A moving portrait

September 7, 2006

In News

By Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who as a young boy used to sit eagerly in the front row at elementary school, now sits comfortably at the forefront of the Arab-Israeli conflict after having shaken the myth of Israel’s invicibility for the second time. In five weeks of war, and through five televised speeches, the Hizbullah leader boosted his stock at least five-fold, emerging in the eyes of the Islamic and Arab worlds as an icon.

Fifty years have passed since an Arab “hero” of such stature, the last notable figure being Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the historical embodiment of Arab revolt against Western hegemony.

But, for many in Lebanon and abroad, Nasrallah has rekindled a sense of Arab pride.

In what will likely become one of the most oft-told stories about Nasrallah, the resistance leader declared calmly during one of his five televised speeches during the recent 34-day war with Israel: “Now, in the middle of the sea, facing Beirut, the Israeli warship that has attacked the infrastructure, people’s homes and civilians – look at it burning.”

The attack on one of Israel’s feared war machines brought cheers, celebratory gunfire and fireworks from the capital’s devastated southern suburbs, a Hizbullah stronghold.

Nasrallah is a rare example of a modern Arab leader who possesses the ability to captivate his audience and keep them watching, as was clearly demonstrated during his repeated pre-recorded appearances uniformly broadcast across the spectrum of Lebanon’s many media outlets.

But the making of Nasrallah the icon began long before his election as head of Hizbullah in 1992, following the assassination of then-leader Abbas al-Moussawi.

Nasrallah grew up in a humble home in the area of Camp Sharshabouk in Beirut’s Karantina neighborhood. His childhood home was one of hundreds of “tanaks” – literary a tin house in a tin village.

Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah described his former student as “a true leader – politically, socially and religiously.”

“And now the world saw it too,” the senior Shiite cleric said in comments relayed to The Daily Star through his closest companion.

Two more of Nasrallah’s influential teachers were Imam Musa Sadr, an Iranian-born cleric who preached the empowerment of the Shiite minority in Lebanon, and Abbas al-Moussawi, Hizbullah’s first secretary general.

Hassan Nasrallah was born on August 31, 1960. His father owned a vegetable stall that supported the family of nine children.

Nasrallah grew up in a mixed neighborhood, and some say that would explain his deep-rooted desire to “unite rather than divide Lebanon.”

“Nasrallah respected everyone and never showed any sectarian attitudes,” said Khaled Mustafa, a former classmate of Nasrallah’s at Al-Kifaa School in Sharshabook.

“Smart, disciplined, never skipped classes and never got into fights. That is why my mother used to always tell me to go sit next to him in class so I could become a better student,” Mustafa added.

Mustafa remembered Nasrallah as a “chubby boy who loved to eat” and who was somewhat of a “loner.”

“He liked to read more than talk,” Mustafa said.

Salah Darwish, another former classmate, said he couldn’t believe that the same boy he knew as a child was now “the strongest Arab leader.”

Darwish went to see Nasrallah a few years ago. Mustafa said he is waiting for the day when he can “reintroduce” himself and “shake the great leader’s hand.”

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1975, Nasrallah’s family moved back to their ancestral home in Bassouriyeh, near Tyre.

As he was completing secondary school, the young Nasrallah joined the recently formed Amal Movement. Impressing local religious scholars, the young man was sent to Najaf, in southern Iraq, where he attended the town’s famous Shiite seminary. It was in Najaf that Nasrallah met Moussawi.

In 1978 Nasrallah’s studies were again interrupted when he was forced, along with other Shiite clerics, to leave Iraq by the ruling Baathist authorities, who found the clerics too radical.

Nasrallah continued his studies at Moussawi’s school, and was later selected as the Amal political delegate for the Bekaa Valley, making him a member of the central political office – a stepping stone to his future career.

After the Israeli invasion in 1982, Nasrallah joined the newly formed Hizbullah to dedicate himself to resistance against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.

Nasrallah continued his religious studies throughout the war and in 1989 moved to the sacred Iranian city of Qom to continue his Islamic education.

Nasrallah’s second home was in Nabaa, a Shiite neighborhood in Bourj Hammoud where it is rumored that an apartment belonging to Nasrallah’s family has been maintained, according to the local mukhtar, Moussa Shari.

“He was known in the neighborhood as a kind and pious person,” Shari said.

“We all know each other, a close-knit people,” said Sheikh Farhat, whose father led prayers regularly attended by Nasrallah.

At the time there was no Dahiyeh, or southern suburbs, explained Farhat. Nabaa was the gathering point for most of Lebanon’s influential Shiite leaders.

Farhat said Nasrallah’s “great leadership skills” were deeply rooted in his religious devotion and piety.

“Unlike some religious leaders, Nasrallah is a true believer who practices what he preaches,” Farhat said. “Nasrallah is not a hypocrite, so people trust him.”

With Nasrallah’s appointment as party leader in 1992, Hizbullah made strides in its fight against the occupying Israeli Army. Eight years later, the resistance celebrated the withdrawal of Israeli troops, a milestone which substantially bolstered the party’s standing and clout within Lebanon.

In 2004, Nasrallah played a major role in a complex prisoner exchange with Israel that saw hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners freed. The exchange was described across the Arab world as an unprecedented victory for an Arab party against the Jewish state, with Nasrallah personally praised for the achievement.

After his second encounter with Israeli forces, Nasrallah has once more been praised throughout the region and has been given such titles as “the Che Guevara of the Arabs” and the “the Arab dream maker.”

While the resistance draws the vast majority of its popular support from Lebanon’s Shiite community, Nasrallah seems to have a wide base of admirers, if not quite supporters.

“What makes him distinct is that besides being a great army commander, he is a great commander of words,” said former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, whose first meeting with the Hizbullah leader left him “humbled.”

“His office was simple and he made me feel welcomed and at ease and didn’t behave like some arrogant king or statesman, as is the case with most people in power,” added Gemayel, the leader of the right-wing Christian Phalange Party.

“Given how entrenched Nasrallah is in the faith of Islam, sometimes it gets difficult to persuade him to consider alternatives, especially those that may go against Allah or Islam,” said Gemayel. “But nonetheless, he is persuasive and somehow we all end up leaving meetings with him comfortably, if not sometimes convinced of his arguments.”

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said Nasrallah “is respectful to others and worthy of respect.”

For many of his admirers that respect was earned on September 13, 1997, a day that saw Israeli forces kill one woman, two Hizbullah fighters and six Lebanese soldiers. One of the resistance fighters was Nasrallah’s eldest son, Hadi.

The personal loss experienced by Nasrallah – or Abu Hadi as he is also known – in the fight against Israel, made the secretary general “one of the people.”

It has been widely reported that his other son, Mohammad Jawad, fought in the latest war.

Others say Nasrallah has earned the respect of his followers by delivering on his promises.

“Nasrallah restored the Arabs long-buried right to dream and restored their bruised dignity,” said Sidon MP Bahia Hariri.

“He stood his ground through it all and delivered his promises, transforming him from a Shiite leader to a world leader,” she added.

Even those who do not always agree with what Nasrallah says admit that he has a very engaging way of saying it.

“I usually don’t like long meetings, but with Nasrallah I didn’t notice the time as I was truly enjoying the discussions. He is a well-read man on various subjects like philosophy, politics, religion,” said acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat.

Dismissing talk of Hizbullah’s strong ties with Iran and Syria, Fatfat said: “Nasrallah is Lebanese and is true to Lebanon.”

But to some Nasrallah waged war against Israel one too many times.

“Adolf Hitler also aroused his people’s sense of honor, and led Germany into war;” one of Nasrallah’s most vocal critics, MP Walid Jumblatt, said in an interview with Al-Mustaqbal on July 29.

The Dahiyeh, one of the most heavily hit areas in Lebanon by Israeli air strikes this summer, has turned into a statement of resilience in the face of the US and Israel, but it is one particular crater in Haret Hreik that has drawn the most attention: the giant hole that is all that remains of what used to be Nasrallah’s home.

According to government figures, the secretary general’s was just one of 130,000 homes damaged or destroyed in the 34-day conflict.

“There is a change in Nasrallah’s speeches since the end of the war,” said Timur Goksel, a former senior adviser to UNIFIL who had regular meetings with Nasrallah for years.

“The mocking” of the US and Israel, a trademark of Nasrallah speeches, has been replaced with a more “serious down-to-business tone” Goksel said. “He has many Lebanese people to answer to now.”

“He knows his people. He appeals to their basic instincts. He answers his people’s questions and that way he always remains one of them, and not above them,” he added.

Goksel said he understands why people in the West have difficulty understanding Nasrallah and his connection with his followers, but rejected claims that the Shiites are forced to give him their support.

“These people are not pretending when they wave the party’s flag or his picture. I know these people, worked and lived with them,” he added.

That said, the former UN official drew an important distinction. “Not all Lebanese Shiites are with Hizbullah, but all are with Nasrallah,” he said.

Goksel described a recent scene at a pub in Hamra during one of Nasrallah’s televised appearances.

The pub was deathly silent during Nasrallah’s speech, Goksel said, until Hizbullah’s leader called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert an “incompetent moron” – after which “the whole place went crazy.”

“People love him for these kinds of comments, as it is the few slaps Arabs have been able to give Israel in decades,” Goksel said.

In a small woman’s clothing shop in Nabaa, not far from the mosque in which Nasrallah used to pray, customers went about their shopping.

On a wall in the back of the shop hang posters of Nasrallah, late Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini, Sadr and Fadlallah, the religious and political leaders of the Shiite community.

“Nasrallah outdid them all,” said one shopper, who asked to be identified only as Maha.

“Because he remained on the ground with us,” said a man standing beside the middle-aged woman.