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Rethinking Terrorism: A Jewish American Crosses into Hezbollah Territory

One journalist spends 10 days in Lebanon, sipping coffee and talking politics with members of Hezbollah, the Islamic militant group Americans have branded as terrorists.
 
 
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Ghosts of buildings flit in and out of view as our minibus picks its way through the narrow streets of Haret Hreik, the Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut's southern suburbs. First a broken building appears. Then, around a corner, an apartment block missing its top half. Then a towering complex, its concrete sloughed off to the side as if just poured.

A man on a scooter zooms around the bus, forcing us to the side. What are we doing here, a bus full of six American reporters and six Middle Eastern reporters. A Syrian and an Iranian. A Jew. A Palestinian.

......

We are in the heart of Hezbollah territory. The name, as it staggers off our president's tongue, is synonymous with terrorism. It often comes with other names.

Hamas. Taliban. Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda. Names or ideas meant to strike fear in Americans.

But here we are in Beirut's southern suburbs, driving past barber shops and pastry shops. Music blares out of car stereos. Girls walk hand in hand, some with heads covered, some in tight pants. They bow their heads, or stare intently into the bus, sometimes meeting my blue eyes even if just for a moment. Old men stand outside shops sipping from pink plastic espresso cups.

And then the buildings appear.

Israel laid waste to a dozen city blocks around Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's former home, once the administrative hub and "security zone" for the group.

A large tent is now used to greet reporters and other visitors. I step into the tent and am drawn to a series of political cartoons posted on its walls.

They caricature America's policies in the Middle East and Israel's perceived defeat in the month-long summer war. A mini George W. Bush marches roughshod across the globe, "democracy" stamped on the bottom of his combat boot. A ferocious Condoleezza Rice, with caricatured lips, delivers a bomb to Lebanon. Sobbing Israeli soldiers walk off the battlefield, their pants soaked in piss.

These pictures momentarily confuse me, but my Arab colleagues are unfazed. I understand that this powerful propaganda is just a mirror image of our own. But still, I feel somewhat alone, an American in Hezbollah's tent.

A few months prior this very spot was bombed by Israeli jets in a war that America ignored for weeks. A war that my country sanctioned, if not actively supported.

Now we, as journalists yes, but as Americans too, stand on this very ground. The rubble has mostly been cleared, or combed into neat piles.

But the ghosts of buildings remain.

I quietly digest the cartoons. I feel parched.

......

Like any other office, this Hezbollah press center/volunteer coordination tent is graced with a water cooler.

I ask a man standing around the water cooler for a cup. Drink a few sips.

So, I say, warming into pidgin Arabic, you work here?

He smiles, pours coffee. He is helping coordinate the rebuilding effort.

Ahlan wa sahlan, he says. Welcome.

I greet another, younger man. Where are you from, he asks. America, I say.

The man is bemused. He dials a cell phone and hands me the receiver.

Who's there?

It's his brother in Detroit.

I am standing in the Hezbollah volunteer center talking to a Lebanese guy in Detroit who is not happy to be on the phone. It's 5 a.m. in Detroit.

I tell him I'm from Boise. Nice talking to you.

.....

It's always been a slightly unnerving exercise. A yogic workout for my journalistic mind.

As I child I learned that Israel was surrounded by enemies.

So when I went there in my college years, I set about meeting these supposed foes.

I toured Gaza City in a United Nations van and, only at the end of the tour, as we observed open sewers running into the Mediterranean, did our Palestinian guide ask me about my T-shirt.

It was a well-worn memento of the Jewish olympics in Baltimore.

I turned the shirt inside out, but that was the last time I denied my heritage in Arab lands.

A few months later I found myself explaining to a group of rural Egyptian lawyers that I was both Jewish and agnostic and believed that we evolved from monkeys trying to reach apples higher on the trees.

They hooted and hollered at the notion and bought me lunch. I later explained my roots to Palestinian mothers, in their living rooms, photos of their AK-47-weilding children peering down at us from the mantelpiece.

Sure I'm Jewish, my mother is Jewish. My intense questioning derives from childhood Torah study. Flirting with the Talmud.

After a failed venture into Syria in 1998, I found myself in front of a squad of Jordanian police, explaining that I could not share in the bread they were offering because it was Eid al-Pesach, a holiday commemorating the Jewish escape from Egypt thousands of years ago.

They offered me yogurt and a spoon.

In all my travels in the Middle East I have repeatedly received the same welcome response. It is one of two Koranic phrases I have memorized.

Lakum dinakum wa ana diin. Roughly, they have their mitzvahs, and I have mine.

I don't pretend to understand the context or interpretations of this phrase, but my entire understanding of Islam -- of the Arab world -- starts here.

.....

For a moment I thought I had gone too far coming to this Hezbollah stronghold.

As dusk settles in over Haret Hreik, we walk a few blocks over to the former headquarters of Al Manar television, which the Israelis flattened toward the end of the war.

I hang behind the group, Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Zarakat strolling to my right. A prominent Lebanese journalist, who is part of a our group, strolls to my left. The question I have been waiting for comes.

Nathaniel. That's a Jewish name, right. You're Jewish?

Sure, it's a Jewish name. I wait for a sign. Is that going to be a problem, I ask.

Hezbollah leaders have a reputation for slow deliberation, so I let out a deep breath as I wait for a response.

Jews lived among Arabs for thousands of years and even Hezbollah, a sworn enemy to Israel, has not forgotten this.

Minutes earlier, Hezbollah senior political advisor Hassan Ezz Eddine had recalled for us fondly the Jewish neighborhood in Beirut, Wadi Abu-Jamil.

Hezbollah exists for the official purpose of defending Lebanon from "Israeli aggression," a mission for which wide swaths of the Lebanese population are now quite appreciative. Zarakat, and my Lebanese journalist colleague assure me they have no problem with my religion. They point around at the destruction and ask me who the terrorists are. They recall a delegation of rabbis that visited Haret Hreik some years ago.

In Lebanon and across the Middle East, journalists and experts are too eager to point to sectarian divisions -- Sunni vs. Shia, Christian vs. Muslim -- as causes of conflict. In the Middle East I know, in the very heart of Jerusalem even, people from every religious background lived as neighbors for centuries.

The Muslim attorneys in Egypt called out to a priest as he walked by and told him about this Jewish American who thinks people were once monkeys. The priest shook his head and kept walking.

Countless Lebanese told me about their "other-sect" wives.

And even as a brilliant sun set on buildings bombed by Israel just a few months prior, members of a group that the United States deems "terrorist" all around me, I, an American Jew, was taken at face value. I was treated as an individual.

This is a skill that many Americans lack. And the more time I spend on U.S. soil, the more I tend to group people into huge categories.

When President Bush condemns Hezbollah or Islamo-facism or however he puts it, despite my better judgment, an image of thousands of Lebanese villagers gearing up for our slaughter is unfortunately conjured in my head. It is an image I know to be false, an image quickly dispensed with by visiting the villages.

But it creeps into my mind anyway.

.....

As we pull away from the ruins of Haret Hreik I am struck by the absurdity of this conflict. How does the bombing start when we can we stand here chatting politely, drinking coffee, asking questions about Israel and Lebanese politics? Who are the people who start the bombing? Who are the kidnappers and the killers? And why can't they talk a little more first?

On the bus ride home I suggest to another Lebanese journalist that one day he'll be able to drive a few hours south to Tel Aviv to hit the beach.

No, he says. We are in a state of war with Israel. It is impossible.

There are a few moments of silence. He looks my way again.

How many hours away is Tel Aviv, he asks.

Nathaniel is an independent reporter in Boise, Idaho. He blogs at www.newwest.net/xutos.

 
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