Magazine article The Spectator

'Do You Admire Thomas Carlyle?'

Magazine article The Spectator

'Do You Admire Thomas Carlyle?'

Article excerpt

IN THE courtyard of a mosque in which I was standing in Tripoli during Friday prayers, I found myself exposed to the everyday sights and sounds of the Lebanon: the call of the muezzin, the chanted prayers of the congregation, the splashing of a fountain, and the ear-shattering supersonic boom of an Israeli warplane flying extremely high overhead. I had not heard this sound since the days when Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as Minister of Technology, sent fighters flying supersonically all over the British Isles in a crazy experiment to see whether we could be persuaded to get used to the noise. We could not. But although the ground and building shook, the worshippers did not even look up.

It must be extremely curious to see your adversary once or twice a day, as a tiny spot in the sky causing such a din down below. I suppose it is facile to point to the obvious symbolism of how the Lebanese must see the Israelis - so powerful, so close, and yet living in a different world.

This Friday was the first anniversary of the Israeli bombardment of the United Nations camp at Qana, just outside the Israeli security (or as the Lebanese say, 'occupation') zone. More than 100 refugees had been killed. The Israelis insist that the shelling was an accident, and that they had been trying to return the fire of Hezbollah guerrillas who were near the camp. The Lebanese claim their Qana as the site of Christ's first miracle, rather than Cana of Galilee. But it was the shelling, rather than the miracle, which was the national theme of the day. That afternoon there was an elaborate ceremony of remembrance at Qana. The speaker of the Lebanese parliament delivered an oration on a platform festooned with the yellow colours of Hezbollah.

You see the Hezbollah colours throughout the country. Around Baalbek (a Hezbollah stronghold, where some of the British hostages may have been kept for a time) they are supplemented by pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and other Iranian leaders. Young men and children with plastic buckets flag down passing cars to collect money for the cause.

Hezbollah (the party of God) are undeniably popular in Lebanon. They elected 12 members in the parliamentary elections, and got one of the largest popular votes. They shore up their support by bringing water into the poorer districts of Beirut where they have installed 'reservoirs' water tanks about six by six feet, painted with the Hezbollah insignia. They have also built schools and hospitals. Now they seem to be going into commerce. I was shown an unfinished complex which is to be a combined shopping centre, hospital and television station. Like the Islamists in Egypt, they claim to deliver local welfare untainted by corruption -- which is almost unheard of in the Lebanon.

This is not the side of Hezbollah which has made most impact on the West. We know them as an Iranian-funded terrorist group who took Western hostages. We also connect them with suicide bombings. An attack on the United States embassy in Beirut killed 63 people, including all the CIA heads in the Middle East. In October 1983 what one book describes as 'a smiling suicide bomber' drove a lorry into the compound of the French and American marine bases, setting off a 4,000-pound bomb which killed 300 soldiers. It is said to have been the largest single explosion since Nagasaki. It persuaded President Reagan to withdraw troops from the Lebanon. But now Hezbollah has entered politics, and is willing to talk to foreigners without making them a captive audience.

Two local journalists took me to a Hezbollah headquarters in a suburb of Muslim west Beirut. It was full of hardlooking, bearded young men. My conversation was to be with Mr Mousawe, one of their intellectuals, who has a chat-show on Hezbollah television.

Our conversation began with theology: `You have a distorted image of Islam in the West. Our duty is to give the real picture. Do you admire Thomas Carlyle? As early as the 1840s, in Heroes and Hero Worship, he was able to understand the Prophet. …

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