Hope and despair in the Middle East
A year ago I traveled to the Middle East with four friends. Below is an account of the trip from my good friend Andrew Schill—-Aaron
By Andrew Schill
Several weeks ago, I embarked on an unusual journey with four of my friends to Lebanon to meet with the deputy head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council. Though certainly not a typical day at the office, I suspect it was a much more tame experience than our initial plan, which fell through a week before our planned departure. Originally, my friend Carl had arranged a meeting with Iran’s polarizing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Apparent discord between these two men had escalated to such a degree that our Hezbollah contacts decided that such a meeting would not be beneficial to anyone.
After a scenic drive from Beirut to the southern Lebanese town of Tyre, we met our liaison and followed him to our undisclosed meeting place. After a quick check and the dispensing of our cell phones we were ushered into a room to await our meeting with Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, a man who appears to be soft-spoken, but unlike his secular counterparts, he wields both military and religious authority over Shiite Muslims of southern Lebanon. We drank tea while the Sheikh offered a short sermon, which but for the religious Shiite dress could have been given in most American churches. We would later discuss the origins and the perceived necessity for Hezbollah’s existence and their on-going armed resistance with their southern neighbor. At the end of our meeting we – Shiite and Sunni, Christian and Muslim, American and Palestinian, male and female – joined hands in prayer. I would find myself being given the most unenviable task of leading us in prayer and beyond the salutary greetings to God, most of what I prayed remains a fog except for a heartfelt plea for peace and justice.
Any notions I may have held about justice however were challenged by the stateless Palestinian refugees of Lebanon. While Jordan and Syria both have large Palestinian populations and refugee camps of their own, the Palestinians in Lebanon are denied participation in Lebanese political and social life. Those that are able to work outside the camp must stay off the radar, while most remain within the cramped and overcrowded confines of the camp. For the delicate sectarian system of Lebanon the inclusion of the Palestinians would upset the precarious balance that allows for any semblance of a functioning government. Our visit to the refugee camp in Beirut was an entrance to another world – buildings were stacked one on top of another to make room for families inevitable expansion after 63 years of house arrest. Within the camps various factions proclaimed their territory and their loyalty by covering buildings with flags and propaganda. One side of the street would display large pictorial tributes to Bashar-Al-Assad while across the street the yellow banners of Hezbollah would proudly bear the image of their leader Hassan Nasrallah. The most prolific and prominent poster would be of the late Yasser Arafat bearing the slogan, “You inspire us.” While I’ve witnessed worse physical poverty in Latin America, I’ve never encountered such hopelessness – a people without identity – longing for a land most have never known while being held hostage as pawns in a high-stake political game over which they have no control.
Sheikh Nabil likened the Palestinians to a drowning child that Hezbollah must reach out with its own arms to save, yet the camps bear little evidence of such salvation. So, while I believe it is important to engage our enemies (both real and perceived) in true dialog, it is my conviction that political leaders are not going to be at the forefront of lasting peace and reconciliation. True social change and accompanying revolutions must originate with the people in grassroots movements. This can take years and even decades when the goal of these movements is peaceful political and social change. So while our meeting with the Hezbollah was significant for me personally, it didn’t engender much hope for a peaceful resolution with Israel. The greatest encouragement and source of hope would occur a few days later in Amman, Jordan when we meet with one of the young educated leaders of the nascent Jordanian non-violent movement who was still bearing a baton inspired gash to his forehead from the now infamous March 24th uprising. For many of the youth we meet the movement spreading throughout the Middle East seemed almost like an intoxicating drug, while for some the apparent gap in political ideologies they encountered created only despair.