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Book review: Thanassis Cambanis goes beyond the typical to describe a more nuanced Hezbollah.
Most books on Hezbollah tend to focus, in one way or another, on the Lebanese Shia group’s fundamentalist politics. That’s in contrast to what strikes you as a journalist when you travel to southern Lebanon, one of the Hezbollah heartlands. There the greatest impressions are visceral. The earthquake of an Israeli artillery shell, which appears to have landed on top of you until you discover that it struck two kilometers away. The stark and lonely valleys, so distant from the typical snapshot of fist-pumping Shia masses. Most of all, it is the quiet readiness of the Hezbollah fighters for death.
In his groundbreaking book, Thanassis Cambanis has all the politics — he’s excellent in explaining how Hezbollah turned apparent defeat in its 2006 war with Israel into de facto control of Lebanon within three years. But he goes beyond the typical Hezbollah tome to give you the feel of war, writing of gunfire that came from “so close that it felt like someone ripping a sheaf of paper in my ear while tickling the inside of my gut with a feather” and the “incongruously whimsical” high-pitched raspberry that is the sound of a rocket in flight. He adds revealing insights into the lives of normally secretive Hezbollah fighters.
The essence of Hezbollah’s success, as Cambanis sees it, is its ability to carve out clear answers to the vital national questions. That’s a big advantage for Hezbollah over the cloudy mass of Lebanon’s vicious sectarian parties. (One Hezbollah voter tells Cambanis his choice was based on the fact that he was “sick of all these other assholes.”)
Hezbollah’s head since 1992, Hassan Nasrallah, enforces a strict fundamentalist discipline within the party. But other supporters are allowed to enjoy broader freedom. By eschewing the hard line of Hezbollah’s earlier days, Nasrallah has brought Hezbollah’s appeal to Muslims who don’t want to live as if Lebanon were Tehran, but who wish for the pride that comes with resistance to Israel. “In a landscape of nihilism,” Cambanis writes, “Hezbollah understood the intrinsic appeal of spiritual clarity.”
That clarity is based on a set of principles Cambanis describes as “rapture, resistance, revolution.” To illustrate the first of these, he takes his title from a comment by a Lebanese man who spoke to him while he was reporting on the 2006 war: “‘It would be a privilege to die for Sayyed Hassan [Nasrallah].’”
Cambanis is a former Mideast bureau chief for The Boston Globe and has reported on the region in the last few years for The New York Times. (He has also contributed to GlobalPost.) He lays out his book around vignettes of ordinary people in the Hezbollah army: a nurse, a soldier, a broadcaster.
He was, perhaps, forced to take this fruitful approach by Hezbollah itself. Unsatisfied with one of his stories, Hezbollah officials denied his book the cooperation of the Party of God (“Hizb” means party in Arabic; “Allah” you probably heard of already.) He describes one party functionary telling him, “‘You can’t possibly write a book about Hezbollah without the party’s permission, right? You’ll have to move on to another project?’ Like many Hezbollah officials she overestimated the party’s ability to control or manipulate a foreigner like me and she thought the prospect of future access would tempt me to relinquish writing this book.”
It’s a common journalistic problem — the source who demands you make nice if she’s to continue feeding you access. In the case of a terror organization, the issue is only exacerbated, and no doubt many foreign journalists have over the years been shy of calling a Hezbollah spade a spade. That has, perhaps, lead to something of a deficit in true understanding of the group, which both adds to its mystique and leaves Westerners guessing — sometimes disastrously — about its intentions.
Unfortunately, Western diplomats don’t redress the media information gap. I was once with the British ambassador in his compound on the slopes above Beirut and asked him his opinion about a major issue in the Lebanese politics of that moment.
“God only knows,” Whitehall’s man said. “I bloody don’t.”
Cambanis finds U.S. diplomats just as clueless. “A trio of diplomats briefed me on aid, military cooperation and politics. I hoped they were lying to me, because their assessments were so out of kilter with reality.”
Many Lebanese blame such diplomatic misreading of their politics for the failure of the United States to actively back the (relatively) liberal Lebanese leadership in 2008. The United States stayed clear and failed to press allies, like the Vatican, into action. The result: Hezbollah had the stage to itself and soon forced its way into the cabinet.
By contrast, Hezbollah suffers no such apparent blind spots. Cambanis describes the technological fascination of its guerrillas for military gadgetry. He also mentions that Nasrallah once told an interviewer he was reading the memoirs of Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I never heard an Israeli politician say he was reading [Hezbollah deputy leader] Naim Qassem’s ‘Hizbullah: The Story from Within,’” Cambanis writes.
Incidentally, Qassem’s book gets five stars on amazon.com. When I met him, he insisted we pose for a souvenir photograph in which he beamed like a car salesman running for Congress.
To those of us who view many of Hezbollah’s aims and most of its methods with distaste, “A Privilege to Die” is both compelling and dispiriting reading. In contrast to the fickle Western diplomats and their corrupt Lebanese allies, Hezbollah comes across as an almost superhuman operation. With a budget anywhere between $20 million and $200 million, it manages to provide more and better services to ordinary Lebanese than the country’s stuttering government does with $10 billion a year.
At the heart of that astonishing capability is the ghoulish reality of martyrdom.
“There is a secret between man and God,” one Hezbollah official tells Cambanis. “This is the strategy of Hezbollah. It is that we are not afraid of death. This is the center of the training of the fighter, to make him unafraid of death, so you prefer to die rather than live humiliated.”
It’s a secret shared at best to a far, far lesser degree by other mainstream Muslim groups, including those in Palestine. Cambanis’ title is well chosen. The privilege of death truly is the heart of Hezbollah’s success.