Beirut's Shiite bastion revives after '06 war

Beiruts Shiite bastion

October 24, 2009 18:23

The sprawling Shi'ite suburb of south Beirut has made a comeback after the destruction wreaked by Israel during 2006 fighting, a symbol of the community's resilience at a time when its political patron, Hizbullah, is seeking a greater voice in Lebanon's government. The district, called simply Dahiyah - meaning "the suburb" in Arabic - is the stronghold of Hizbullah, and was heavily targeted by Israel during its war with the Shi'ite group three years ago. The bombardment leveled Hizbullah's headquarters as well as entire blocks across the neighborhood. Now dozens of newly built or repaired apartment blocs stand in place of those destroyed, the result of a reconstruction program led by Hizbullah, which receives millions of dollars a year in aid from its ally Iran. Property prices are soaring. The district's main streets are congested bumper-to-bumper with cars, while uniformed Hizbullah members direct traffic. Commerce is thriving, restaurants are packed. "Dahiyah will be more beautiful than it was before," read billboards at the construction sites that remain. Beyond the district's ties to Hizbullah, Dahiyah is a source of pride for Lebanon's Shi'ites. For them, it exemplifies how the community has shaken off years of discrimination at the hands of the country's traditional powerbrokers - Christians and Sunni Muslims - and has established itself as a powerful political force. Literally, Dahiyah brought Shi'ites closer to the center of power: It grew from nearly nothing over 30 years to become a densely packed region of apartment towers and homes for 700,000 Shi'ites on the southern doorstep of Beirut, historically a mainly Christian and Sunni city with only a tiny Shi'ite presence. "In Beirut, people are arrogant and think the world of themselves," said Nagat Gradah, a bookstore employee in the district who, like many of its residents, migrated from Lebanon's mainly Shi'ite south. "But Dahiyah? It's very special." Dahiyah's revival comes as Hizbullah is seeking to bolster its credentials as a mainstream political power. For months, it has been in negotiations with Sunni-led pro-Western parties over the creation of a new government, in which Hizbullah and its allies would have a sizable role. The negotiations have been deadlocked, however, in a dispute over who will get which positions, fueled by suspicions in the pro-Western bloc that Hizbullah and its allies will seek to impose Syria's and Iran's agenda in the deeply divided nation. Hizbullah is strongly backed by Syria and Iran, and it touts a powerful armed guerrilla force. But the movement also runs an extensive social welfare network and is the main political representative for Lebanon's Shi'ites, who make up about a third of the country's population of 4 million. Dahiyah itself may be a sign that Shi'ite power is not necessarily an omen of Lebanon's "Iranization" as Hizbullah's opponents fear. Despite its undisputed lock over Dahiyah, Hizbullah has not tried to enforce its strict interpretation of Islamic teachings in the district, a show of pragmatism perhaps aimed at casting doubt on the extremist tag critics slap on the group and increasing its appeal to secular Shi'ites and other sectarian groups. Billboards advertising women's couture compete for space with billboards of bearded clerics and images of the young Hizbullah guerrillas who died fighting Israel over the years. Women in tight pants and low-cut tops shop at boutiques with names like "Pascale" and "La Verna" where bikinis, miniskirts and hot shorts are on display in windows - much like in the more liberal districts of Beirut. "Here in Dahiyah, we have managed to have resistance, freedom and fashion all at the same place," said Hussein al-Zein, a 40-year-old resident who runs a women's casual wear store. "People think Lebanon is either about fighting Israel or whoring with nothing in between. In Dahiyah, we have freedom, but it has boundaries," he said at his store. That said, the majority of women in Dahiyah dress conservatively in Islamic headscarves in public. There are no bars or liquor stores and certainly no nightclubs. European nonalcoholic beer ads in the streets don't mention the word "beer," using instead the term "barley drink." Hanein Estiatieh, a graphic design student, says she has no worries about going out in jeans and a tight top in Dahiyah, her birthplace. "I will cover up only when I marry," declares the 18-year-old. "I don't mind her not covering up," said Aliyah Sohoura, daughter of the owner of the women's clothes store where Estiatieh works. "But I pray for her to see the light of faith," added Sohoura, who wore a headscarf and a bulky coat. The two giggled. Dahiyah was not always a Shi'ite stronghold. It was once an area of small villages south of Beirut that were home to Christians and some middle-class Shi'ites. During Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, tens of thousands of Shi'ites poured into the area from the impoverished, more rural south and east to flee fighting. The Christians largely moved out, though pockets remain. Beirut itself is sharply divided between Sunni and Christian districts, with very few mixed areas. In the 2006 war, Israel almost exclusively targeted Dahiyah and Shi'ite areas in the south and east, while largely steering clear of Sunni and Christian regions - which in turn fed distrust between the sects. In May last year, sectarian tensions turned violent when Hizbullah fighters clashed with Sunni rivals, briefly seizing Sunni districts at the height of a political dispute with the US-backed government. Fistfights and stone-throwing have broken out occasionally since between youths from Dahiyah and adjacent Sunni districts. Shi'ites' sense of solidarity in Dahiyah is reinforced by what residents see as neglect from the central government. The district gets only 12 hours of city electricity a day, compared to 19 in Beirut. Authorities blame large-scale power in Dahiyah, while residents call it discrimination. Hizbullah handles security in the district, managing traffic and even handling crime cases like drug offenses. The group says it has no choice, saying central authorities ignore the area. "We don't try to be a substitute for the state but we just try and come up with solutions," said Hizbullah official Ghassan Darwish. "We cannot replace the government, even if we tried."

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