My introduction to Hezbollah came on an early morning in southern Beirut. I rode bus No. 5 from the Burj Al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, where I taught English, eastwards through Haret Hreik—a Hezbollah stronghold.
Every day I watched the surroundings from the discomfort of the sweaty, gender-segregated bus. We passed bombed-out buildings that served as permanent reminders of the decade-long civil war; the Beirut Fried Chicken that serves dirt-cheap grills; balconies that display Iranian flags; and what I liked to think of as Martyr’s Row, a wide highway with faded posters of martyrs’ solemn faces floating above rose gardens or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of the most sacred sites in Islam.
On a particularly hot day, a friend and I decided to get off the bus for some relatively fresh air. We bought some Hezbollah souvenirs and practiced our Arabic with the shopkeepers. Then I took a photo beside the Hassnian mosque.
I took a photo. In a Hezbollah-controlled area.
When a plainclothes man with a gun approached us, I knew I had made a huge mistake.
“Photography is prohibited,” he said to us in Arabic. “Give me your camera.” I apologized and showed him that I had erased the photo. My friend and I began to walk away. He grabbed my bag and pulled me back by my strap.
“Give me your passports,” he said. We didn’t have them. A white Mercedes with black tinted windows pulled up beside us. More men with guns got out. “You will come with us,” the first man said. “We just need to make sure everything’s okay.”
We protested: We don’t even know who you are.
The man shrugged and raised an eyebrow. “We’re Hezbollah,” he said. Then the kicker: “You will come with us, or we will take you by force.” The kitschy Nasrallah paperweights I had just bought didn’t seem so cute. Into the car we went.
It seemed as if the Beirut traffic had magically cleared for us. We sped down alleys with the two clean-cut and decidedly pious men (my male friend was instructed to sit in between our “escort” and me, as to avoid touching me).
Our speed gave me little time to ponder our fate. Instead, I thought of one of my students who lived in Haret Hreik—a 12-year-old girl who, because she was the only student at the center who didn’t wear the hijab, was the sole test subject of the hairstyling and makeup class. The students would style her hair in Princess Leia buns and paint her face with glittery blues and pinks. I doubted that Hezbollah would accept her as a viable character witness.
They took us to their now-destroyed headquarters in the heart of Shia land, about two blocks from the Hezbollah television station Al-Manar. We approached an armed security checkpoint decorated with black flags, some with indecipherable Arabic calligraphy. My friend and I communicated our fears to each other by pressing our legs together and stepping on each other’s feet. We passed through the gate and were given a peek inside a surreal world, one that was at once instantly foreign and familiar.
The area looked just like any other cramped Beirut apartment block, except that the streets were deserted and black Range Rovers periodically crept around corners. We were completely isolated from the congestion and noise of Beirut—a thought that unsettled me.
Our companions parked the Mercedes in the middle of the desolate street and left us sweating (heavily) in the back seat as they bustled about, chatting on walkie-talkies and discussing our situation with the rare passer-by. After a few minutes, the main guy returned with two bottles of pineapple juice and plastic straws.
Though they had taken us against our wills, the men wanted to demonstrate some level of kindness. Our driver asked his superior if he could crack my window more and give me a newspaper to use as a fan. Another man tried to comfort me as I sipped my juice. He asked in Arabic, “Are you afraid?”
I said yes. Laughing, he repeated to me, “Ma fee hawf.” (Don’t be scared.) The same man asked my friend if he was Muslim.
My friend said yes.
“Sunni or Shia?” the man asked.
The man nodded his head with slight approval.
Our talk came to a halt when the driver got in the car and began reversing course rapidly. I watched out the rear window as we zipped by the buildings, suddenly noticing that several large gun cases (presumably with guns in them) lay behind my head.
We made a sharp turn down an alley and came to an abrupt stop at what appeared to be an apartment building. More black flags marked the entrance. I had yet to see the familiar yellow and green Hezbollah flag. We followed the juice-bearer up two flights of dimly lit stairs. He knocked on the door and a stick-thin man greeted us. He politely welcomed us into the apartment and instructed us to take off our shoes and place them in a shoe rack near the door.
The apartment consisted of one long white hallway lined with doors, each marked with a letter of the Arabic alphabet. One was partially open. Inside, a two-sided mirror looked into another room, bare except for a chair and table—and bright fluorescent lights. Our room, even with the barred window, was slightly more pleasant.
We sat on the blue velour couches for hours, feeling anxious as an 8-by-10 of Nasrallah’s cheerful face looked over us. Periodically, different men came in the room and asked us the same questions: Why are you in Lebanon? What does your father do? Where do you live in Beirut?
We answered everything truthfully, our broken Arabic possibly working in our favor.
Between our infrequent guests, I watched two ants try to find their way out of a maze of doily on the table. I also tried to not look too hard at the black television and console—I was convinced we were being recorded. We spent an hour trying to recall every potentially-risky item we had in our bags. Our journals—did we mention our planned trip to Israel? Our digital cameras—would they find our photos offensive?
After five hours, a fresh face appeared at the door. He looked more serious than the others. He raised his hand to his chest, looked down, closed his eyes, and began speaking to us in slow, pensive English (a first).
He said: We want to express our deepest apologies to you. This is a big mistake and we are sorry. You are now a part of our family. We welcome you back anytime.
Three days later I left Beirut.
The following week, Israel began bombing the southern suburbs.
Former Observer intern Leah Caldwell grew up in Houston and received her degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin last May.