(di Estella Carpi*). The last work of American journalist Nicholas Blanford takes the form of an autobiography about his own life as a reporter, having the privilege of being constantly immersed in the insider world of whom he explores.
Blanford begins his book with a historical excursus of Hezbollah’s roots and Imam Musa al Sadr’s legacies in the ongoing Shi’a ethics: such as the conception of armaments as adornments of men. Men who want vengeance and revolt against tyranny.
Throughout the ‘80s and the ‘90s, the growing conviction that the only way to establish justice is to organize a revolution and use weapons, as Musa al Sadr suggested, is also confirmed by Lebanese scholar Mona Fawaz, that has observed how Hezbollah instead does not speak anymore of mahrumun – term initially assigned by Musa al Sadr, “the deprived” – rather mustad‘afun, term contained in the Holy Koran, meaning “the weakened”, which opens the door to change more easily than the former term.
Hezbollah, in fact, fosters the Shiite refusal of victimization and the status of passive oppressed, long date label of the Shiite community that is alleged to reflect their internalized existential status, culturally expressed through the annual ceremony of ‘Ashura, which commemorates Imam Hussein’s death.
The author highlights the position of Hezbollah as a Trojan horse carrying Iran’s influence into the majority Sunni Arab Middle East, who used to name the Shi’a “metwali”, as not grown in an urban environment unlike Sunnis in Lebanon’s history.
Blanford seems to look for political objectivity, in the full hope of its feasibility, by representing facts in their faithful chronological order, factual reality and endemic ways of living them. The several ethnographic snapshots of the detailed military operations, including flashbacks that focus on the evolution of particular war strategies and weapons used by both sides, leak an American-style taste for spectacularization of war scenarios or sensationalism of some scenes whose the author is the narrator (i.e. when he finally discovers one of Hezbollah’s bunkers after a seven month search).
For instance, Blanford reports the 16th October 1983 incursion of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) into the ‘Ashura ceremony in Nabatiye, contending that the trucks made the “mistake” of driving into the throng and inducing the celebrant Shi’a to throw stones. The Israelis are described as “frightened” in that episode. He seems to be committed to proving his will of embracing both sides’ interpretation in the name of objective historical truth.
To the same extent, however, he highlights where Israeli interests have resided behind all aggressive attacks against Lebanon, such as the annexation of Arnoun in 1998 to the Israeli occupied zone, with the alleged purpose of protecting the IDF and the South Lebanese Army (SLA) from Hezbollah’s attacks against the Beaufort castle.
With respect to Augustus Norton’s representation in the chronicles of the struggles between the two Lebanese Shi’a parties Harakat Amal and Hezbollah, Blanford reminds that South Lebanon people, especially Christians, actually had no other choice than trading with the Israelis. He therefore discards the “natural” friendship and harmony between the two sides that are instead perceivable in Norton’s work.
Yet, Blanford puts in the foreground the local differentiation of the Islamic Resistance as experienced and deployed by Palestinians and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and, on the other hand, promoted and lived by the Shi’a, once spiritually led by Musa al Sadr, and, later, by Fadlallah, carrying ideological innovations.
As evidence of this local differentiation of the Islamic Resistance, Amal used to view the PLO as occupants and, thus, used to be compliant with the IDF during the Lebanese “war of the camps” (1985-1989). On the contrary, Fadlallah absorbed the Palestinian cause into the Shi’a struggle for social justice and equality, in the full respect of all communities.
While narrating the gradual emergence of a common Shi’a political sphere, Blanford unravels the roots of such Shi’a cosmopolitanism between Iraq (where Fadlallah was born and every Shiite influent leader studied), Iran (homeland of Musa al Sadr and cradle of Shi’ism), and Lebanon (“action” scenario of every Shi’a spiritual leader).
In some pages, to my mind, Blanford’s desirability of historical accuracy gets lost in a sort of self-focusing, which paradoxically unearths his de-empathization with the reported events, giving up an emotional inner perspective. He makes an exception when he gets deep into the 2006 war, in which all his dismay is perceivable among the pages that are dedicated to his experience between the displaced and the families of the martyrs.
He describes Hezbollah as a special guerrilla force, although not yet as a fully-fledged conventional army. In this section, Blanford also mentions the reiteration of forced evacuations to which these miserable people have been doomed throughout the years, as though their suffering were written in an inescapable destiny.
One of the stories that rarely finds room in historical analyses on South Lebanon, is the narrated sense of unremitting anxiety and isolation that pervaded the South Lebanese Army in the border zone – where they used to cooperate with Israel – once they became aware that their defeat was looming due to Hezbollah’s strength and steadfastness.
In the domestic political scenario, Blanford brilliantly smashes the myth of a polarization between Hezbollah and Hariri and between the current March 8 and 14 coalitions, as well as of an antagonism of interests between Syria and Israel, showing therefore the schizophrenic state behaviors of all parts involved.
The Syrian regime is instead represented as a big Leviathan, never confronting Israel, never accepting Lebanon’s independence and practically supervising all negotiations between these two countries, like in the case of the Shebaa Farms at the Lebanese southern border and their territorial dispute. While denouncing the machiavellic moves of all states implied in Hezbollah’s affairs and plans, the author succeeds in representing the things from within just from a macro-political perspective, since he reports, most of the time, the official discourses and private conversations that he had with the members of the Party of God.
What would have been interesting to find in this insightful piece of work is a – even just hinted – view of common local residents, in order to find out how they make meaning of these events. This was not probably the goal that Blanford meant to achieve, in the attempt to blur the lines between the military and the civilian in Hezbollah’s realm. Struggling between journalistic style, autobiography and essay-style objectivity, a reporter that has been living in Lebanon for decades, nonetheless, would have been expected to abdicate his self-seeking, particularly in the second section of the book.