Of Course Hezbollah’s Play Had Live Gunfire

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Written By Pinang Driod

When I first saw the announcement, I thought it was a joke. Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant movement, was staging an “immersive theatrical performance” in Beirut, with three interlinked plays running simultaneously. The invitation noted that there would be live gunfire; people with heart conditions and children under 7 were discouraged from attending. Viewers would be given the chance to walk from set to set through a Gaza-style tunnel.

Hezbollah isn’t exactly known for its avant-garde drama. But these are not ordinary times. The group has been exchanging bombastic threats and near-daily attacks with Israel across the Lebanese border, and about 150 of its fighters have been killed, including a number of high-ranking commanders.

A full-scale war would be catastrophic for Lebanon, which bears the scars of many previous conflicts. Hezbollah is the country’s dominant military force—the Lebanese government is helpless to constrain it—and the group’s leaders are keenly aware that they would shoulder the blame if they provoked Israel into a countrywide bombardment. For all of these reasons, everyone in Lebanon (and beyond) would like to know what Hezbollah is thinking. But the group is famously secretive and rarely grants interviews. So I booked a ticket for The Crossing, as the new play is called, in hopes of gaining a glimpse into Hezbollah’s state of mind.

It had been raining for days, and downtown Beirut’s colonial-era boulevards were sodden and gray, the posh hotels mostly vacant. From my car window, the dark expanse of the city seemed lit with only a few scattered embers. But the scene was livelier when we reached Dahieh, the crowded southern suburb that is Hezbollah’s stronghold. This part of town—largely Shiite and poor—has grown in recent years, even as the country’s overall population and economy have shrunk.

We parked in the open parade ground where Hezbollah holds most of its public rallies and walked in the dark toward a cluster of large white tents. I stood in line with a friend, feeling a little conspicuous amid the conservatively dressed Muslim crowd, and paid $5 for my ticket. A little girl next to me clutched a blonde Barbie doll in one hand and clung to her mother with the other. Glancing around, I saw no other foreigners but a lot of children, some of them very small; apparently Hezbollah parents are not bothered by live gunfire.

We filed into our tent, and I took a seat near the back, earplugs in hand. The lights dimmed, and four men dressed in camouflage and toting automatic rifles took the stage. They were playing Hezbollah members fighting against ISIS in the Syrian desert, and the story revolved around their struggle to find water. The acting was crude—lots of flamboyant hand gestures—and bits of hokey humor leavened the battle scenes. In one scene, the men reach an ISIS commander by walkie-talkie to arrange a prisoner swap, but the commander isn’t interested: Hezbollah can keep the ISIS fighter they’ve just captured, he says, because “he stole my phone charger.”

After about 45 minutes, we were told to rise and walk to the next tent, where audiences from the two other plays (their plots variations on the themes of war and martyrdom) joined us. The final act of all three dramas took place on a set meant to replicate Albu Kamal, a town on the Syria-Iraq border where Hezbollah took part in a decisive battle against ISIS in late 2017. At one point, an offstage hair dryer blasted bits of paper from the ceiling, meant to represent leaflets dropped by American warplanes. The leaflets were written in such bad Arabic that the Hezbollah men could barely understand them, and the audience guffawed.

The play reached its passionate conclusion with the arrival of a white-haired actor playing Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander who was assassinated by the Trump administration in early 2020 in Baghdad. The actors hail Soleimani as the mastermind of both the war against ISIS and the continuing struggle against Israel. “Whenever a place is liberated, you can smell the air of Palestine,” one character declares.

The crowd erupted in applause. Then we got up and walked through a concrete tunnel meant to evoke Gaza, decorated with images of Soleimani and other martyrs in the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” against Israel. The message was clear: Past and present are one; the wars against ISIS and Israel are stations along the same glorious passage to victory.

The Crossing flaunts something that Hezbollah wasn’t always so willing to admit: that for years it followed the lead of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, whose foreign brigades Soleimani once commanded. In fact, my program informed me, the play was put together by an outfit called Qassem Soleimani Productions. Hezbollah has produced a stream of resistance-themed agitprop produced over the years, but this show’s scale is unusually ambitious: It has been performed in recent weeks in Iran, Iraq, and Syria as well as Lebanon.

Presumably, the four-country premiere is an effort to stir the faithful at a time of crisis. But the play’s selective take on recent history inadvertently hints at some difficulties Hezbollah is now facing. The Crossing tries to harmonize the war against ISIS and the Palestinian cause, eliding the awkward fact that during the ISIS war, Hamas opposed Hezbollah (and the Syrian regime) by supporting the Sunni-led Arab uprisings that started in 2011. Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad—usually a Hezbollah ally—has not forgotten this fact and has conspicuously refused to offer Hamas rhetorical support since October 7.  And many Arabs deeply resented Iranian leadership, under Soleimani, of a war being fought against ISIS in Arab countries, even if they did not sympathize with the terrorist group.

In other words, The Crossing is partly an effort by Hezbollah to neatly paper over the region’s sectarian divide. As it happens, Hezbollah is working hard behind the scenes right now to reach out to Sunni Muslims, not for the first time.

Hassan Qotob, a Lebanese political analyst, told me that he had met recently with Hezbollah officials as part of what he called their effort “to persuade Sunnis to join with them” to create a united front in the face of a possible war with Israel. He said he told them that a shared belief in the Palestinian cause would not be enough to make mainstream Sunnis forgive Hezbollah for its alliance with Iran.

“When Hezbollah fought in Syria, they made themselves enemies of the majority in the Arab world,” Qotob told me.

Not only is Soleimani a divisive figure on sectarian grounds, but in recent months, assassinations of high-profile Hezbollah figures who worked closely with him (some of their faces appeared on the set of the play) have chipped away at his legacy. Those killings expose a humiliating reality that runs counter to the message of unity in The Crossing: According to Qassim Kaseer, a political analyst close to the movement, Israel has built a powerful spy network that reaches the highest levels of Hezbollah. Lebanon’s shattered economy appears to be fueling the problem, Kaseer told me. The country’s banks collapsed in 2019, leading the Lebanese pound to lose more than 90 percent of its value; many deposit-holders lost their savings, and most of the population fell into poverty. Hezbollah’s leadership is deeply concerned, Kaseer said, about the risk that people may be willing to betray the movement in exchange for cash.

Among the most prominent assassinations was that of Wissam Tawil, a Soleimani protégé who was also the son-in-law of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Tawil was a senior commander in the Radwan Force, a secretive unit deployed in southern Lebanon near the Israeli border. Tawil changed cars three times on the day he was killed, Qotob told me, and he did not have a phone with him. Someone must have told the Israelis where he was, Qotob concluded, and someone must have planted the roadside bomb that killed him.

Another strike in late November killed five other members of the Radwan Force. They, too, were without phones, and they had just arrived for a meeting that very few people were aware of at a house in southern Lebanon, Qotob said. A third Israeli strike killed two top members of Hezbollah’s tech elite. There have been many others.

“The structure Qassem Soleimani built is being destroyed,” Qotob told me, perhaps a little wishfully. In one of the ironies of Lebanese politics, he added, Hezbollah may have made itself more vulnerable to Israeli spies by assassinating Wissam Hassan, a senior Lebanese intelligence officer, with a car bomb in 2012. Hassan had uncovered many Israeli spy networks, but he fell afoul of Hezbollah by investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which Hezbollah appears to have organized. Pity the playwright whose task is to reduce these tangled agendas to a simple, uplifting narrative.

Watching The Crossing made me wonder about the real-life dramas—spying, betrayal, displacement—that the play seems almost designed to distract from. Those dramas are much harder to witness. The area near the Israeli border has been inaccessible since October, sealed off by Hezbollah checkpoints. The group maintains a cult of silence about its activities, and its followers imbibe a daily diet of propaganda from its flagship television network, Al-Manar. I often tried, without much success, to break the ice with Hezbollah members during the three-plus years I spent as a correspondent in Beirut. Once I talked my way into the kitchen of a sympathetic young Hezbollah member in south Lebanon to talk about the Mahdi scouts, the movement’s youth wing. She seemed eager to chat. But no sooner had she poured me a cup of coffee than her cellphone rang. She listened to the caller for a moment, looked up at me, and said: “You have to leave.”

Still, the morning after I saw The Crossing, I drove south from Beirut to see if I could learn a little more about what ordinary Hezbollahis were facing. About 85,000 people from Lebanon’s southernmost villages—bastions of support for the movement—have been displaced by the fighting along the border, according to the United Nations. They are housed temporarily, mostly in miserable conditions, in other parts of the country. Hezbollah seems to find their plight embarrassing and has said very little about them. I located a school in the southern city of Tyre that had become a shelter for a large group of families and arranged a visit.

About 20 miles from the southern border, Tyre (“Sour” in Arabic) is an ancient city surrounded by lush banana farms. The historian Ernest Renan once called it “a city of ruins, built out of ruins,” because it has seen more than its share of wars going back as far as the Bronze Age. The drive from Beirut was free of checkpoints, the road mostly empty, with the Mediterranean visible at times on my right, shallow blue waves glittering in the sun.

The campus of the Sour Technical School seemed empty when I first arrived, but then, gradually, weary-looking people began emerging into the courtyard. Most of them had been living there for four months, they told me, and they were baffled and angry that their plight had not registered with the rest of the country. Although none of them claimed to be active members of Hezbollah, several spoke approvingly of the “resistance,” a code for the movement.

“All my life I’ve been displaced,” a haggard-looking 54-year-old named Mustafa Ibrahim Sayyed told me. “Every time we rebuild, it’s gone. We’re very scared to face the fate of Gaza.” He described the day he first heard Israeli artillery and air strikes in October, while he was at the tile shop where he worked. Everyone went home, and soon he was on his way north with his 11 children and 20 grandchildren.

A 78-year-old woman walked up, her head wrapped in a black scarf, her face creased with anguish. “My village is half destroyed,” she said. The same thing had happened in the 2006 war, when one of her sons was killed (she did not say whether he was a fighter or a civilian). She needed medications and wasn’t getting them; no one, not the government and not Hezbollah, was helping. She and her family get by on the crops they grow, but they were forced to miss last autumn’s olive harvest. When I asked her how many times her family had been displaced, she clutched her forehead and began to cry.

The younger people I spoke with seemed equally discouraged. “The people of the south always pay the price,” a 19-year-old woman, who was furious that she’d been forced to leave her studies, told me: “I don’t want to stay here.” A young man stood alongside her, with a tattoo of the number 313 on his forearm, a common tag among Hezbollah loyalists. (It signifies the number of supporters that many Shiites believe will accompany their last imam, the Mahdi, when he returns to rescue believers from oppression.)

“And they say the war hasn’t started yet,” Mustafa Sayyed told me. “God knows what will happen when the war starts.”

The mood among the refugees stood in sober contrast to the rousing conclusion of The Crossing. After the play’s final scene, the audience walked through the concrete tunnel and into yet another tent, where a huge painting depicted Soleimani leading a group of men up the steps of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a dramatic sunset glowing in the background. Here it was: the promised victory.

The audience milled around excitedly, congratulating the actors and snapping pictures of one another in front of the painting, as if they wanted to escape into it. I heard the strains of one of Hezbollah’s many anthems, the words echoing the same theme: victory, always victory.

A shot rang out in the distance, and for a moment, people looked around anxiously, like sleepers who resist being woken. Was the war finally starting? But no, it was just another false alarm, the kind that happens all the time in Beirut. The smiles returned; the music resumed; the theatergoers turned back to their shared dream of deliverance.

Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. A former bureau chief for The New York Times, he has spent more than two decades writing about the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. He is the author of A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS, which won the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize.


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