09 November 2009

* The Shia of Beirut

Reuters reports that agreement was reached on 6 November on the formation of a national unity government in Lebanon, which would include Hizbullah and other opposition elements. A new government is expected to be formed in the next two days.

We are grateful to John Marsh for bringing to our attention the report below on the Shia suburbs of south Beirut published by the Iranian AhlulBayt News Agency. The author is a journalist who has published widely in the Los Angeles Times and other international media. We have not attempted to correct some imperfections in the text.

The claim that the Shia now represent half the population of Lebanon is well beyond the generally accepted figure. 28% might be more widely accepted.

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Beirut's Shia bastion revives after '06 war

The district, called simply Dahiyah - meaning "the suburb" in Arabic - is the stronghold of Hezbollah, and was heavily targeted by Israel during its war with the Shia group three years ago. The bombardment leveled Hezbollah's headquarters as well as entire blocks across the neighborhood.

Now dozens of newly built or repaired apartment blocs stand in place of those destroyed, the result of a reconstruction program led by Hezbollah, which doesn't receives millions of dollars a year in aid from its ally Iran or other allies.

Property prices are soaring. The district's main streets are congested bumper-to-bumper with cars, while uniformed Hezbollah members direct traffic. Commerce is thriving, restaurants are packed.

"Dahiyah will be more beautiful than it was before," read billboards at the construction sites that remain.

Beyond the district's ties to Hezbollah, Dahiyah is a source of pride for Lebanon's Shias. For them, it exemplifies how the community has shaken off years of discrimination at the hands of the country's traditional powerbrokers - Christians and Sunni Muslims - and has established itself as a powerful political force.

Literally, Dahiyah brought Shias closer to the center of power: It grew from nearly nothing over 30 years to become a densely packed region of apartment towers and homes for 700,000 Shias on the southern doorstep of Beirut.

"In Beirut, people are arrogant and think the world of themselves," said Nagat Gradah, a bookstore employee in the district who, like many of its residents, migrated from Lebanon's mainly Shia south. "But Dahiyah? It's very special."

Dahiyah's revival comes as Hezbollah is seeking to bolster its credentials as a mainstream political power.

For months, it has been in negotiations with Sunni-led pro-Western parties over the creation of a new government, in which Hezbollah and its allies would have a sizable role. The negotiations have been deadlocked by suspicions in the pro-Western bloc.

Hezbollah is strongly backed by Syria and Iran, and it has a powerful armed guerrilla force. But the movement also runs an extensive social welfare network and is the main political representative for Lebanon's Shias, who make up about a half of the country's population of 4 million.

Dahiyah itself may be a sign that Shia power as Hezbollah's opponents fear.

Despite its undisputed lock over Dahiyah, Hezbollah has not tried to enforce its strict interpretation of Islamic teachings in the district.

Billboards advertising women's couture compete for space with billboards of bearded clerics and images of the young Hezbollah guerrillas who Martyred fighting Israel over the years.

Women in tight pants and low-cut tops shop at boutiques with names like "Pascale" and "La Verna" where bikinis, miniskirts and hot shorts are on display in windows - much like in the more liberal districts of Beirut.

"Here in Dahiyah, we have managed to have resistance, freedom and fashion all at the same place," said Hussein al-Zein, a 40-year-old resident who runs a women's casual wear store.

"People think Lebanon is about fighting Israel. In Dahiyah, we have freedom" he said at his store.

That said, the majority of women in Dahiyah dress in Islamic headscarves in public. There are no bars or liquor stores and certainly no nightclubs. European nonalcoholic beer ads in the streets don't mention the word "beer," using instead the term "barley drink."

Hanein Estiatieh, a graphic design student, says she has no worries about going out in jeans and a tight top in Dahiyah, her birthplace.

"I will cover up only when I marry," declares the 18-year-old.

"I don't mind her not covering up," said Aliyah Sohoura, daughter of the owner of the women's clothes store where Estiatieh works. "But I pray for her to see the light of faith," added Sohoura, who wore a headscarf and a bulky coat. The two giggled.

Dahiyah was not always a Shia stronghold. It was once an area of small villages south of Beirut that were home to Christians and some middle-class Shias. During Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, tens of thousands of Shias migrated into the area, more rural south and east to flee fighting. The Christians largely moved out, though pockets remain.

Beirut itself is sharply divided between Sunni and Christian districts, with very few mixed areas. In the 2006 war, Israel almost exclusively targeted Dahiyah and Shia areas in the south and east, while largely steering clear of Sunni and Christian regions - which in turn fed distrust between the sects.

Shias' sense of solidarity in Dahiyah is reinforced by what residents see as neglect from the central government. The district gets only 12 hours of city electricity a day, compared to 19 in Beirut. Authorities blame large-scale power in Dahiyah, while residents call it discrimination.

"We don't try to be a substitute for the state but we just try and come up with solutions," said Hezbollah official Ghassan Darwish.






(mec international)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

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Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.