dialogue.

"There is no censorship over any of the titles," Fadlallah said in his office a few blocks away. His thin eyebrows arched under his black turban, which framed his ascetic face and snowy beard. "You can't silence an idea by imprisoning it," he said.

There are 35,000 volumes in the Fadlallah Library. Five women, all veiled, work at the front desk, where patrons sign in. In the morning, virtually all are women from the conservative neighborhood of Haret Hreik where the library is located. The books strewn across the tables reflect their interests: nutrition, women's health, gardening and an introduction to nerve disorders.

At 11:45 a.m., the call to prayer begins, soft and lyrical, one phrase distinguishing it from the Sunni Muslim version. It washes over the neighborhood outside, for a moment drowning out the assault of city life.

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