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Druids and Sex

celebrations in beirut

Unless you live in the Middle East, you're an international news junkie, or you're French, Lebanon is probably a bit of a blur. Sure you know Beirut, the capital, as a synonym for urban violence in the 1970s and 1980s, or in its earlier incarnation as the Paris of the Middle East. But after that, be honest, it all gets a little vague. Something about Phoenicians, Roman ruins, terrorists. And it's not just Americans who are confused. When our Lebanese cameraman Vatche Bhoulgourjian lectured about his homeland in England, describing the different Muslim and Christian sects, including the Druze minority, a questioner asked him, "Why do you keep mentioning Druids and sex?"

 
"One day in March a million people poured into Martyrs' Square. That's one quarter of the entire country."
 

"Well, after completing Stonehenge, a particularly hedonistic Druid clan migrated to the Holy Land and got stranded in the ancient port city of...." But no, Vatche did not say that. He restrained himself and patiently explained that Lebanon, a sliver of a state carved out of Greater Syria by the French after World War I following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, has a population of less than four million, splintered into 17 official religious sects or "confessions," including Shi'ites, Sunnis, Maronite Christians, even the secretive Druze. But there are, alas, no registered Druids.

What I found extraordinary during our filming last month in this balkanized state was the unprecedented display of national unity -- Druze included -- in the aftermath of the Valentine's Day assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Christians and Muslims, at each other's throats during Lebanon's nightmarish civil war between 1975 and 1990, suddenly joined forces. No one could have predicted this. No one expected this sort of response to Hariri's murder, the explosion the Lebanese now call "the earthquake." The Syrians reportedly had been behind the killing of Lebanese presidents and other opposition leaders before with no mass outpouring of grief or wave of nationalistic fervor. This time the Lebanese suddenly lost their fear, overcame their silence, and took to the streets. One day in March a million people poured into Martyrs' Square. That's one quarter of the entire country.

The nonviolent protestors successfully demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops and forced the Syrian-backed Lebanese government to schedule elections later this month and next -- elections the opposition is expected to win.

Hariri's assassination was the catalyst. The billionaire Sunni businessman was widely respected as the man who presided over the post-war reconstruction. "Beirut was a city of phantoms," one young woman said. "Now it has risen like a phoenix. Hariri was the one who made the decision to rebuild Beirut." Mohammad Kabbani, an opposition member of parliament, told FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye and me that during Hariri's life, "He could build Lebanon but he could not unite Lebanon." Now as a martyr, he was inspiring national unity. Kabbani wept as he described the impact of his friend's death.

"Lebanon is a coalition of sects and not yet one nation, sorry to say. But this is the right time to start changing." We spoke with Kabbani shortly after a series of car bombs struck Christian areas in and around Beirut -- an apparent effort to derail the newfound unity among Christians and Muslims. In the past, he said, such bombings might have sparked a descent into sectarian warfare. "Now when I visit these bomb sites as a Muslim, the Christians praise me," Kabbani said. "In the past they would have killed me."

Regardless of what happens next -- and there are many external and internal threats to this sudden national unity -- the last few months have been a Beirut spring. I feel privileged to have been a witness.

In the coming months, watch what happens with Hezbollah, the radical Islamist party. So far it has remained relatively quiet, staging one massive demonstration March 8 in support of Syria and skirmishing last week with Israel across Lebanon's southern border. These days, even Hezbollah is flying the Lebanese flag. But it is the wild card. It's an important political party and an armed militia -- a virtual state within a state -- especially in parts of the Bekaa Valley and in the south along the border with Israel. The U.S. and Israel have called Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but in Lebanon even Christians tend to regard Hezbollah as a resistance movement that ended Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. U.N. Security Council resolution 1559 calls for disarming the group, but everyone in Lebanon knows that this is easier said than done. Opposition leader Walid Jumblatt told us one solution might be to integrate Hezbollah fighters and weapons into the Lebanese army.

Backed by Iran and Syria, Hezbollah has now lost the presence of 14,000 Syrian soldiers in Lebanon. But when we spoke to a Hezbollah member of parliament, Abdullah Kasir, in his offices in the southern port city of Tyre, his spin was that Syria's withdrawal is "a great opportunity for us.... We now can play our natural role." Kasir suggested that Hezbollah would seek a greater role in the Lebanese government, going after more seats in parliament and perhaps even opting for the first time to join a cabinet. As we followed Kasir on his daily rounds, he acted like any other local politician, lunching with tobacco growers, visiting a school where the teenagers gossiped through much of his speech, and offering condolences to a family that lost an elderly relative. The only time he bristled is when Kate pressed him on the issue of disarmament. "Why does the press keep asking whether Hezbollah will surrender its weapons?" he complained.

He knows why. As long as Hezbollah maintains an armed militia, beyond the control of a Lebanese government, Lebanon can't become a truly independent democratic state. No one expects the group to disarm anytime in the foreseeable future. Then again, no one ever expected the Syrian troops to withdraw fully, and on such short notice. Since the "earthquake" of the Hariri assassination, Lebanon has become one of the most surprising countries in the Middle East.