Nasrallah's Shi'ite Error

Hassan Nasrallah, who last weekend became an underground leader and in so doing recalled a former secretary general of Hezbollah, Subhi al-Tufeili, once again brushed up on his formal Arabic. This time he addressed opposition at home: an Arab and Lebanese home, but a Muslim home no less. His arguments against the Arab states are no different than those heard from Arab publicists, such as the editor of Al-Quds newspaper, Abd al-Bari Atouan, whose throat parched last Friday after a relentless attack on mute Arab leaders.

The important thing perhaps in Nasrallah's speech last Friday, and the major error in it, was the statement that the Lebanese opposition and the current struggle were a strong Shi'ite show of strength. In the paragraph directed at Israel, he said, "You have no idea against whom you are fighting. You are fighting against the sons of Mohammed and Ali and Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein and the household and friends of the prophet Mohammed. You are fighting a nation that keeps its faith, in a way that no man on earth keeps his faith." Ali and his sons Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein are the fathers of the Shi'ite faction of Islam. The phrase "household" was adopted by Shi'ites to refer to the dynasty of Imams that came after Ali.

Such phrases have huge political significance in Lebanon, since Nasrallah did not even mention the Christians, whom he considers a cowardly people who regularly criticize "the opposition." Sunni and Druze Muslims also could not have been overly pleased with Nasrallah's "unity speech" since it was more divisive than unifying.

Nasrallah indeed chose to emphasize the Shi'ite nature of the struggle, despite knowing that he does not represent even all of the Shi'ites. Although there is an agreement between him and Nabih Beri, the chairman of the Amal movement and the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, and usually also cooperation, there is a large community of Shi'ites in Lebanon - secular Shi'ites, businessmen and even religious people - who do not agree with Nasrallah.

The choice to emphasize the Shi'ite element, and the fact that this is a battle waged by a devout segment of the public, is intended as a hint to the Shi'ites in Iraq. More importantly, however, it flaunts the ethnic sword in Lebanon. In his comments, which caused a chill in many Lebanese Christians, Nasrallah marked out the line of loyalty to the state: Shi'ites are faithful, all the rest are in varying levels of loyalty. That is exactly the formula that threatens the delicate and fragile fabric achieved in Lebanon after the Taif Agreement in 1989, which Lebanon has yet to recover from.

Does this wording indicate that already, at this stage, Nasrallah is feeling threatened? Not according to the rhetoric he used. He spoke like a leader who did not need to mention the president of Lebanon, the prime minister or anyone else. He simply ignored them. He did not search for consensus, other than his request that the Lebanese rally around the memory of the victory over Israel six years ago, a victory that he, of course, attributes to Hezbollah and to himself.

The business of war

Charles Helou was prime minister of Lebanon from 1964-1970. He is recalled, in Lebanese memory, as the man who was forced, following Lebanese public pressure, to sign the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which granted the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) the right to operate against Israel from Lebanon. Helou was another Lebanese prime minister compelled by circumstances to involve his country in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Today there is a monument "memorializing" Charles Helou at a Beirut-Damascus line taxi stand, which was named after him. According to reports from Lebanon, this stand is the only one that continues to operate regularly and still transports people from areas of fighting to Syria. It operates regularly, but it is astronomically expensive. This "season," which started last Wednesday and has gone on for a week now, is the season of taxi drivers. Whoever is not making money off tourists, is making money by driving passengers to Syria.

The prices are sky-high. Lebanese media reports indicate that the standard fare the Al-Helou stand charges for the trip from Beirut to Damascus is around $70, but today it costs $750-1,000 per person. Shared taxis charge around $400. The reason for the high cost is the great danger in the border area, in particular. This danger is, to a large extent, a fabrication, because the border area is not under attack, but panic does the job and whoever can exploit it does not hesitate to do so. Those who suffer are mainly Arab and Western tourists who are not familiar with the regular prices and are incapable of bargaining.

Another phenomenon that has surfaced is the war mafia. In Lebanon there are reports of thousands of Syrian workers and Lebanese citizens who are making their way on regular buses from Lebanon to the border post. The cost of this journey is the same as it used to be, but when passengers arrive at the border post, they cannot reach the customs terminal in the bus because of the crowds. They have to get off the bus and walk about a kilometer. This is "the kilometer of the mafia," which has already set up shop at border stations and charges a fee for everything.

This mafia caused the price of mineral water to soar to over two dollars a bottle (which normally sells for less than 30 cents.) The prices of sandwiches and candies at the border are pretty much the same as those at five-star hotels, and the latest businesses earning mafia money are the currency exchanges: Exchanging Lebanese liras at the border crossing for Syrian liras now costs around 30 percent more than it used to.

The Syrians are also not stupid: Reports from Syria indicate that hotel owners, like their colleagues in Eilat, have raised the prices of accommodations in Damascus from an average of $75 a night to around $250 a night. In the cities themselves - the parts of Beirut that are not being bombed, in the completely quiet Chouf Mountains and in the northern cities of Juniyeh and even Tripoli - business owners are making profits. After thousands of rooms were vacated in the small hotels in Beirut's luxury neighborhoods, the hotels started taking in refugees from stricken neighborhoods and villages in the south, all for an appropriate price.

A room in a small hotel now costs around $300 a week. An apartment that once was not fit to be lived in is now going for around $750 or a month. As opposed to the wealthy, there are thousands of families that cannot afford to pay for such temporary quarters and must gather instead in schools. The municipalities provide basic food and drinking water to these places, but there is no way of setting up toilets and showers there.

One of the problems with the temporary shelters is the political squabbles among the visitors, between those who think it was not right to destroy Lebanon for Samir Kuntar and those who think they should stand strong. When it comes to being a refugee, there is no distinction between Druze, Shi'ites, Sunnis or Christians, but these distinctions are heightened in the shelters and there have already been reports of blows exchanged by members of different ethnic groups due to political differences.

Gad Elmaleh's cancelled play

The question now is: Who will refund the price of tickets purchased for Gad Elmaleh's one-man show? He was supposed to perform at the Byblos Festival in Lebanon this coming Saturday and because the tickets sold out so quickly, a second show was even added. The prices are not cheap: $65 per ticket on average. The show is called "The Other is I" and Elmaleh plays a blond boy who easily gets through life's travails, actually a suitable play to put on in Beirut in these difficult times.

However, "due to the security situation" the show was cancelled, as was the dance performance at the Albert Academy, the Latin Dance party at the Kakur Club, the production "The Big Liar" at the Chateau Trianon and even the popular performance of "Women's Discourse" being presented by the Monroe Theater in Beirut.

But, undoubtedly, the cancellation of Elmaleh's show is the most important matter, because the 35-year-old comedian - a native of Morocco who has embarked on a grand career in France - is Jewish. Prior to the attack, in Beirut, they had already started wondering whether audiences there would allow the Jewish performer to appear. Wouldn't they boycott him? Would they laugh at his jokes? Now, at least in the meantime, this dilemma is no longer an issue.