Inside the Mind of Hezbollah
Hasan Nasrallah is exactly where he always wanted to be.
"Ever since I was 9 years old, I had plans for the day when I would start doing this," the Hezbollah chief reflected on his leadership quest, when I visited him in the southern slums of Beirut not long ago. "When I was 10 or 11, my grandmother had a scarf. It was black, but a long one. I used to wrap it around my head and say to them that I'm a cleric, you need to pray behind me."
Nasrallah is a man of God, gun and government, a cross between Ayatollah Khomeini and Che Guevera, an Islamic populist as well as a charismatic guerrilla tactician. The black head wrap -- signifying his descent from the prophet Muhammad -- is now his trademark, and he is Lebanon's best known politician. Lines from his speeches are popular ring tones on cellphones. His face is a common computer screensaver. Wall posters, key rings and even phone cards bear his image. Taxis play his speeches instead of music.
At 46, Nasrallah is also the most controversial leader in the Arab world, at the center of the most vicious new confrontation between Israel and its neighbors in a quarter-century. Yet he is not the prototypical militant. His career has straddled the complex line between Islamic extremist and secular politician. "He is the shrewdest leader in the Arab world," Israeli
Ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon told me on Friday, "and the most dangerous."
Until this eruption of violence along the Lebanese border -- the most dramatic cross-border acts of war by Israel since its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 -- Nasrallah had largely succeeded in being both. A fiery populist, he extolled the virtues of democracy to me in one breath, then argued that only suicide bombers can secure that democracy. "As long as there are fighters who are ready for martyrdom, this country will remain safe," he bragged in a speech earlier this year. But now the man who helped create Hezbollah may finally have to make a choice.
When we met in his office, before this new battle with Israel, Nasrallah claimed to see peaceful political activism as Hezbollah's future.
"We have ministers, we have members of parliament, we have municipal council members, leaders of unions and syndicates," he boasted as we sat on faux French brocade furniture at his now-bombed headquarters. "If we are maintaining our arms until now, this is due to the fact that the need for it is still there, due to the permanent or constant Israeli threats against Lebanon. Whether we keep on with the resistance or stop the resistance, we are effectively now a full-fledged political party."
The outskirts of Beirut are known as the dahiya , Arabic for "suburbs." It has come to mean the poor, dense and sometimes dangerous maze of slums that is also Hezbollah-land. Its dirty alleys are crammed with concrete-block shanties. Gnarled masses of wire run from one building to the next, illegally tapping into electrical, phone and television lines. While lights burn brightly in trendy downtown Beirut, the dahiya is often eerily dark because of sporadic electricity.
Hezbollah has become an enterprise in the dahiya, often outperforming the state. It runs a major hospital as well as schools, discount pharmacies, groceries and an orphanage. It runs a garbage service and a reconstruction program for homes damaged during Israel's invasion. It supports families of the young men it sent off to their deaths. Altogether, it benefits an estimated 250,000 Lebanese and is the country's second-largest employer.
In the dahiya, Nasrallah is an icon, famed for his oratory and revered as a champion of Lebanon's long-dispossessed Shiite minority.
Born in a Christian suburb of Beirut in 1960, the first of nine children, Nasrallah only joined Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion. Trained in Islam at the top seminaries of both Iraq and Iran, he became one of the original military leaders in Iran's new training camps.