5 August 2006 0 Comments

Merry Christmas from the Sheikh

When you meet a Hezbollah leader in Beirut, his aides first make you wait a few days, assessing your intentions and making sure you aren’t a spy or an assassin. Then, when the time comes for the interview, they take you either in a car or on foot through the alleys of Beirut’s southern suburb (the “Dahiya” you’ve been reading about in the newspapers since the Israeli bombing began–dahiya just means suburb in Arabic and isn’t an actual place name, as most reporters who don’t speak Arabic would have you believe), aiming to confuse your precise location, and into a building where you’re searched and ushered into the presence of the leader.

The first Hezbollah chief I interviewed was Sheikh Nayim Kassem, the deputy leader, second only to Hassan Nasrallah. I was working for The Scotsman and it was 1997. I wanted to meet Nasrallah, but he wasn’t prepared to give an interview. So I had to settle for Kassem. A burly, dark-bearded, suspicious character checked my bag at the door of Sheikh Nayim’s reception room, but he did it with his fingers: his eyes never left my face, as though searching for signs of nerves or untrustworthiness. He went through the equipment of Wil Yurman, my photographer, and we entered.

It was a long interview and an illuminating one. Kassem said he was starting a new division of Hezbollah to recruit Christian soldiers. He called it The Lebanese Brigades (it never really got very far, because of the somewhat limited appeal of Iranian-style Islamic revolution to your average Maronite Christian). Needless to say, it was also a fairly blood-curdling interview. At the time, Israeli soldiers occupied a “security zone” in the same territory where they’re now fighting Hezbollah again. The sheikh promised Hezbollah’s guerrilla tactics would drive Israel out and, of course, he turned out to be right when the Israelis left in 2000.

Throughout the interview, Sheikh Nayim’s bodyguard kept his eyes on me. His brow was low and his head was forward on his thick neck. His hand were wide and powerful, like those of a martial arts expert. When I completed my questioning and thanked Sheikh Nayim, however, the bodyguard smiled and spoke, brightly: “Would you like a photo with the sheikh?”

“Well, why not?” I said.

Breezily, Sheikh Nayim gathered the pleats of his robe and took his place next to me as Wil clicked off a shot. “That’s quite a souvenir,” I said to him.

Back in Jerusalem a few days later, I decided the photo of me and the sheikh would make a quirky Christmas gift for my Dad. I went to the shopping mall at Malcha on the edge of Jerusalem. I happened to be wearing the same fawn corduroy shirt I’d worn to meet Sheikh Nayim. The place was packed with Hannuka shoppers. On the ground floor of the mall at the base of the escalators, there was a stall which promised to put your photograph on a tee-shirt or mug. I handed over the shot of me and the sheikh and asked for it to be printed onto a mug. “Come back in 15 minutes,” the stallholder said, as he set to work. He had a big screen and some computer equipment on his desk.

I went up the escalators and wandered the top floor of the mall. There were off-duty conscripts shopping with their girlfriends all over the place. Each of them carried his weapon across his shoulder. I glanced over the barrier at the edge of the walkway. Three floors below, on a 32-inch screen clearly visible even from where I stood, was a photo of a foreign-looking man in a fawn corduroy shirt enjoying an apparently amicable moment with the deputy leader of Israel’s archenemy. I looked at the head of the escalator for signs that some of the soldiers, who surely must have passed the photo on their way up, recognized me as the man who had been consorting with someone who’d celebrate their deaths.

I was quickly down the escalators. The photo on the screen just seemed to get bigger all the time and I figured it could only mean trouble. As I reached the bottom, the stallholder said: “Nearly done. Who’s this anyway? Some sheikh from the north of the country?”

I shrugged and waved my hand vaguely in the direction of the Galilee–which also happens to be the direction of Lebanon: “That’s correct.”

“What would you like the caption to say?”

“Merry Christmas from the Sheikh.” Maybe Sheikh Nayim would be wishing some of the Christians in his Lebanese Brigades a happy holiday, so I didn’t think it was very disrespectful, even if Christmas doesn’t really figure in the Shia calendar. The stallholder didn’t ask me what kind of sheikh would wish anyone a Merry Christmas.

I took the mug and left the mall. It was fortunate I’d met Sheikh Nayim and not Nasrallah himself in Beirut: that’s a face every Israeli knew even back then. I couldn’t have passed him off as a harmless religious leader from Nazareth, and I probably would have left the mall in handcuffs.

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