A few minutes’ drive south from central Beirut takes you into what appears to be a different country. Beirut itself has European-style architecture, shops, hotels and cafes with men and women mostly wearing western clothes.
Once you enter Hezbollah land, the scene changes. You feel as if you are in Qom, the Iranian holy city, with men sporting bushy beards and women covered by mandatory hijab, milling around in noisy narrow streets fronted by nondescript shops. Billboards that advertise global bands in Beirut are used in Hezbollah land for pasting giant portraits of Khomeini and the Iranian “supreme guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Not surprisingly Hezbollah describes its territory as “Dar al-Iman” (House of Faith).
When it took over southern Lebanon, Hezbollah found a territory devastated by years of domination by the Palestinian al-Fatah (the area had once been called Fatahland) and the Israeli invasion of 1982. There were almost no schools, no hospitals, few jobs and certainly no security.
Hezbollah provided all that. At the same time the movement imposed a strict religious code that gave the poor Shi’ites a sense of moral superiority over other Lebanese who aspired after western lifestyles. A generation of Shi’ites in southern Lebanon has grown up in a world shaped by Hezbollah’s radical ideology.