Junior Geoff Bendeck, an international affairs major, will spend two semesters studying abroad in Cairo and Beirut, Lebanon. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from the Middle East as one of GW’s many expats.
“I not member of Hezbollah, but I support very much,” the manager of the restaurant said. He was a smooth character-slicked back hair, jet-black mustache and, as soon as he saw me pull out my notebook, dark black sunglasses. I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Images of blindfolded, trunk rides ending in dark cellars started to cross my mind. But alas, I had nothing to worry about. He “only supported” the Islamist militant group.
Along with being the home of some of the most breathtaking Roman ruins in the world, the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon is the territorial stronghold of Hezbollah. Since the early 1980s, Hezbollah has been dedicated to ending the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and has been linked to numerous anti-Israel terrorist attacks. After the Israeli pullout in 2000, the group is under pressure to disarm.
So, after a short flight from Cairo to Beirut, my roommate and I set out to see some ruins and talk to some Islamic fundamentalists.
Bekaa and Baalbeck were a far cry from the beautiful Parisian streets of Beirut. Spending time in Beirut on the first day of the trip was a culture shock coming from Cairo. The streets were clean, the air was fresh, and the taxis were made before the 1950s. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, nearly all of downtown Beirut has been rebuilt. Bekaa, however, is different.
When I brought up questions about Syria, my new friend-the restaurant manager-seemed uncomfortable. One of my first questions was about the recent spate of bombings in Beirut, and whom he thought was responsible. “We not know, maybe Israeli Mossad.” Not the Syrians, I replied? What about the CIA? We all laughed, knowing the CIA was about as likely as the Mossad, an Israeli intelligence agency, to be behind the bombings. I asked him if he supported the Syrians and what had changed since they left, following a bombing that left former Prime Minister Rafik Hairiri dead. (It is widely believed the Syrians and pro-Syrians in the Lebanese intelligence services coordinated the bombing.) He told me nothing really had changed and that he supported the Syrians because of their resistance to Israel and the continued fear of Israeli attacks.
Then something funny happened. Our Christian Maronite driver and our Shiite restaurant manager started to debate about politics and the Syrians. I forgot what I wanted to ask, and I watched these two men debate “the Syrian issue.” Bishara, our driver/translator, was glad to see the Syrians go. The restaurant manager was not. The two men and all the Lebanese I met that weekend agreed on one thing: being Lebanese and identifying as Lebanese is more important than talking about ethnic or religious differences. No one wanted to talk about how they are different, only how they are similar. After the bombings, which have continued since the death of Hairiri, many people fear there will be a return to civil war-like violence. After watching the discussion, I knew it couldn’t happen.
I’m not really sure why I wanted to go to Bekaa, maybe it was the adventure or the curiosity about a group and people we read so much about but have never seen or met. Walking around Baalbeck after the end of the conversation with the manager, we met a group of guys about our age. We talked mostly about sports and laughed and joked. When I asked if any of them were in Hezbollah, one replied they weren’t but “supported them very much.” I had heard that before. But with a mischievous smile, one of them said, “He’s lying, we three are in Hezbollah.”
After visiting Baalbeck and Bekaa, I realize that knowing if I had met Hezbollah members didn’t really matter that much. Other than being hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, Hezbollah members seem pretty nice. That is, if you can find them.