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Election 2008 The World is Watching

DISPATCH

Lebanese-Americans in the Land of Hezbollah

Discussing the "Party of God" too sensitive for many in U.S.-Lebanese enclave

BY Kate SeelyeSeptember 26, 2008

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Kate Seelye is a regular correspondent for FRONTLINE/World. Based in Beirut, she has reported on Hezbollah, the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the country's relations with neighbors Syria, Israel, and Palestine in previous reports.

A road sign pockmarked with bullet holes greets visitors to southern Lebanon's largest town. It reads "Bent Jbeil. The Capital of Liberation. Welcome."

Here, during the July 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, fighters from the Shiite militia twice engaged Israeli ground troops in hand-to-hand combat. More than 15 Israeli soldiers were killed in the offensives, earning Bint Jbeil -- less than three miles from the Israeli border -- the nickname, "Hezbollah's terror capital." To the Lebanese, however, the town became a symbol of Israeli brutality. For weeks, Israeli jets pounded large parts of Bint Jbeil's traditional stone architecture into rubble.

But this hilly town of some 5,000 inhabitants has another history. Its residents have been immigrating to America since the early 20th century, many settling in Dearborn, Michigan, and filling the nearby Ford and GM plants with blue-collar workers. In the 1970s, the slow exodus began to increase with the start of Lebanon's civil war and snowballed after Israel invaded and occupied southern Lebanon from 1982 until 2000. Bint Jbeil, whose population in the 1970s once numbered about 15,000, has turned into a shadow of its former self.

But since Israel's withdrawal in 2000, the town has been coming back to life. Every summer, dozens of Lebanese-American families -- many from Dearborn -- are returning to build fancy villas, keen to re-experience a country they were deprived of during 18 years of occupation, and anxious to introduce their U.S.-born children to Lebanese culture.

view of town

From his balcony overlooking Bint Jbeil's main road, 70-year-old retired Ford worker, Kamel Makki, pointed out several hills on the outskirts of town. They were dotted with dozens of new villas -- some three and four stories high -- adorned with Lebanon's traditional red-tiled roofs.

"Those families are all Americans," he told me proudly. "But they still want to keep their ties to Bint Jbeil. You can never get this town out of your blood."

But many of these Lebanese-Americans are returning to a landscape vastly changed from the one they knew in the 1970s. For one thing, it didn't include Hezbollah, which was created in 1982 as a direct response to Israel's occupation, with the help of Syria and Iran.

I began looking for Lebanese-Americans from Bint Jbeil on Facebook. There are at least 13 Facebook sites devoted to the town. No other city in Lebanon has such a heavy presence on the networking site.

Abdullah Bazzi was the first to respond. A Michigan-based engineer who's working on a hybrid power train program, he regretfully informed me that he'd just returned from his summer holiday in Lebanon. But he put me in touch with his nephew, who he said was still in the country. Bazzi also pointed me to a post he'd added on Facebook about his recent visit.

Bazzi's nephew, Mohamad turned out to be an articulate and soft-spoken art teacher, also from Dearborn. The 39-year-old had left Lebanon as a child, his family driven out by war. He was visiting Lebanon for the summer with his wife and three children and agreed to meet me at his uncle's farm in Bint Jbeil for an on-camera interview.

sign

He took me to the field where he's been collecting pottery to use in his artwork -- abstract paintings to which he attaches the shards. He told me he'd discovered the shards on his last trip to Lebanon in 2004, scattered in his family's large field in front of their home. Apparently earlier generations had simply tossed the remains of broken clay pots into their front yard where they formed an organic mixture with the field's stones and soil.

"They represent shards of a broken community," Mohamad told me, under an olive tree. "I was taken away from this place and had to grow up in another land, get married in another land and work in another land. So these shards become my connection, my retelling of a narrative, a narrative of bits and pieces."

Mohamad's 9-year-old son, Ali, played nearby. Born in Michigan, Ali had been tracing an outline of a Lebanese map on paper, when I first met him. He told me he loved coming to Lebanon. It was a lot more fun than Michigan.

father and son

I asked Mohamad what it was like for him returning to Bint Jbeil after spending 30 years abroad. He told me he was disappointed with the sprawl. Virgin hills had surrounded the town in his childhood but were now dotted with concrete monstrosities. Mohamad also expressed his frustration about the chaos he encountered in Lebanon.

"There are three million people living here and three million systems," he told me.
And what about Hezbollah? What was it like returning to a landscape now adorned with Hezbollah's posters of so-called martyrs who died fighting Israeli occupations and wars, as well as posters of Iranian spiritual leaders like the late Imam Khomeini? What did he think about the group's efforts to Islamize the Shiite community, known in the 1970s for its secularism, and now spreading a culture of resistance and death?

But I was tongue-tied. Just before heading into the field, Mohamad told me he couldn't say much about Hezbollah. He reminded me of the Patriot Act and the fact that hundreds of Arab-Americans had disappeared after 9/11 to be held and questioned by U.S. authorities for alleged links to terrorist groups -- some for up to several years. Talking publicly about an organization that the U.S. lists as a terrorist organization was, in his view, extremely dangerous.

Adding to my discomfort, Mohamad's elderly aunt -- also a U.S. citizen who had spent years in Michigan - - turned to me as I was gathering up my camera equipment and begged me not to get the family in trouble with U.S. authorities.

Hezbollah poster

I had come to Bint Jbeil to talk to Lebanese-Americans about Hezbollah and only then realized that doing so might endanger them. I recalled what I read while researching my story. A report put out by a U.S. civil rights organization about the Arab-American community said that the Patriot Act "had added to the generalized climate of fear and hostility, creating considerable anxiety and deep feelings of isolation among Arab Americans."

I first became interested in Bint Jbeil in 2000, following a bus tour I took with families of Hezbollah martyrs shortly after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon. We stopped at a Bint Jbeil mosque to commemorate fighters who had died in the resistance. There, in a hall filled with somber men and women in black chadors, I encountered three teenagers.

Dressed in jeans and Nikes, they approached me with eager looks on their faces.
"Where are you from? Are you American?" one asked excitedly in a flat mid-western twang. "So are we! We're from Dearborn!" They seemed thrilled to discover a compatriot in such an unexpected place. And as the crowds chanted their support for Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, they looked very out of place.

It turned out it was their first time in Lebanon. "How do you like it?" I asked. One of the boys looked down and kicked the tile with his sneaker. "It takes some getting used to," he responded hesitantly.

The moment stayed with me and seemed to crystallize a universal challenge, yet one very specific to Lebanon. What was it like for emigre families, who had lived overseas for decades, to return with their Americanized children to their homeland? In this case, a homeland completely altered by new political forces and influences?

Were they experiencing culture shock after so many years abroad? And how were they reconciling their idyllic memories of Bint Jbeil as children with the fact that it had now become the stronghold for what some American officials have called the "A team of terrorism."

construction site

I was a little nervous about filming, however. I had permission from both the Ministry of Information and the army to film in the south, but not yet from Hezbollah. From past experience I knew that without Hezbollah's authorization to shoot, I would be stopped and my tapes confiscated. I would have to film clandestinely and inside people's homes.
I certainly didn't want to add to their existing anxiety. It was in fact an issue that troubled me when I first met with Mohammed Bazzi in his garden. I gulped and ventured one pointed question. What did he think about Hezbollah?

"I don't have any thoughts about them one way or another," Mohamad told me. "They're a Lebanese party that the Lebanese know more about."

And that's pretty much the extent of what some six Lebanese-Americans told me over the course of my two days in Bint Jbeil. I encountered nervousness whenever the group was mentioned and an unwillingness to talk on the record. I knew from previous conversations with Lebanese-Americans that they have complex views about the Party of God.

Some support it unconditionally for having resisted and helped end a long Israeli occupation -- one that drove them from their homes in the first place. Others, while acknowledging Hezbollah's role in helping end the occupation, don't like the militant group and are deeply concerned about its religious agenda and its seemingly greater attachment to Iran than to the Lebanese state.

Bashar Ayoub helped put things in perspective for me. A wealthy Michigan businessman, restaurant owner and volunteer sheriff, Ayoub invited me over to his palatial stone home on the outskirts of town to chat about life divided between Lebanon and America.

He told me that Hezbollah is impossible for Arab-Americans to discuss because "you can get in trouble either way -- here or there. In America they'll suspect you of having ties to the group. Here in Bint Jbeil they'll question your loyalty. You can't win. So people won't talk about it."

The only solution to the issue of Hezbollah, said Bashar, is to push for peace between Israel and the Arabs. Once there's peace, Hezbollah can no longer justify its arms, he said. Clearly Bashar was banking on a settlement. His large villa suggested he wasn't too worried about future Israeli bombardments.

Bashar built the villa for his children, in the hopes, he said, that they'd develop close ties to Lebanon and continue to return as adults.

But his son Ali, a U.S.-born high school senior, told me he didn't much care for Bint Jbeil. The aspiring sportscaster said he was bored here.

"It's very different. It's hard to be yourself. Kids don't talk about sports. They just sit around and eat nuts."

And what about Hezbollah? I asked.

"In America you don't have to think about such things," Ali answered, evading the question.

But Ali was willing to discuss the U.S. presidential elections. When asked which candidate he preferred, he didn't hesitate -- Obama.

"I don't want McCain. He's pro-war and just wants to fight. We've had enough of wars around here."

Ford autoworker Kamel Makki told me he too was voting for Obama, but not because of his position on the Middle East.

"My first concern is America," he told me. My kids are all in America. I want them to be able to find good jobs and to find medical care. I want a president who takes care of America first before he takes care of the outside."

Only Mohamad Bazzi was ambivalent about the candidates.

"Well, I usually vote Democratic," Mohamad told me, "but I don't think either one will make a difference in the Mideast. Both have an institutionalized bias toward Israel and if there's going to be any solution, there has to be a sense of balance. "

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