Muslim Hero "Nasrallah Has Come"

The Hezbollah leader has emerged from the ruins of Lebanon as a folk hero -- but is his facade of unity beginning to crack?

By Lucy Fielder in Beirut


Hezbollah kitsch is everywhere, as is the mug of leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
REUTERS

Hezbollah kitsch is everywhere, as is the mug of leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

It's hardly been one week since the fragile cease-fire brought a stop to the Israeli bombs falling on Beirut, but already billboards have sprung up along the road from the city's devastated southern suburbs celebrating the great leader -- Hassan Nasrallah. One billboard shows a gunman in the hills of southern Lebanon with the phrase "Ja'a nasr Allah" or "God's victory has come." Remove the space between the last two words and it reads: "Nasrallah has come."

Although much of Lebanon lies in ruins, Nasrallah -- chosen by Iran to lead Hezbollah at only 32 when Israel assassinated his predecessor in 1992 -- has emerged a winner. Not all sectors of Lebanese society are in the thrall to the Shiite leader, but his base of support has expanded to include some Sunnis, secularists, Christians and others who may have previously been indifferent to, or even shunned, him.

With acrid smoke still rising from the rubble, Nasrallah boldly declared that Hezbollah had achieved its goals and won a "strategic, historic victory" over Israel. Along with most of Haret Hreik, the southern suburb of Beirut and Hezbollah stronghold where Nasrallah lived before the war, Nasrallah's modest former home is now dust, pulverized by Israeli bunker busters in July. But instead of destroying his reputation with it, the already influential leader now looms as a pan-Arab folk hero the likes of which the region hasn't seen since Gamal Abdel Nasser took back the Suez Canal from British control in 1956.

"We've always heard all these nostalgic stories about those old revolutionary days from our parents -- my mum used to go all the way to Egypt to demonstrate for Nasser," says television producer Katia Saleh, sipping mint tea at the Al-Rawda seaside cafe, a Beirut institution. "Now I feel like we're living it."

Deep in a devastated, mostly Shiite neighborhood, Abu Mohammad al-Baqir props ajar the warped iron shutters of the Hadi Islamic gift shop, named after Hassan Nasrallah's late son. The shopkeeper is doing a brisk trade: Customers stoop beneath a bar into the dusty gloom to find Hassan Nasrallah posters, key rings, stickers and CDs. Power is off in this wasteland, so Abu Mohammed plays martial music for his customers from his car parked outside.

"We've got a sound engineer working on a collection of his televised speeches from the war," he says. "We take his most important quotes and do them by computer." We're interrupted by someone asking for the latest recordings of the Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar. Another customer, a young woman, wants to buy a new frame for her smiling portrait of Nasrallah, his black turban denoting that he is a sayyed, descended from the prophet Mohammed.

Fervor for the leader who, supporters say, twice stood up to Israel -- in this war and when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 -- stretches well beyond Lebanon, from Tunisia to the West Bank, Egypt to Iraq.

In Cairo, protesters held up the Shiite cleric's picture in Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's most prestigious seat of learning. Egyptian football fans broke on to the field before a game holding Nasrallah's picture. He's also become a darling of the Arab left, held aloft next to photos of Nasser and Che Guevarra.

In Syria, where Nasrallah was already popular, he's featured on posters and banners alongside President Bashar al-Assad. Priests hold special Masses for him and he is likened to the Kurdish leader Saladin, who conquered Jerusalem from the larger Crusader army in the 12th century. A Syrian car park attendant in Beirut who gave his name as Najib had just returned from his town near the Turkish border with tales of Nasrallah hysteria. "Everyone in Syria is with Hezbollah," he said. "Every house in my town has a Hezbollah flag, and there are pictures of Nasrallah everywhere."

The Lebanese daily As-Safir even reported Nasrallah mania in Africa in a remote Mauritanian village of humble dwellings scattered in the sand with the odd goat and camel roaming around, where heroic tales of Nasrallah and his resistance have joined the traditional poetry and Koran verses recited around the fire at night.

"He is becoming a revolutionary myth," says Walid Charara, cultural editor of Al-Akhbar newspaper and the author of a book on Hezbollah. "But his popularity isn't just about charisma or his ability to speak. It's because he does what he says he will do, which is to defend his country."

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Born in 1960 to a grocer and his wife, Nasrallah grew up in a religiously mixed, poor eastern suburb of Beirut and studied at Iraq and Iran's top Shiite seminaries. After ascending to the leadership of Hezbollah in 1992, he led the guerrilla campaign that drove Israel's troops from south Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation. In 2004, he negotiated the swap of 400 Lebanese prisoners for one Israeli businessman. Nasrallah and his inner circle also led the party to engage in the post-civil-war political system, offering extensive social services to his followers and winning seats in parliament and eventually joining the government in June 2005.

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