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All in the Family -- The National

The National

All in the Family

Watching democracy unfold in Hizbollah country.

July 10, 2009

Walking down the steep, winding main road of the Central Bekaa village of Qassarnaba, Mohammad pointed to the Bekaa Valley floor, spread out wide below, and smiled. It was early on election morning last month, and Mohammad was on the way to the local polling station, at the school, to vote. "Helou?" he asked me, not for the first time - Isn't it beautiful? - and I nodded in assent, "Nam, kteer helou" - Yes, very beautiful - also not for the first time, and we continued to plod along in happy silence.

Mohammad is the father of Karla, a friend of mine from Beirut who had invited me to spend election weekend with her husband and her family at their ancestral village. (All of their names have been changed here.) Qassarnaba, with a permanent population of a few hundred, is located on an elevated portion of the Mount Lebanon range, which separates Lebanon's coastal cities from the Bekaa valley and, ultimately, Syria. In 1994, it was from this small village that Israeli commandos, flying helicopter gunships in the small of the night, swooped in and grabbed the former head of security for Amal, Mustafa Dirani, in a bold seven-minute raid. The plan, apparently, was to use Dirani as leverage to secure the release of the Israeli Air Force Captain Ron Arad, who had been captured eight years earlier by (according to the Israelis) Amal. But after 10 years, and with no progress made on rescuing Arad (he is still missing, and presumed dead), Dirani was released. He later filed a lawsuit against the Israeli government, claiming that he had been sexually assaulted by prison guards while in captivity.

But that was the past. Today, Qassarnaba is a quaint village known for its homemade rose water, sweet cherries and a well-preserved Roman temple right in the middle of town, where the children like to play. The village was spared from the devastation of the 2006 war with Israel, and - unlike the more contentious Christian areas of Jezzine, or, just down the road, Zahle - was the site of precisely zero political intrigue as far as this election was concerned: it is a Shiite, Hizbollah town in a Shiite, Hizbollah district (Baalbek-Hermel), and there was no question who would win its parliamentary seats. This was enough to keep most other journalists away, but I thought there might be something to gain from spending election weekend in Qassarnaba. If Hizbollah and its alliance won the election, as many expected them to, observing the Hizbollah political machine in action could be an instructive lesson in how a Hizbollah-run government would look. If, on the other hand - as we now know happened - Hizbollah lost, but won the popular vote, it would be because of the turnout in places like this.

Most of Karla's family had gathered at her grandparents' house on Saturday, the day before the election. Lebanese election law - in one of its many inimitable quirks - requires that citizens vote in their ancestral villages, and so there was a family reunion feel to the weekend. Even the politics were familial: when I asked my friend why she supported Hizbollah, she responded, less than enthusiastically: "Because everyone does." In Beirut, she lived, until recently, in Dahiyeh, the Shia southern suburb of Beirut, which was bombed heavily by Israel in 2006 - one raid destroyed the office building where her father worked. Over the ensuing months, she said, Hizbollah took care of her family when no one else did. Qassarnaba had once been a largely communist village, but it had been changing for years; after 2006, any doubts about supporting Hizbollah in her family, and her family's village, dissipated.

Now, in Qassarnaba, Hizbollah was everywhere. (Among supporters it is just called "Hezeb," or "The Party".) At the mosque down the street from the house, local Hizbollah officials handed out bright yellow paraphernalia - caps, T-shirts, flags - emblazoned in green with a pacified version of the Party's logo, a fist without the machine gun, and the words "Resistance with your voice". One of Karla's brother-in-laws had recently joined Hizbollah as a fighter (he wasn't active during the 2006 war). At one point in the afternoon, he left and returned a few hours later with his truck covered in Hizbollah flags and posters. "Do you know who they are?" he asked when he caught me studying the images on the back of his truck. I recognised Nasrallah, but not Abbas al Musawi, the previous head of the Party, who was assassinated by Israel in 1992, and got equal billing.

That night, the whole family gathered around a fire; the mood was celebratory. The adults used coals from the fire to bake onions and potatoes, which we sliced and wrapped in thin bread. Around midnight, someone brought over an armload of fireworks and set them off from the patio while everyone chanted "Hizbollah! Hizbollah!" and cheered. In the morning, when Mohammad and I arrived at the polling place, a good-sized crowd had already gathered in the car park. There were a lot of yellow T-shirts, and plenty of coffee drinking and chitchat; in fact, the whole scene looked a lot like a community meeting, or a farmer's market. Mohammad, for one, was in no hurry to cast his ballot. He wandered over to a little table set up in the car park, staffed by two men in yellow shirts, where residents could register for 30 litres of free petrol, a gift - or transportation stipend - from the Party. (Election law allows for a small payout, 4,000 liras per person, for transportation costs. The petrol, worth about 45,000 liras, exceeded that limit, but still came far short of the amount reportedly spent by other parties on airfare to fly their supporters living abroad into the country.)

Mohammad chatted with some friends, then he and I moseyed over to the edge of the car park, where we leaned against the railing and discussed, once again, how pretty the view was. After an hour or so, Karla and her husband came down to the school. Not much later, Mustafa Dirani arrived in a two-car caravan. He got out of the second vehicle, a black sedan with darkened windows, and was quickly swamped by friends and family, who kissed him on the cheek and escorted him into the school to vote. He was a short man, with a greyish beard and a broad smile and an odd resemblance to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He walked with a cane.

As I watched the voting - and not-voting - taking place, the potency of Lebanon's tribalistic election code began to take shape for me. The Lebanese vote by dropping a slip of paper containing the slate of candidates (the actual number varies by district) you wish to support. The parties assist this process by handing out pre-printed forms, and invariably print them so small that no one can make additions. (Karla says she surreptitiously crossed off the names of two candidates who she felt didn't deserve her vote.) By making entire families vote in one place, village leaders - from whatever party the village supports - can keep an eye on the proceedings and, if they chose, lean on people to support a given slate of candidates. (At one point, as I was trying to make a rough estimate of the number of voters by quickly scanning the posted voter rolls, a resident came up to me and said: "Nineteen hundred and ten.") This tactic wasn't unique to Hizbollah, of course - all the parties did it. Hizbollah just seemed particularly good at it.

After a couple of hours, the sun was growing ferocious overhead, and breakfast was waiting back up at the house. I watched Karla vote - there were four "observers" from Hizbollah in the room, along with the inistry of Interior officials - and, with her left thumb now stained a deep shade of purple from the anti-fraud ink, we made our way out of the school. Karla's father, Mohammad, lingered behind. He still hadn't voted.