The Real Nasrallah; How a Son of Beirut's Slums Became One of the Most Engaging, and Dangerous, Leaders in the Muslim World

By Dehghanpisheh, Babak; Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, August 21, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Real Nasrallah; How a Son of Beirut's Slums Became One of the Most Engaging, and Dangerous, Leaders in the Muslim World


Dehghanpisheh, Babak, Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Babak Dehghanpisheh and Christopher Dickey (With Kevin Peraino in Jerusalem, Maziar Bahari in Tehran and Lina Sinjab in Damascus)

Remember this about Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah: he grew up very poor but very smart, and although he wears the robes of a minor Shiite cleric, he is a world-class politician. The U.S. government defines him as a terrorist, but that is only one of his faces. If he survives the war he started with Israel--a war that may now be in its final stages, following the U.N. Security Council's passage of a ceasefire plan--he will remain what he has become during these last weeks of combat: perhaps the most charismatic figure in the Muslim world, and very possibly the most dangerous.

Nasrallah's guerrilla force of a few thousand men has done what no Arab army has ever done before: stood up to the power of Israel's vaunted military week after week and kept fighting. Arab presidents and kings are humbled. Some of them spoke out against Nasrallah when the fighting began. Now they don't dare. Israeli leaders say they've heavily damaged his military organization, and he'll no longer be able to launch rockets across the border. But they worry openly that their military campaign, if ended, will leave him stronger than ever.

And if Nasrallah is killed? His myth as a martyr could well become the standard against which other leaders--presidents, kings, princes, preachers or, indeed, terrorists--will be judged. Nasrallah may be "in love with himself," as Israel's outgoing head of military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, told NEWSWEEK last week, but the Hizbullah leader has played brilliantly on the sense of honor that is so important for many Arabs and Muslims. His message, says Kuperwasser, is "to regain lost pride ... by readiness to sacrifice, readiness to suffer."

This pudgy son of Beirut's slums, with a speech impediment that can seem almost childlike at times, has nevertheless earned the respect of his enemies. "A superb leader," says Yossi Alpher, a former senior official in Israel's Mossad. "He's smart, he's charismatic and he has guts." And he's inspired envy even among his closest supporters, the mullahs of Iran. Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the Iranian official often credited with creating Hizbullah, described Nasrallah and his men this way in a recent interview with the Iranian newspaper Shargh: "They are students who went even further than their teachers."

Nasrallah, born in 1960, grew up in a neighborhood of squatters and refugees called Sharshabouk, in the Karantina area on the eastern outskirts of Beirut. There was no running water and no electricity. Houses were often crude shacks made from tin sheets and wood. "I remember the sound of rain striking the metal," says Ayoub Humayed, a parliamentarian who also lived there as a boy. "It was loud." Nasrallah's father ran a small grocery, and his former neighbors recall the father as a devout, trustworthy man. But Nasrallah's mother was the force in the family, according to Syrian filmmaker Nabil Mulhim, who interviewed her for a documentary about the Hizbullah leader: "The strong words and the soft face, those are hers," says Mulhim. "And the self-satisfaction. And the toughness."

The boy's parents scraped their money together to send him to private school. Khalid Mustafa, a former classmate, remembers Nasrallah at the age of 12: "He didn't talk without thinking. He was mature, like a 35-year-old." Nasrallah often wore an oversize coat and pants to school and didn't play soccer or other sports. Most kids could tell he was poor, and gangs of Sunni bullies tyrannized everyone in the neighborhood. "All the Shiites were afraid," says Mustafa.

When Lebanon's long civil war began in 1975, one of its first battlegrounds was the slums of Karantina. Nasrallah's family fled south to their ancestral village near Tyre. Nasrallah, only 15 at the time, soon traveled to Iraq, to pursue religious studies in the holy city of Najaf. …

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