This is the text (slightly edited for the blog) of my article on the Hizbullah museum at Mlita, in Southern Lebanon. I’ve managed to get it accepted for publication without actually knowing the name of the magazine. Hopefully I’ll find that out at some point… Leaving aside all the Hizbullah 101 stuff and journalistic schtick, this was amazing, probably the highlight of Lebanon. Go if you get the chance.
It’s not in the Lonely Planet guide, and most Beirutis I spoke to had never heard of it. In rural Mlita, however, 2000 lira will get you admission to bunkers, barbed wire, and a platoon of captured Israeli tanks. Welcome to Lebanon’s latest attraction for the resistance tourist – the Hizbullah museum.
rob gets ready for some indoctrination
The road from Nabatiyeh climbs steeply through green mountains, following a series of dizzying hairpin bends. Driving through village after village, Hizbullah banners are strung across the road. Everywhere you look, you find glossy portraits of Sheikh Nasrallah and other luminaries of the movement, blown up into billboards and murals that appear at junctions or on roadside hoardings. This is Hizbullah country, where the movement draws most of its electoral support and where its networks of social services are most widespread. Following signs to the ‘Resistance Tourism Site’, you reach Mlita, perched on the top of a mountain overlooking the valleys below. It is a spectacular location; the museum site was once an important Hizbullah base, and, looking out over much of South Lebanon, you can see why.
On the day we visited, the museum was packed; huge tour groups were everywhere, each led by a uniformed museum guide. We began our visit in the audio-visual centre which showed a film on the history of Hizbullah – entirely in Arabic, our language skills were not up to following the story, but the dates and pictures served to give a general idea. Despite Hizbullah being largely a creation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the film began in 1948, the year of the creation of the state of Israel – or the nakhba, ‘catastrophe’, in Arabic. Accompanied by music distinctly reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, the film went through 1967, 1973, the Civil War, the creation of Hizbullah, and the 2006 invasion. At the end, the audience burst into applause.
It was a professional operation; the audio-visual centre was slick and modern, the film expertly edited. This is true of all of the museum at Mlita. It is beautifully designed; the buildings, shaped like shards of shrapnel, are arranged around a central circle. Signposted paths take you off through the forest, past reconstructions and exhibits, before returning you to the Martyrs’ Memorial and the exit. The museum makes particularly effective use of its position on a hill; the tour leads you down, back up, brings you out onto a spectacular lookout point, before climbing to an even more spectacular lookout point. It is staffed by smiling, welcoming employees who, despite only offering tours in Arabic, were more than willing to answer our questions in English. There is even a cafeteria and gift shop – closed at the time of writing but soon to open.
The centrepiece of Mlita is ‘The Abyss’, an installation of ‘structural scenic art’ composed of captured Israeli war materiel – tanks, guns, and armoured cars. In a huge rock-filled pit criss-crossed by walkways and surrounded by barbed wire, Hizbullah’s captured goods are piled high with artistic abandon; plastic Hebrew letters are scattered in their midst. The suggestions of Israeli warmongering are obvious; one of the tank barrels points at a picture of a dove, another is tied into a knot. Hizbullah make no pacifist pretensions about themselves, however; a placard next to the exhibit announces that the resistance turned Israeli tanks from ‘mobile land fortresses’ into ‘coffins on caterpillar tracks’.
Following the bilingual Arabic/English signs, we went off down the forest trail, dodging Lebanese children playing tag amongst the trees. At certain points, red flowers bloomed by the side of the path. I asked what they were for. ‘A flower means a resistance martyr died in this place,’ I was told. Tucked into the hillside, shaded by trees, life-size figurines and military apparatus reconstructed scenes from Hizbullah’s guerilla warfare – a combat medicine post, a fighter’s hideout, motorbikes for bringing reinforcements, a gun emplacement. We joined a queue of schoolchildren waiting to enter the Cave, where Hizbullah fighters once hid, fought, and lived, now cleaned up and atmospherically lit for the resistance tourists. Inside a network of tunnels there was a kitchen, bedrooms, a map room – each, naturally, with its own Nasrallah portrait on the wall.
resistance tourists all up in that bunker
Most of the visitors to Mlita were families, and there were large school and mosque groups as well, several going around in scout-like uniforms. We were the only Westerners that I saw, but the visitors were diverse; gangs of teenagers taking pictures on their camera phones, middle-class Lebanese families, women in full veil and women with none, as well as tourists from elsewhere in the Middle East. The museum is family oriented, with picnic areas, free water everywhere, and the kind of reconstructions and forest trails that kids love. One very small girl asked her father what the museum was about. ‘Il-muqaawama,’ he said, the resistance. ‘The Israeli resistance?’ she replied. ‘No, no! Habibi! The Islamic resistance…’
Hizbullah began as a resistance movement, fighting the Israeli army in Southern Lebanon, but since the 1990s has made the familiar Lebanese transition from militia to political party. It now holds 14 seats in parliament and represents the majority of Lebanese Shi’a as a member of the Resistance and Development Bloc. Despite being on the terrorism list of several countries, including the UK, Hizbullah is widely regarded as a legitimate political party in the Middle East. Its social and media networks are sophisticated and far-reaching; cheap medical facilities, schools, agricultural centres, and its Al-Manar TV network mean that Hizbullah reach impoverished Shi’a Lebanese in a way that their government often does not. Its movement from militia to political force is reflected at Mlita; the guerilla outposts and underground bunkers are now exhibits, camera-phone fodder. Yet Hizbullah’s fighting days are far from over; unlike other Shi’a militias in Lebanon, it has not disarmed, and rumours fly of another war with Israel.
Another segment for the film in the audio-visual centre? Perhaps. Finishing our tour at the top of the mountain at the Martyrs’ Memorial, a guide explained that this was the lookout point for fighters when Mlita was used as a base. ‘You can see all the way to the border,’ he said. The ‘Zionist entity’, as official Hizbullah parlance has it, is not far away, and tensions are running high. At Mlita, Hizbullah guns and Israeli tanks are museum pieces; but on either side of the border, they are also very real.