A blue laser projects a dancing Star of David on smoke wafting out of a destroyed tank. A loudspeaker roars into life, booming out artillery salvos, hammering out rifle shots. Above the noise, you can hear orders barked out in Arabic and fighters on the front speaking through walkie-talkies. For five minutes, the war is back in Lebanon -- at least acoustically. Then, the sounds of combat fade away, only to be replaced by the chitchat of the visitors to the exhibit. "Look, it's the skeleton of an Israeli soldier," a father explains to his 3-year-old son in front of a casket with a glass lid.
The show has been a huge success, drawing masses of eager visitors to downtown Nabatiye. But it's not the first such exhibit Hezbollah has staged for its supporters. Each year, the "Party of God" drags out and parades the trophies it has gathered from its wars with its archenemy, Israel -- including a plastic skeleton outfitted with the frayed Israeli uniform.
But this show is different. It's main purpose is to glorify Imad Mugniyah, the Hezbollah military strategist killed in February. And in their efforts to honor him, the artistically minded among the Shiite militia have really outdone themselves. Indeed, it's a rather rare sight to see the space the size of a football pitch decorated with this much kitschy symbolism.
The performance room is for propaganda films. Its rug is made out of hundreds of thousands of plastic flowers -- the artificial scent of flowers is meant to provide a foretaste of the "paradise" martyrs can expect as a reward for their heroic deeds. It's a leitmotif that visitors will experience throughout the exhibit beginning at the entrance, where they come under an enormous green visored cap, a larger-than-life copy of the cap that Mugniyah used to wear. "Visitors go all the way under and past it, as if they were going through his head," raves Imad Awada, the head of the exhibition. "It shows you that everything you will see is a product of his spirit."
Dark Threats against Israel
Awada's enthusiasm about the exhibition seems to be contagious. Although the exhibit is dedicated to a fighter who met a violent end, the mood is festive rather than contemplative. In recent weeks, Hezbollah has been in a celebratory mood, and with reason. Since the war Hezbollah fought with Israel in the summer of 2006, things could hardly have gone better for them. First, it successfully defended itself against the much-mightier Israeli military. And then it has succeeded in forcing its opponents within Lebanon to enter into a compromise. Since its fighters took control of Beirut in May in a surprise attack, Hezbollah and its allies in parliament have been able to dictate what Lebanon's policies should be.
Another victory in the minds of Hezbollah's adherents was July's prisoner exchange in which Israel handed over five Lebanese fighters in return for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. And it wasn't long before the second part of the deal -- which succeeded in getting Israel to release 199 Palestinian prisoners -- went through as well. In a televised interview, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted that a renewed war with Israel would lead to a victory for his militia that would be "decisive, irrefutable and final." The threat to the Israelis was: "Your state, which harms our sacred land, will be destroyed."
'Martyrdom Makes Victory Taste Sweeter'
Hezbollah is currently brimming over with self-confidence. "It is stronger than ever: dangerous, deadly and determined," says analyst Kamel Wazne, who sympathizes with the organization. In the two years since the end of the war, the armed faction of the militia has gone to great lengths to replenish its stockpiles. "When it comes to both personnel and armaments, it is three to four times as strong as it used to be," says Wazne. Indeed, Wazne also believes that even though Mugniyah's death was a setback for the militia, it could still allow it to gather more strength. "According to (the organization's) ideology, the death of a martyr is never a loss but always a gain."
In fact, the defeat is simply referred to as a victory. "Martyrdom makes victory taste sweeter," says Awada, the exhibit's curator, as he tries to give foreigners a better understanding of the spiritual dialectic of Hezbollah. "We love life, but only when can live it with pride and dignity. When one of us improves the life of the community by giving his own life, we celebrate his death as a victory."
The crowds love this. Awada says that the crowds love the exhibit and that 40,000 visitors have already passed through its gates in its first weeks of being open. All of them want to see with their own eyes the suit punctured by several small shrapnel holes that Mugniyah was allegedly wearing when he died his hero's death. The exhibit also displays several pairs of Mugniyah's glasses, his hairbrush and his prayer mat. Next to a pair of brown slippers with holes in the upper leather is a little name plate bearing the words "Shoes to be worn after a martyr's death." It's self-praise in the form of a personality cult: By glorifying its faded leader, Hezbollah puts itself up on a pedestal.
"Imad Mugniyah, father of both victories" is the name of the exhibition, which will be open to visitors until the beginning of October. Mugniyah was reportedly the Shiite militia's top officer for decades. He is credited with having brought about the 2000 withdrawal of the Israeli soldiers occupying Lebanon and the Hezbollah "victory" in the 2006 summer war. Although it led to his violent death, even his humblest supporters know that he was the mastermind of the Hezbollah and its grand strategist, who had been on the most-wanted lists of the major Western intelligence agencies for years. It will probably never be known which of these services detonated the bomb in his car on Feb. 12, though it is generally presumed that the Israeli Mossad at least played a role -- if not the leading role -- in it.
Celebrating the 'Spoils' of War
To honor Mugniyah, the planners of the exhibit have availed themselves of a language pregnant with symbolism. Right after passing beneath the enormous cap to enter the exhibit, visitors walk over a "victory bridge" -- made from spent artillery shells -- before reaching the "hollow of defeat." There, they find an assortment of items that Israeli soldiers left behind during their withdrawal from southern Lebanon: tuna-fish cans with labels in Hebrew, parts of uniforms, rifles and ammunition. On the floor are painted the insignia of various Israeli military units; visitors are meant to step on them. There are also some Israeli Merkava tanks that were salvaged from a battlefield and decorated with camouflaging bushes. And there's the carcass of a shot-down helicopter suspended from above.
After witnessing this elaborate representation of Israel's defeat, visitors climb a small set of stairs and mount the so-called "altar of victory." On top, there is a covering of artificial turf with a bunch of Hezbollah weapons on display on one side and a recreation of Mugniyah's study on the other. After passing through "paradise," in which soft-focused videos of fighters training for battle are projected on a constant loop, visitors arrive in what is perhaps the exhibit's most important room: the museum shop. It's here that Hezbollah fans can outfit themselves with the latest in Hezbollah paraphernalia -- prayer rugs, puzzles, coffee mugs and lighters, all of them bearing the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah or the faces of the organization's political leaders.
The top-sellers, of course, are the green visored caps, just like the one Mugniyah used to wear.