A Visit to the Hizbollah Museum

 I first heard of this museum from a former airbnb roommate. Our host jibed at him for paying 4000LL as well as some souvenir money to Hizbollah, which he despised. The roommate also noted how the guide he met there personally hated Israel, which surprised him a lot. Our host said, they are the worst neighbors. The conversation piqued me interest as well. 

My friend Morgana and I met at the Saifi Institute's Arabic class. She is from Peru and studies a degree related to law and humanitarianism. She is researching on Syrian refugees in Lebanon and was also interested in checking out the place. On July 29th, which was my last Saturday in Lebanon, we decided to visit the South, namely Saida and the town that hosts the famous Hizbollah museum.

We met up at 10AM, close to our institute, took a cab from downtown to the main long-distance bus station for South Lebanon. We only knew the name of where we were supposed to stop, namely a bridge, and relied on the other passengers to notify the moment we should descend.

We were extremely under-prepared and mostly relied on the local people to guide us to the museum. I did little research about the place. We learned mostly on the way, about the surroundings and the relation between the museum and the environs. It is known by many names: The Museum of Resistance, the Mleeta Tourist Landmark, but mostly we used the term "Hizbollah Museum" when asking for directions.

Why did we need to ask for so many directions? It was because the cab driver tried to charge us a lot for the cab fare. He said 2000 LL when in reality he meant 20,000. But by that time we were already 1/3 through the journey. He was praising Peru and China for having very good people and telling us his life story about his years in Australia and divorcing a Turkish wife back there. Then he asked if he wanted him to wait for us to drive us on the way back down. Morgana said that she would probably need 90 minutes in the museum. The driver said that 1 hour is sufficient. Then he said it would cost 40,000 LL both ways. We were shocked and decided to give him 8000 and leave the cab on the road. 
After leaving the cab, we asked a truck driver Hassan how to get up to the Hizbollah museum. He chuckled and wrote down the town name for us on the Manaoosh (Lebanese pizza) paper wrap, in case we had to ask someone else. Then he said with good humor that it would take us 1 hour to reach there by walking. We said thanks and kept on walking. A few minutes later, he drove to us with his truck and his assistant hanging on the back of the truck, telling us to get on and offering to take us to the next bus stop. We catched up to a bus and we were tailing it. Hassan tried to stop it from his position by honking.  It took the bus around 5 minutes to stop and we finally got the bus driver's attention. We took a bus up a few more steps, but then it dropped us off and took another turn to some other town. The driver was considerate enough not to charge us the fare, since we did not reach our destination. The bus route reflects that the people in the area do not visit this museum. After the bus dropped us off, I took a small detour to check out the scenic town. It reminded us of Bcharre, which was north of Beirut and the hometown of writer Khalil Gibran. We bought water there and washed some peaches. Someone offered us drinks inside but we decided to press on.

We stubbornly walked the last 4 km uphill... We later learned that it's far up because the Hizbollah fighters were fighting for it against the Israelis who occupied it during the war. 

The up side was that we had a full view of the scene as well as unique positions for the cool stuff on the way, such as these flags being placed side by side. But I definitely would not do it again. Morgana was also exclaiming: No wonder the driver wanted to charge 20,000LL!

Seeing the museum from afar

"Who comes to this museum?? Definitely only people with cars!" I complained...

We saw something protruding from the museum area for quite a while, and it was our point of reference for hiking upwards. It looked like a tank, but we found out later that it wasn't--it was a lookout point that was never detected by the Israelis during the late 1980s until Hizbollah decided to unveil it. Sometimes it was no longer in sight. When we finally made it up there, we were exhausted. We paid for our tickets at the door. The person said we should find someone with the museum logo on his shirt for an explanation of the museum layout. We found one who was tall, in his middle-age years and wore a cap and shades. He introduced the place with great confidence and experience. He said we can come back to him for any further questions. 

I did not have very high expectations even though we traversed a long distance to reach the place. I was expecting a dingy dark building, like the Stasi museum in Leipzig. But museum was very informative and well-researched.

What surprised me most was that the design of the metaphors was very well thought out. The Israelis are represented by the deserted objects. "Attractive landscaping surrounds 'The Abyss,' full of booty apparently left behind in southern Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal in 2000, and after the 33-day July War in 2006." In addition to the political context, the scenery was also very nice. It seemed that many Lebanese tourists come for the view as well as for the educational value. I also was really surprised when we toured the well-equipped, "180-m tunnel leading to an operations bunker." A soldier was standing on guard at the entrance. But I later read that their presence in the museum had lessened since it first opened.

First time seeing spy equipment

Here is a description of the history reproduced by The Velvet Rocket post about the museum:
On April 3rd, 1985, the Israeli army retreated from Mount Lebanon and the villages and cities of the southern coast to an area that extends from Haasbayah and Mount Sheikh in the east, to Naqoura coastal town in the west, planting hilltops and mountaintops with dozens of fortified outposts and barracks. Soon afterwards, the resistance militants followed the enemy to its bases, to initiate the “war of bases”. From 1985 and over a period of 15 years, the resistance took Mleeta and other mountains and valleys as their strongholds, in defiance of the enemy.
So in that sense, Hizbollah is truly modern: it engaged in a war or multiple wars, in which many pauses and confusion happened in between. The result is that the history is difficult to write. 

These objects from Israeli soldiers containing Hebrew text remind me of how disconnected the two countries Lebanon and Israel are even though they are right next door. Many ancient Mediterranean trade connections were severed since the rise of the nation state.

Morgana reminisced about the time when she and her classmates were trained to be "kidnapped" in Poland for the purpose of becoming bona fide humanitarian workers. I was shocked that they had to go through that process. Later we discussed the Syrian War when we finished touring the bunker. She had the opinion that peace should be achieved in an ideal situation and only then can the Syrian society start to rebuild. I said that even in times of so-called peace, there is hegemony and oppression. I gave her the example of Gandhi and the Congress movement: even though it achieved independence for India through a peaceful movement, it also allowed for upper castes to maintain hegemony for decades. I also said that party politics happens even during times of war, i.e. how Mao built the Chinese Communist Party even when it was engaged in civil war with the Kuomintang. Similarly, FARC was trying to do that in Columbia, although with less success. Although we could have had this discussion elsewhere, we were rather exhausted to keep moving.

Later we had a very interesting political discussion with the tour guide who initially introduced us to the place. He knew about our Arabic program and said many other students from the program have visited before. Morgana asked him about the relationship between Lebanon and Palestine. He gave us a concise history: The Arab league funded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to fight Israel. Israel did not like it and bombed Lebanon; it reached Beirut in 6 days. Then all sides fought. The PLO left Lebanon and went to Iraq and other Arab countries. But the Palestinian refugees stayed. But Israel continued to use Palestine as a reason for interfering in Lebanon. The Israelis still influenced Lebanese politics through the Phalangist party. They manipulated the politics which resulted in the election of a PM who was from that party. Speaking of the present, he said, "Some Palestinians are involved with ISIS. This is no secret." Then Morgana asked him about Syrian refugees. He said without blinking an eye, "We don't have anything to do with Syrian refugees. We are just observing them for any activity. Any conflict is between the state and the refugees." I was surprised by the shrewd reaction from him. During that week, Hizbollah was conducting military campaign against SIS in the Lebanese town Arsal that borders Syria. They claimed that there are many ISIS militants hiding in the refugee camps. At the same time, Hizbollah also burned down areas of the camps illegally and Syrian men have died in military custody. (See this article for more details about the anti-refugee violence in Arsal.) He later was pretty nervous and decidedly changed the topic to our background and the usual meet-a-tourist talk (e.g. how China is a great country).

Morgana and I didn't really have a way to go back down. We asked a bus driver Moustafa up in the parking lot on the mountains if we could take a lift down to a town. Even though he was on duty waiting for other people, he still took us down to an intersection. On the way down he asked in Arabic about our situation and our future plans. We communicated haltingly. He chided us that we have been here for a month while learning Arabic and we still only know "shway shway!" (Meaning: a little bit) In my defense we were living in Beirut, where people spoke English very well. He left us his number in case we had any problems. Then we waited on the road for a while, until a service taxi took us to the point where we could get another service taxi. We then proceeded to tour the ancient port city Saida, which deserves another post. 

Overall, although the museum is a semblance of violence, it is not entirely a celebration of it. It shows the labor and the efforts of war in a sobering manner. There is room for reflection and contemplation for the visitors. Scholars Mona Harb and Lara Deeb have noted in their book (p63) that Hizbollah has transformed from militaristic tones to humanistic ones since the infitah. This plays into their plan to broaden their post- 2000 electoral base. The museum is also a form of leisure, which is a strategic area where Hizbollah can generate jobs and garner more youth support. Indeed, we met a couple on a date in the museum park area. One can disagree with Hizbollah's party politics, such as its slow disarmament process and condemn its support of the Syrian Asad regime, but at the same time it is also important to value the cultural memory of the resistance in terms of actual people with families and ties to the area. Politics often hides more violence, while this museum looks at violence and death as a necessity for survival, however grim that survival is.

For more information about this controversial museum, this is a good article: 

Hezbollah museum: Shrine to resistance or a dying image?