Nasrallah’s Gallows Humor Comes Back to Haunt Lebanon

Growing up as a Shiite in Beirut, I was enamored of Hezbollah’s leader. As with all forms of hero worship, especially in the Middle East, this one didn’t last

Nasrallah’s Gallows Humor Comes Back to Haunt Lebanon
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson/Wikimedia Commons

In the midst of political infighting following the assassination of Lebanese Sunni billionaire Rafik al-Hariri, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech. This was 16 years ago, and my memory is fuzzy, but I still remember how this bespectacled, bearded man’s face curled into a smile, how the warrior sheikh looked at the camera and said:

“Can I tell you a joke?”

I can’t remember the punchline anymore, but in school the next day, we Shiites felt like we shared a secret. Our parents had watched Nasrallah’s speech. We were in on the punchline. Most of our friends were not.

My Westernized private school in Beirut wasn’t spared the sectarian cleavages that ripped through the country in 2005. A car bomb preceded almost every math test I did that year. Hezbollah was blamed for all of them. And to some extent, so were we.

As a minority, we were teased. But Nasrallah’s quip at his rival’s expense was a weapon we could throw back in the faces of our tormentors. Since then, my life seems to have been governed by his speeches. The man, after all, is Lebanon’s de facto ruler.

Hezbollah’s leader is a master of ceremonies and narrative. The head of arguably the world’s most powerful nonstate militant group — albeit with representation at the state level — is blessed with an auteur’s sense of theatrics and spectacle. He can shape his domain in real time from the back of a screen. It’s like magic.

“The surprises we promised you will start now,” he proclaimed one evening, two days into the July War in 2006, fought between Hezbollah and Israel. Then, we all heard it: The sounds of an explosion thundered through my parents’ Beirut apartment.

A single thought screamed in my mind: “Bathroom!” But my body would not budge. I was transfixed by the television. The sounds and sights that beamed into my parents’ living room from an underground studio somewhere in Lebanon put my frenzied mind at ease.

“Look at it burning,” Nasrallah’s voice on the TV said. The blast was a Hezbollah strike on an Israeli warship moored off the coast of Beirut. He had issued the order on live television, an unthinkable act by a group that, before then, was regarded as little more than farmers with guns.

Calm and professorial in tone, Nasrallah proclaimed “the beginning. And before the end, there will be a lot to talk about.”

That episode, for many, encompasses his allure and singular genius. It is as much the product of his actions as it is the space he occupies in the minds of the Arab world. Nasrallah was a unicorn among modern Arab leaders: He delivered.

During that monthlong confrontation, Nasrallah and his cabal of holy warriors were cheered across the Arab world for giving the Israelis a bloody nose. After the dust settled, Hezbollah invited “our people” back to their homes and compensated many of them for their damaged homes and property.

Persian Gulf countries rushed to prop up Lebanon’s economy, eager for a slice of the political capital Hezbollah had accrued across the Middle East that rendered Nasrallah the king of the Arab street at the time.

But he was our guy. He exemplified the tenaciousness of the Lebanese and their exceptionalism, capable of achieving what the world bet they could not. Someone I could be proud of, despite not agreeing with everything he did and stood for.

But our heroes in the Arab world never last. Nasrallah is no exception.

He did not exactly fall from grace. He slipped and stumbled for more than a decade, then crashed all at once. It was a loud thump.

“What are you doing, you dogs? Stop it!” A friend texted a chat group while Hezbollah and its allies launched an offensive to capture Beirut in 2008.

That was weird.

The brother of this friend was a card-carrying member of Hezbollah. He had asked other friends to go on “camping” trips. Rumor had it that they shot guns and rappelled down mountains. His family had fled the capital a day before the fighting started. They were in on it, and they supported the invasion, so why was he angry? Why was he insulting them?

The attack and ensuing occupation were a response to a government decision to bring Hezbollah’s telecoms network to heel. The group claimed this act impinged on its arms and threatened to cut off the hand of any who would dare. It took over rival party headquarters after vicious gunfights.

But it turned out that even my friend couldn’t justify the slaughter that was unfolding on my street. Ingrained with the belief that these arms were meant for the oppressor, he was appalled at their sights being set inward. I was not.

Hezbollah was fighting those who sought to deprive it of its capabilities, our last and best defense against Israeli occupation.

I didn’t want my family’s orchards bombed with impunity. I enjoyed being on the winning side, for once. What the U.S. and Israel had failed to do in 2006 was now being attempted by other means, and Hezbollah responded. They couldn’t do to us what they did to Iraq in 2003, and we had Nasrallah to thank for that.

But the optics were bad. A Shiite militia had invaded the territory of the Future Movement, a Sunni party from a “Sunni” city, so it could impose its will on the state. Two corpses were retrieved from my building’s entrance, among the 110 killed by the end of the fighting.

While dwarfed by other conflicts that eventually mired the party in the cesspool of regional sectarianism, that episode stood out to me. It was a harsh introduction to reality: Hezbollah were not really the good guys, even if they still were our guys. I was 17.

The group and its allies proclaimed victory. Regional powers, as they tend to do, coalesced to bring about a solution to Lebanon’s crisis, and in 2008, the Doha Agreement was born.

Lebanon witnessed peace for a while; some would even say it prospered in that period between 2008 and 2011.

Then, the popular uprisings swept through the Arab world. The disenchanted youth wanted justice and democracy. They took the streets to claim it. Regional and international interests intervened; revolutions turned into civil wars.

Hezbollah fueled the sectarian bloodbath blazing across the region when it sent its fighters to prop up President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The group spoke of protecting holy shrines in Damascus and of strategic interest. It warned of the threat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) but made no mention of the Assad regime’s hand in enabling the group.

It had anchored its political credibility on its resistance credentials; it drew its might from its history of expelling invaders from its lands. That same experience would now be deployed in the Syrian battlefield and result in the displacement of more than half the country.

It was difficult not to draw parallels between Hezbollah and the entity it claimed to resist. It was difficult not to see Hezbollah do to the Syrian people what Israel’s founding fathers subjected the Palestinians to during the Nakba.

The group’s atrocities in Syria tarnished any claims to resistance. But what was the alternative at the time, we asked ourselves? What was called the Free Syrian Army was awash with funding from the Persian Gulf, and where arms and cash flow, ideology soon follows.

Then, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (then al Qaeda’s affiliate and now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) dominated the battlefield.

What would it mean for our little, liberal Lebanon if a conservative regime propped up by the Persian Gulf countries emerged next door? Many in Lebanon feared the answer. Nasrallah and his allies elevated those anxieties and parroted the regime equation that rendered all the opposition identical to al Qaeda and ISIS, the takfiris.

“We cover their back, what else can we do?” said the head of a militia guarding one of Lebanon’s Christian villages. Farmers, both Christian and Muslim, on the border between Lebanon and Syria thanked Hezbollah: The militia leader, along with his volunteers, patrolled the outskirts of their hamlet at night. Sometimes, they called the Lebanese military to intervene, but more often than not it was Hezbollah’s soldiers on the opposite side of the border who did the heavy lifting.

Over glasses of whiskey, a tattooed 20-something architect I was lucky enough to call my date said she supported the group’s presence around her mountain village.

“They protect their people, they are better than the rest,” she said. Her grandmother slept better now that Hezbollah’s fighters had conquered parts of Syria.

From Nasrallah there seemed to spring up a dome of protection over Lebanon. It covered us all, whether we liked it or not. Sometimes, it even shielded his political rivals.

When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was detained by Saudi Arabia in 2017, the country’s eternally bickering political elite closed ranks and in a rare display of unity called for his return, with Nasrallah at their helm.

Al-Hariri said he declared his resignation in Saudi Arabia because he feared Hezbollah would assassinate him, just like they did his father, the accusation went. Shortly after, reports emerged that his aunt called on Nasrallah to help her nephew navigate his way out of the kingdom.

“Let him come back, then,” Nasrallah said while unfolding his palms between interlocked fingers.

“Let him come to Lebanon, and let him do what he wants,” he added, his arms now extending in what seemed like an open invitation for an embrace.

“He might come and declare war on Hezbollah, I don’t know what he might do,” he said, arms to his side.

His hands animated his speech. It was the posture of an old man breaking up a street fight with his words. The look on his face was a paternal one, that of a loving father accustomed to separating fighting children.

Al-Hariri left Riyadh and went to Paris, then came back home, welcomed and celebrated by all. Lebanon’s political masters outfoxed Saudi Arabia’s; they’ve been at it for longer, the product of 15 years of civil war.

It started on Thursday Oct. 17, 2019, with burning tires and road closures, the favored weapon of Lebanon’s weak. Some of it started in neighborhoods controlled by Hezbollah. It was all encompassing: The entire country was in uproar. The party of God, like the rest of the Lebanese establishment, was not spared the wrath of the people.

It began as a reaction to a proposed tax on calls made on the popular messaging application WhatsApp. But it unleashed decades of pent-up fury at those who had ruled Lebanon, some of them across generations of their families since its inception a hundred years ago. Activists branded their uprising a revolution and sought to topple them. I was 28, and the first eight days of the protest were the best of my life so far.

It was a dream come true. A community emerged out of the barren urban wasteland that had been downtown Beirut. We ate together, spoke to each other, and learned from one another. Together, we sang, got gassed by the cops, and set up tents. From the day we were born, we were taught about all the things that divide us; despite that, we came together and learned about the things we had in common. We were happy.

One could walk from a public meeting on the protest’s next move to another on our constitutional rights, then go party at the Egg — once a cinema, it was converted into a speaking corner and rave spot.

On Saturday, Nasrallah seemed to bless the party. He acknowledged the spontaneity of the protesters. The protesters were genuine and not the work of embassy funding or the machinations of opposing parties, Nasrallah declared.

That was hope. Many protesters did not see Hezbollah itself as the problem. The group’s representatives never held lucrative public offices like the finance or telecoms ministries. That was where the money was, and that was where officials were best placed to dip their hands into state coffers.

Hezbollah’s arsenal was a discussion for another day. That was a conversation that was bigger than Lebanon; people understood this. Reports emerged that Hezbollah was even considering siding with the protesters since many of the activists’ demands were their own.

Then, on Oct. 25, Hezbollah ruined everything for everyone. Pro-party supporters attacked activists in downtown Beirut, enraged over the inclusion of Nasrallah in chants berating Lebanon’s leaders.

“All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them,” protesters chanted, telling Nasrallah that he, too, was complicit in the theft and impoverishment of their country.

Eventually, Nasrallah employed his television dark arts and instructed his people to leave the scene, reminding everyone that the path of violence is just around the corner, should he choose to take it.

When he spoke, his body language portrayed the disposition of a pent-up beast rather than that of an oratory genius. His eyes, sometimes warm and playful, now appeared menacing, like those of a predator before it pounces on its food.

The man explained how the demonstrations started off on the right track but were now being seized by “suspected actors” and “foreign agents.”

“I am not threatening anyone. If anyone is scared, let them be scared,” he said, waving his finger in the air.

He was enraged by the amount of profanity being levied by protesters at his allies in the ruling elite. The unofficial slogan of the protest was a chant directed at Gebran Bassil’s mother’s genitals, the highest of insults in Lebanese slang.

The elite were angry. Nasrallah gave that anger a face. It was red. It seemed to huff and puff rather than speak. Long ago, it gave us hope; now, it was killing our dreams.

Nasrallah killed our unity. He beat his sectarian drums and retreated into his confessional citadel, framing the protests as another one of the Party of God’s many existential struggles.

Nasrallah was telling us that he is war, and only he is peace. How utterly lacking in imagination, I thought to myself at the time. His eminence and his friends could only construct the world in terms of security. The free-spirited solidarity that emerged from the Beirut protests was beyond them.

The memefication of Nasrallah happened in parallel to the divorce of his rhetoric from reality. While Hezbollah and its allies were starving civilian centers in Syria and repressing a rebellion, the man declared to the world his troops were there to protect Shiite holy sites.

“This is lemonade, it has nothing to do with my health,” Nasrallah said in 2015, before pontificating on the aftermath of a decisive battle in the Syrian war. The image would be immortalized by WhatsApp stickers exchanged between friends for a laugh.

The solemn-looking Sayyed suggested we try it for its health benefits.

During the 2019 protests, after Hezbollah’s supporters attacked activists around Lebanon, the country’s youth did what they do best: They mocked.

“The path to Jerusalem does not go through the Ring,” the writing on Beirut’s downtown walls read. It was a message directed at Hezbollah. The Ring was a focal point of confrontations between protesters and the establishment thugs who attacked them.

Around the time Nasrallah was imparting his lemonade advice, he had also declared that the path to Jerusalem cuts through the Qalamoun Mountains and Zabadani, some of the key battlegrounds of Syria.

“Palestine says: Those who oppress Beirut don’t liberate Palestine,” graffiti sprawled in downtown Beirut said. Hezbollah’s sins were laid bare for all to see.

“07/07/2020,” Nasrallah said during one speech in July 2020. As he mouthed the numbers, he drew circles in the air with his finger. It is unclear if that is the same finger he told people to be afraid of months earlier.

He liked the date; it was easy to remember. It ought to be a “new phase” in Lebanon’s economic spheres. An Agricultural and Manufacturing Jihad “or another name, we can agree on that later.”

The sheikh whose religious sermons inspired men to march to their certain deaths in battle against a much greater foe was now asking his people to direct that same energy toward becoming urban farmers.

“If we can plant on the balconies and roofs; we have to.”

“We won’t starve,” he said in a speech shortly after his latest iteration of jihad. Much like Nasrallah’s 2019 “national resistance to corruption” scheme, this too, did not provide bountiful fruit.

The Hezbollah Twitterverse latched onto and promoted these words; they always do. The group and its leader trend almost every day in the Lebanese Twittersphere. Bots and fanboys boost a specific point or fiery quote or relive past victories. Sometimes the order of the day is to ascribe his eminence with qualities of a cute teddy bear.

“Look at it burning,” seems to be a favorite.

Lebanon’s GDP contracted by 20% in 2020; a fifth of the country’s economic output was wiped out in a year. That year was tough on everyone. But on top of the pandemic, the people of Lebanon endured the largest non-nuclear blast in history, lost their life savings, and saw the value of their currency erased.

Despite the hardship that has befallen Lebanon, supporters of Hezbollah still proclaim their undying love for Nasrallah with the same set of clichéd banners. Or they point out how cute his beard is and how much they adore it. They argue, boast, and otherwise distort the reality that we are witnessing.

“His picture proves that photoshopping is a crime,” said one on twitter. “I swear if anyone photoshops the picture of Sayyed (Hassan Nasrallah) I want to break his hands.”

The hidden army of social media warriors is supplemented by an auxiliary battalion of human, Hezbollah influencers. They peddle in the same content but put a real face to it.

“We won’t starve,” is another favorite.

Months after restlessly promoting this hashtag, one of the influencers, the Logan Paul of the bunch, could not find baby formula. He looked everywhere. It ran out, like many essential goods and products in Lebanon. Desperate, he asked his thousands of followers if they found any.

Some users, responding to the influencer’s plea for milk, responded with, “We won’t starve.” Enraged, improvised, and imbued with an “I told you so” attitude, Hezbollah’s detractors subvert Nasrallah’s image and rhetoric and throw it back in his people’s faces.

To many today, his image is a commodity of laughter, the face of alienation between ruler and ruled.

In the aftermath of 2006, Nasrallah paraphernalia was everywhere. His face adorned keychains and mugs, the symbol of Lebanon’s victory and pride. To many today, his image is a commodity of laughter, the face of alienation between ruler and ruled. People trade WhatsApp stickers with the sheikh in drag makeup. His speech impediment made for hilarious WhatsApp sticker fodder. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nasrallah’s face with the word “cowona” graced many a Lebanese cell phone.

After the Beirut explosion, protesters hung a noose around a caricature of Nasrallah, just like they did to the rest of the regime figures. He is now just another one of Lebanon’s warlords.

When he speaks, he is irrelevant to most of the country, except for maybe a quick gag.

But the joke is on us. The killing of political activist and Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim taught us that the group will no longer tolerate any detractors, especially those coming from within its own community. It is why I have to hide behind the veil of anonymity.

It’s not funny anymore.

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