THE FIRST PRO-LEBANON RALLY finally materialized in Los Angeles a day shy of the U.N.-sanctioned truce between Hizballah and Israel. In a kind of morbid Christmas Eve, as the two enemies hurried to check off their mutual destruction lists before the deadline, demonstrators at Broadway and Olympic Boulevard downtown rushed to get in all their objections to the war, crowding banners with dual or triple slogans. One smug protester held up his creation: “They have tanks that kill babies/We have cedars and pretty ladies.” The march was less noteworthy for its size than for its reviving the somnolent Arab-solidarity movements in the U.S. with a new, unapologetic embrace of Hizballah (“hizb” means “party”; “Allah” means “God”) and a direct challenge to local officials who had taken a side in the conflict.
As the marchers passed through the working-class neighborhood, busy shop owners — most of whom probably have a new outlook on marches after the Day Without an Immigrant — gazed over with curiosity. An organizer with a Zapata shirt and a megaphone recited the recent history of Lebanon and Palestine in rapid, impassioned Spanish. When the procession approached City Hall, the man called out for Antonio, the mayor of all Angelenos, who had previously vowed unflinching support for Israel at a Westside rally, and blamed staff errors for an inability to meet with Muslims (forget about showing up at a pro-Lebanon rally). At the Westside gathering, a large banner that read “Latinos for Israel” became famous, appearing in many news images the next morning. But today, in front of City Hall, a couple holding up a response sign, “Latinos for Lebanon,” sparked a new cheer. The unexpectedly rhythmic “Shame on you, Antonio!” — chanted for five minutes — became the boisterous slogan of the kind the “movement” lacks.
Teenage boys showed their pride. Having an accomplishment to swagger about (Hizballah not getting annihilated by Israel) was a welcome boost to their egos, which are often crushed by the incompetence and futility that have recently characterized Arab attempts at anything. Arab B-boys with Caesar cuts, complex facial hair and gym bodies (with disproportionate emphasis on the biceps) wore red-and-green basketball jerseys with the insignia “Palestine 48” instead of “Bryant 8” (to denote 1948, the year of Israel’s birth and flight/expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, which Palestinians refer to as al-Naqba, or “catastrophe”).
Girls — the coveted Lebanese blondes marched down Broadway like it was a runway — showed off their humongous, black designer porn-star sunglasses, cascading hair, famous olive skin and jewel-blue or -green eyes. Reflecting the spectrum of Lebanese society were darker women in full hijab, shouting and ululating and banging on pots and pans with domestic fury. The sun was beating down so hard, I thought of trying on a “hijab drag” to protect my neck from the fire. A 100-foot Lebanese flag became a giant makeshift umbrella. In this sheltered space, strollers were everywhere, embodying the baby threat more terrifying to the Israeli right wing than any suicide bomber.
To Americans who only know the Party of God as an entry on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, cheering Hizballah may seem brazen. That is, if one forgets it’s a political-humanitarian organization that took care of disregarded Lebanese when their own government couldn’t or wouldn’t, that the European Union has refused to place it on its list of terror groups, and that it also has significant Christian support. When the war escalated, with Lebanese civilians bearing the brunt of the conflict, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah promised the Israelis “surprises” and delivered them in the form of a never-before-seen arsenal of rockets that visited real destruction on northern Israeli cities, not like the Qassam toothpicks fired from Gaza. By merely not giving up and scurrying like guerrillas from town to town, Hizballah provoked deflated people across the Middle East to whisper, “We’re winning”— no matter that Lebanon was sacrificed along the way. Arabs suddenly had something to be “proud” of, even if it was murderous, albeit one-tenth as much as what hit Lebanon in terms of casualties.
Another point of pride was the victory of Nasrallah’s eloquence on the airwaves, in strategically timed dispatches on Al-Manar, the pro-Hizballah channel. Middle-aged women across the Arab world took to spontaneous strolling in the streets, kissing images of Nasrallah and hopping out of chairs to announce their love for him to the TV set. Stateside, many Western Middle East “experts” appeared on talk shows, highlighting the dangerous beauty of Nasrallah’s words, in the same way Orientalist Bernard Lewis expressed his appreciation for Osama bin Laden’s speech. Unlike Hamas, which Hizballah is unfairly compared to, Hizballah spokespeople used rationality and American-educated telegenic faces to preach its message. I was more surprised than anyone to hear an Al-Manar rep with a Michigan accent shooting the shit with Larry King.
With Hizballah’s new prominence, can U.S. officials and the U.S. media still use the T-word to excise the party from pivotal conversations about the Middle East’s future? Or will they instead have to call for the arrests of the thousands who pledge verbal support, if not illegal material, to the party?
Pro-Palestine demonstrations — which this Lebanon one threatened to turn into at any moment — are often underwhelming. They lack creative inspiration and become combative not just because of the likely counterdemos but through competition among the participants. Dare to object to a certain tactic employed by a certain leader, and a keffiyeh-sporting suburbanite will tell you that “you just don’t understand the Palestinian narrative.”
But the demo on Saturday showed no signs of fracture or colleague cannibalism. The Hizballah factor — which ordinarily divides Christians and Shia Muslims — was a point of unity, as chants of “Long Live Lebanon!” alternated with those of “Long Live Hizballah!” There were no shaking heads or shushing motions from those who normally worry about what the evening-news cameras will catch.