Hizbullah-land: A new place to take the kids! or “A Disneyland for terrorists”

November 02, 2012

The central square of Lebanon’s Resistance Tourist Landmark, otherwise known as Hizbullahland.

 

* Vanity Fair: “After several successive family summer vacations in California, this year my two grown sons wanted something a little more adventurous. We settled on Lebanon, a country I’ve always loved to visit. It actually has a lot in common with California – natural beauty, majestic mountains, the sea, great food, a fabled music scene, vivid nightlife, and a government at once partisan and weak. Both have a very refined wine country (the Napa Valley and the Bekaa Valley), both produce cannabis as a major agricultural product (marijuana and hashish), and both are blessed with – and challenged by – astonishing diversity: countless sects, cults, religions, and spiritual enclaves. In Lebanon as in California, the minorities make up the majority.”

* But whereas California has Disneyland, Legoland, and countless others, Lebanon has Hizbullah’s new Tourist Landmark of the Resistance, about 50 miles south of Beirut, near the Israeli border. It’s a multi-million-dollar complex that memorializes “resistance to” (and attacks on) Israel – known to many locals as “the Zionist Entity”.

* At its opening, attended by dignitaries including the omnipresent philosopher-linguist Noam Chomsky, it was hailed as a “tourist jihadi center” (three words not often seen together) by the son of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah. Hizbullahland has already had more than 1.2 million visitors, according to a staff member.

***

* Lebanese Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud says that he’s so upset that the makers of the award-winning Israeli-inspired, American TV series “Homeland” filmed in Tel Aviv, and pretended it was Beirut, that he’s considering a lawsuit.

* In one rooftop “Beirut” scene, parts of the Tel Aviv skyline, with hotels lining the Mediterranean and the iconic “Shalom Tower” skyscraper, can be seen in the distance.

* In another scene from the recent “Back to Beirut” episode, Danes’ character is walking through a Beirut open market and passes a stall selling two Israeli T-shirts: one red with the white Coca-Cola logo in large Hebrew letters, the other a yellow jersey of the Jerusalem soccer team Beitar Yerushalayim, complete with a menorah.

* Eytan Schwartz, a spokesman for Tel Aviv’s mayor, said “If I were Lebanese, with all due respect, I’d be very flattered that a city, and a world heritage site, thanks to its incredible architecture, and residents who were named among the top 10 most beautiful people in the world (ranked by Traveler’s Digest magazine in 2012) could pass as Lebanese.”

* The show’s producers say “Shooting in Tel Aviv was a lot simpler for us.”

 

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach two recent “human interest” articles from Lebanon.

(You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.)


CONTENTS

1. “Six Flags Over Lebanon: Hezbollahland” (By Tom Freston, Vanity Fair, Oct. 2012)
2. “TV’s ‘Homeland’ angers Lebanese – for portraying Tel Aviv as Beirut” (AP, Oct. 19, 2012)

 

ARTICLES

WHEN THE PAINTBALL FIELD, SWIMMING POOLS, AND SMOOTHIES ARRIVE, HIZBULLAH-LAND COULD BE BIG BUSINESS

[I reported on this Hizbullah theme park when it opened two years ago in these dispatches, and am glad to see a prominent publication, Vanity Fair, has now reported on it. -- TG]

Six Flags Over Lebanon
A day at Lebanon’s “Hezbollahland” is not everyone’s idea of family fun – but it makes you wonder if a terrorist group can ever become bourgeois
By Tom Freston
Vanity Fair
October 2012

After several successive family summer vacations in California, this year my two grown sons wanted something a little more adventurous. We settled on Lebanon, a country I’ve always loved to visit. It actually has a lot in common with California – natural beauty, majestic mountains, the sea, great food, a fabled music scene, vivid nightlife, and a government at once partisan and weak. Both have a very refined wine country (the Napa Valley and the Bekaa Valley), both produce cannabis as a major agricultural product (marijuana and hashish), and both are blessed with – and challenged by – astonishing diversity: countless sects, cults, religions, and spiritual enclaves. In Lebanon as in California, the minorities make up the majority.

To be sure, Lebanon pulls far ahead of California when it comes to a history of bloody civil strife (not that the Golden State hasn’t had its moments). But where California definitely pulls ahead is in theme parks. California has Disneyland, Six Flags, Legoland, and countless others. We looked long and hard for a theme park in Lebanon but the only attraction that seemed to come close was Hezbollah’s new Tourist Landmark of the Resistance, in Mleeta, about 50 miles south of Beirut, near the Israeli border. It’s a multi-million-dollar complex that memorializes resistance to the Israeli occupation (1982–2000) with something of a Six Flags spin.

To that segment of the Lebanese who refer to Hezbollah as “the Hez” the attraction is known as “Hezbollahland.” Israel – known to many locals as “the Zionist Entity” – refers to the same place as “a Disneyland for terrorists.” At its opening, in May 2010, attended by dignitaries including the omnipresent philosopher-linguist Noam Chomsky, it was hailed as a “tourist jihadi center” (three words not often seen together) by the son of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. Hezbollahland has already had more than 1.2 million visitors, according to a staff member. My sons and I drove down from Beirut on a hot August afternoon with Kate Brooks, a good friend and locally based photographer. We also took a friend of a friend, a smart, funny Lebanese-American named Jihad. Kind of like heading for the Magic Kingdom with a guy named Mickey.

Americans tend to know Hezbollah primarily as a militant Shiite organization, heavily armed with missiles and funded by Iran – an independent army within Lebanon, right on the Israeli border. The U.S., the U.K., Canada, and many other nations list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is also a very organized political party with seats in parliament and ministers in the Cabinet.

With anti-U.S. protests sweeping the Arab world this September, precipitated by an anti-Muslim video, Hezbollah, as a sign of its strength, summoned tens of thousands of supporters to the streets of Beirut for one of the largest demonstrations anywhere. It was peaceful and, in a uniquely Lebanese move in deference to the Christian population, Hezbollah delayed the demonstrations for three days until the Pope, who was visiting Lebanon, left town. Hezbollah translates as “the Party of God” – which is pretty aspirational. Hezbollah runs many important social programs for its Shiite followers and has been a leader in rebuilding the southern part of the country following the 2006 war with Israel (which some would say Hezbollah itself provoked).

Hezbollah has proven itself to be a savvy brand builder, operating radio and television stations and now this theme park. Central to its brand is the proposition that only Hezbollah can defend Lebanon against the Zionist Entity and that it deserves sole credit for driving out the Israelis in 2000. Hezbollah has always been a threat to Israel. Now, given the urgent realities of the Syrian civil war (Hezbollah supports the Assad regime) as well as the nuclear ambitions of Iran (Hezbollah’s sponsor), many see the range of that threat widening. A recent International Herald Tribune headline declared, “Hezbollah Is Seen as a Risk in Europe.”

To get to Hezbollahland, we wound our way east from the Mediterranean through a succession of reddish hills until, in the middle of nowhere, we came upon a new four-lane road that led up a steep mountain. We drove in, parked the car, and stepped out into cool mountain air. The facility was impressive: modern buildings in every direction, open plazas, signs and markers in Arabic and English. Our guide, a proud, friendly, soft-spoken man, was happy to see some foreign visitors. It was Ramadan and business was slow. He said that what we would see was just “phase one” – only 15 acres. Hotels, a spa, swimming pools, a sports club, campgrounds, and a paintball battlefield were still to come. Hezbollahland was just getting started.

We began our tour in a theater with a film that told an approved version of the Hezbollah story, climaxing with the Israeli pullback to “Occupied Palestine” in 2000. The rest of the tour takes in exhibits and art installations, mostly outside and all glorifying the sacrifice, smarts, bravery, and success of Hezbollah. The centerpiece is the Abyss, a great cavern we entered on a wide circular pathway; the cavern is filled with abandoned armored vehicles, tanks, rockets, and other equipment, along with a large, broken-glass Star of David and tombstones with “IDF” (Israeli Defense Forces) inscribed on them. A grim tableau. Our guide said all of this symbolized “the downward spiral of the enemy.”

When I asked if these were all Israeli weapons, he said, “No, they are yours. They are American. You paid for them.” We walked along another path and saw mannequins of Hezbollah guerilla fighters in various combat poses. There was a replica of a field hospital, a machine gun children could play with, and a monument to the “Martyrdom Seekers,” as suicide bombers are called. (“They make the ultimate sacrifice,” our guide said; he did not comment about the victims.)

The restrooms are done up in a camouflage motif. From a viewing station you can see Syria and Israel. There was the inevitable gift shop. I figured I’d get a jump on Christmas shopping, but the pickings were few – the items left seemed mainly to be Hezbollah flags and buttons, posters of Nasrallah, and row after row of DVDs, mostly speeches and epic battle scenes. One item jumped out: an AK47 squirt gun. Probably not the best thing to put in your luggage these days.

We left the Resistance Tourist Landmark with a mix of reactions. Hezbollah has long supported terrorism – this is the organization that blew up our embassy and the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in the early 80s, with enormous loss of life. Full stop. Even so, it’s hard not to have some understanding for why Hezbollah has gained respect among the local population for its role in ending the 18-year occupation. Now Hezbollah has built an effective attraction to communicate its narrative to the young.

When the paintball field, swimming pools, and smoothies arrive, Hezbollahland could be big business. The Lebanese have always been skilled merchants; could it be that Hezbollah itself will one day turn bourgeois? When you think about it, that very same evolutionary process turns out to have solved an awful lot of the world’s problems. Of course, a different possible future is also not hard to imagine: that violent provocations will flare once more, making Hezbollahland a tempting target for Israeli bombs.

As we got into our van to go back to Beirut, a big news story broke on the radio. The pro-Syrian Lebanese information minister, Michel Samaha, had just been arrested for smuggling explosives for the purpose of killing Lebanese anti-Syrian politicians with truck bombs. Hezbollah immediately accused the judiciary and the security forces of collaborating to create “security fabrications” to frame him. Everything in Lebanon is complicated. A couple of days later I saw my new friend Jihad bartending at a club called Radio Beirut. His T-shirt read, “MR. JIHAD,” in huge letters. Such is Lebanon. The drinks were on him.

 

‘HOMELAND’ ANGERS LEBANESE – FOR PORTRAYING TEL AVIV AS BEIRUT

TV’s ‘Homeland’ angers Lebanese – for portraying Tel Aviv as Beirut
By Bassem Mroue and Elizabeth A. Kennedy
Associated Press
October 19, 2012

Militants carrying assault weapons clear the area around a street, shouting in Arabic for people to get out of the way. A jeep pulls up: The world’s No. 1 jihadi has arrived for a meeting with top Hezbollah commanders. On rooftops, US snipers crouch unseen, the kingpin in their crosshairs at last.

The scene, from a recent episode of the hit US Showtime series “Homeland,” is supposed to be Beirut. But it is really in Israel, a country similar enough in some areas to stand in for Lebanon, yet a world away in most other respects.

The show about Arab terrorists and American turncoats has inadvertently become a tale of two cities. Some Beirutis are angry because the depiction of their city as swarming with militiamen is misleading and because they see Israel as the enemy. And in Israel, some are peeved that Haifa and even Tel Aviv – a self-styled nightlife capital and high-tech hub – apparently appear, to outsiders at least, to be Middle Eastern after all.

Lebanese Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told The Associated Press that he’s so upset about the portrayal of Beirut that he’s considering a lawsuit.

“The information minister is studying media laws to see what can be done,” he said.

Abboud pointed to the scene with the snipers. Hamra Street in West Beirut is portrayed as a hotbed of violence, but it is actually a lively neighborhood packed with cafes, book shops and pubs.

“It showed Hamra Street with militia roaming in it. This does not reflect reality,” he said. “It was not filmed in Beirut and does not portray the real image of Beirut.”

Twentieth Century Fox Television refused to comment.

Several Lebanese interviewed by the AP said they have never heard of the show. When a reporter described the plot and said it was shot in Israel, the reactions ranged from anger to blithe acceptance that filmmaking is an imperfect art.

Hamed Moussa, an engineering student at the American University of Beirut, said it’s not a problem that Israelis are portraying Lebanese. In fact, he said, Lebanese often play Israeli characters in Lebanese soap operas.

But Ghada Jaber, a 60-year-old housewife, said Israel should never stand in for Lebanon.

“It is very insulting,” she said as she walked along Hamra Street. “Israel destroyed our country. Israel invaded and occupied our country.”

“Homeland,” based on the Israeli series “Prisoners of War,” is about a US Marine named Nick Brody who was a POW for years in the Middle East. The federal government and the public see Brody as a war hero, but a CIA operative played by Claire Danes believes he was turned by the enemy and is now a threat to the US.

The second season began last month, and some of the urban scenes are shot in Tel Aviv, the Israeli metropolis about 250 kilometers (150 miles) south of Beirut. Jaffa, a popular mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood of Tel Aviv, was an Arab town before Israel gained independence in 1948, and its Levantine architecture, mosques and minarets, situated along the Mediterranean, allowed the creators of “Homeland” to present a plausible version of Beirut.

To the average viewer, the Beirut scenes may appear authentic. But to the discerning viewer, hints of Israel are everywhere: cars with blurred yellow Israeli license plates, red-and-white curbs that designate no-parking zones, an Israeli-style traffic circle, and a well-known minaret and clock tower in Jaffa.

In one rooftop scene, parts of the Tel Aviv skyline, with hotels lining the Mediterranean and the iconic “Shalom Tower” skyscraper, can be seen in the distance.

In one publicity shot released by Showtime from the recent “Back to Beirut” episode, Danes’ character is walking through a Beirut open market and passes a stall selling two Israeli T-shirts: one red with the white Coca-Cola logo in large Hebrew letters, the other a yellow jersey of a Jerusalem soccer team with the name in Hebrew, Beitar Yerushalayim, and a menorah. In a fast-paced chase that actually aired, however, there were no traces of Israel.

The reactions to the show in Lebanon and Israel reflect the tremendous divergence of narratives between the two peoples – each seeing the other as aggressor, each seeing itself as a victim.

Many Lebanese cannot forget the massive destruction Israel inflicted on Beirut during a 1982 invasion when it succeeded in routing the Palestine Liberation Organization from the country. They resent the 18-year occupation of south Lebanon that followed, and their leaders in any case reject the existence of the Jewish state.

But to Israel, Lebanon has been a perennial staging ground for missile strikes and other attacks on Israel, more than justifying the massive Israeli operations there that have occurred in every decade since the 1970s.

Eytan Schwartz, a spokesman for Tel Aviv’s mayor, said the Lebanese should, if anything, be pleased at the TV show’s choice for a stand-in.

“If I were Lebanese, with all due respect, I’d be very flattered that a city, and a world heritage site, thanks to its incredible architecture, and residents who were named among the top 10 most beautiful people in the world (ranked by Traveler’s Digest magazine in 2012) could pass as Lebanese,” he said.

“All we can do is pray for a day when the Lebanese regime will allow our Lebanese friends to visit us and see for themselves,” Schwartz said.

Nir Rubinstein, an Israeli Internet developer who fought in Beirut as a young soldier 30 years ago, said he understood the Lebanese anger, but also how Israelis might be insulted as well.

“This sort of diminishes Tel Aviv and Jaffa, which are more modern than Beirut,” said Rubinstein, speaking for a generation of Tel Aviv residents who are aggressively proud of their city – a densely populated urban area of some 2.5 million people with a standard of living that rivals most places in Europe, a world-class tech industry and a raucous nightlife.

Beirut itself has developed impressively in the two decades since its 15-year civil war ended, and its growing renown as a party city in its own right – the most liberal and fun-loving of major Arab cities – is a source of some fascination to Israelis who are barred from going there.

But the portrayal of Lebanon as swarming with guns is hardly unreasonable nonetheless.

The country has dozens of armed militias that still flourish, and an alarming number of private individuals have weapons in their homes, including hunting rifles, guns and even RPG launchers.

The biggest militia of all, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, has gained so much power and influence over the years that it’s now part of the government, wielding virtual veto power, and long-running talks on disarmament have gone nowhere.

The abundance of weapons is one reason why conflicts here can turn deadly so quickly.

In May, an explosive, eight-hour shootout in a residential area of west Beirut, which apparently began after a domestic dispute, killed several people – including a man who was firing machine guns and lobbing grenades from his balcony.

Lebanon also has seen a rise in clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Despite its immense popularity, “Homeland” does not appear to have reached Hezbollah’s radar.

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim al-Moussawi told the AP when asked about the show. “This is the first I’m hearing about it.”

Still, he described Abboud’s plan to sue the producers as “a good step” and said Hezbollah will probably study the issue and put out a statement if needed.

Lebanon’s leading LBC TV carried a report on the controversy Thursday, saying the show disparages Arabs and that its setting in Israel is “a double insult.”

But Ariel Kolitz, a Tel Aviv businessman who was a childhood friend of Gideon Raff, the Israeli co-creator of “Homeland,” said that it wasn’t as if the production team had the option of shooting in Beirut, where Raff and other Israelis involved are not permitted to visit and where they could be in danger.

“It’s a lot simpler to shoot here,” he said. “That’s it.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.