Ayta Shaab: First impressions

As soon as you start moving away from Sour the last large coastal city of the south before the Israeli border, advertising billboards slowly disappear, and along with it, the English language. The only visuals displayed are those of Hizbullah fighters, flags, and texts related to Shi’ite symbolism according to the various politicized subjects. Amal (the other Shi’ite party present in the south) tends to rally behind Hizbullah with a couple of flags here and there and the pictures of some their martyrs probably killed in the early period of resistance work. But all in all these displays of political meaning are still less present in these rural areas than in cities (like Sour), or the main highway that links these cities to Beirut and the north. It is as if in these more remote areas, rallying practices are not really that needed, at least because there is no competition over political affiliation (which is not the case in larger cities).

Then you start going through the various villages destroyed during the war. Here international institutions, foreign states, and NGOs of all sorts try to reap the benefits of their aid by advertising their presence. From reconstruction donors (basically Qatar, and Iran) to anti-mines missions (UN various missions, Sweden, Switzerland I think, Norway, etc.), to the rehabilitation of god knows what.

The Iranians make themselves visible all right from billboards in villages they financed reconstruction efforts, to stickers on trucks and any piece of machinery used to that effect. Qatar has a different way of doing things: Only one or two huge billboards in the entire south with the ruling prince on it and an “I love you” type of note from Qatar. The process of naming here is crucial it creates political clout by referencing help. It is not just aid, it is aid from this or that party. Of course in can border the ridicule: The European Union for example has a sticker on each trash bin you can find in the south. But Winston Smith can tell you more about all that.

From time to time you run across a UN military vehicle moving at full speed. Or you can see a couple of UN guys with flashy sunglasses taking poses on the road in front of their vehicles and showing off their equipments. UN people brought their food with them; they don’t buy anything from Lebanese shops. The previous UN mission was getting fed and dressed in Israel for example. Moreover, they throw their trash on the street or on the shores of the sea. They don’t even use the EU sponsored trash bins for this reason. V. has a couple of pictures of this. If you read this V. send me the pictures! I definitely need a camera next time around.

But I digress. I want to talk about Ayta. Ayta has been mostly destroyed during the war. It is one of the villages that gave the hardest time to Israeli troops and tanks. Most of the houses there have portraits of dead fighters hanged on their walls or on tables. A cloud of dust welcomes you as soon as you arrive signaling the massive reconstruction initiatives taking place. Ayta is being rebuilt because it is Qatar who is financing. And Qatar bypassed the government in order to make sure the money would go to actual reconstruction efforts. And in effect, the village right before Ayta is still in a pitiful state because its rehabilitation awaits government decision to proceed including unblocking the foreign donations given to that effect. Qatar chose its village strategically: Again, Ayta is one of the most famous in terms of heroic guerrilla practices.

Ayta’s main source of income comes from its agricultural output. During this month of the year it is tobacco. Laurel grows wildly and women traditionally make soap out of it (Saboun Ghar). But this production is restricted to local consumption. Friends have tried to work on promoting this rural activity by building awareness and giving them a chance to circulate these products. The idea behind it was to empower women by giving them decision leverage on some local production. The first people in Ayta I saw were those we asked for directions to find the president of the municipality: A woman and two men sitting on the floor in the shade above a tobacco field, choosing tobacco leaves for drying (most entrance of houses in the village have tobacco leaves hanged upside down). The woman was bear foot, legs outstretched, the leaves deposited in front of her, picking one leaf at a time. She looked at us while one of the men was giving us directions with the most beautifully sincere smile.

Texts displayed are written directly on the walls and are painted in bright colors with a nice Arabic calligraphy signaling shops or some craft center. Occasionally a Hizbullah flag is hanging down, or the picture of a martyr. Ayta has several ‘famous’ martyrs whose face are represented on a single poster as the “Ayta martyrs. Aynata has the exact same thing, and I’m sure other villages have that too.

Some of the people I met here are critical of Hizbullah. There are debates raging in many houses. Hizbullah is an open field there. From partisans to dissenters, people make their choices according to what makes the most sense to their personal stories. While Hizbullah tries to control the terms of speech, people are constrained by the given discourse and refashion a discourse of their own using the prevailing conceptualizations of reality available. But through Hizbullah there is a whole set of “modern” concepts and utterances that make their way, re-framed through the party’s speech. Talking to the Hizbullah president of the municipality I could get a lot of this discourse, but most importantly it was interesting to see what made sense to him, how he reworked it to craft his own consciousness according to his social position and past.

Ayta had a vibrant leftist resistance before Israel occupied the region. Most of Ayta’s population had to escape, some of it going to expand the suburbs of Beirut. Some people stayed and were forced to work with the Israeli. To collaborate. They are referred to as “the collaborators”. It is said that most of these collaborators have integrated Hizbullah ranks or at least have sympathized with Hizbullah. As for the early combatants some continued to feel that they belonged to leftist groups and did not work with Hizbullah, most of the time accusing Hizbullah of stealing their agendas, while others just joined Hizbullah. This process is truly interesting because it has mostly to do with the complex circumstances these people found themselves in at a particular social political and historical juncture.

During the last war, people left Ayta and found refuge in the nearby Christian village Rmeish. Rmeish is exactly the same as Ayta (economy, architecture etc.) except that it is Christian. From an outsider’s perspective, three things make you guess that it is a Christian village: the crosses, the non-veiled women, and no destroyed houses. Both villages are very connected because they deal with the same type of agriculture (tobacco that is). Most of the people of Ayta stayed in schools and churches if not at friend’s place in Rmeish during the war. Rarely, you can see a little LF flag (Christian right-wing group more present in the north, who worked with Israelis) and some 10452 graffiti with LF tagged crosses here and there. I don’t know much of the history of this party in Rmeish but I would tend to think that it is not very widespread. I need to check though.

It is interesting to notice that the few leftist in Ayta I met come from very pious background. Actually, most if not all of Ayta engage in strict religious practices. When I was in the house of N. (who’s a leftist, does not sympathize with Hizbullah, and mostly hang out in Rmeish it seems) his mom and his dad were praying with their masba7a as they sat with us. The mom was sad because they had just finished rebuilding their destroyed house and they were not that happy with it. She was happier with the old house because she could “see the mosque of the village from the window”. They looked a bit disarrayed, disturbed by the wave of destruction that fell on the village. The sister of N. came to say hello and before we left as we said goodbye she asked me why I looked “fa’ir metlel folostineh” (humble or simple like a Palestinian)… I was just shy I guess!

In another house, one father asked me if I was Christian (after I told him I was from Beirut), and at the sight of my decomposed face (I never know how to answer this question) he started to laugh saying that he just wanted to show me a Christian masba7a. And indeed it was one, and he started reciting Christian prayers with it, and explained the difference of its working for Christians and Muslims. When I said to him that I was doing a PhD thesis and that I was going to work in the south and probably with the volunteers in the village for some time, he said that I should come and work with him in the land that I should work in the mud. He repeated the word mud several times. He said it was a delicious sensation. I answered that I completely agreed.

I just gave a very succinct picture of the language present in Ayta. It is said that people are pious way before Hizbullah came. It is said that people there have no religious lessons to take from Hizbullah. Hizbullah used this system and tried to present an economistic version for political ends. There are no new institutions created by the party in Ayta like those you find in the suburbs. The rural setting has remained untouched. No additional mosques, no associations, etc. Only the head of the municipality represents Hizbullah, and there is one “rabit” (literally, “link”) an elusive position to my knowledge from explanations given by inhabitants. The rabit serves as some kind of link then between the party and those who want to train and join the organization. From there, any individual can just present himself and follow the procedures to fight or be active in the party. First he has to follow the “ta3bi’a” (literally “charging” or “filling”), making Hizbullah party members to see if the guy is “ethically” ready to join. Once he joins he commits (yaltazim), which is a specific stage viewed as full of disciplinary rules of conduct.

In the case of Ayta at least, Hizbullah worked on an already prevalent social disciplinary setting in order to mobilize constituency. People may have joined other political groups in the past, but their narratives must not have needed significant modification. If a leftist is familiar with Marx and other leftist narratives it still resonated with his “shi’ism” (the latter being a constantly redefined narrative according to the social, economic and political milieu). Ideas and signifying utterances traveled easily from one particular movement to the other as long as the practices initiated and initiating these signifying structures were basically the same: For example, getting out of a state of marginalization and fight oppression (in this case occupation). The more fighting gave effective results the more identity as a Shi’ite of the south fighting and all the narrative this meant (of course in relation to each and every different individual) reinforced itself.

But in effect, one must look at the myriad activities the people of Ayta engage in, in order to understand the various discourses made conscious in a social setting, and ultimately to understand the evolution of “piousness” for example. These activities from cultivating the land to serving tea between friends, to the architecture of their houses and how they live in them, these activities that are daily impregnated by the text they read or hear, the discussions they have, reflecting the relative positions each one has at the level of the modes of production are those who I have to elaborate on those first impressions I had.

11 Replies to “Ayta Shaab: First impressions”

  1. Great post, bech. But dont forget that the same complex dynamics exist in the southern suburbs as well. I have seen HA political operatives working there first hand and I can tell you they dont waste their energy on billboards.

  2. thanks guys, apo, i was trying to just differentiate between the way the party functions in rural areas as opposed to urban. I am still at my first steps, but from what I see, the suburbs has a much more complex hizbullah presence through institutions that are virtually absent in the south. I any case, I’ll write more on that when I can make more sense of it, but for sure, Hizbullah’s credibility is a constantly contested political field wherever they are present and so the party act in accordance.

  3. excellent! thank you… i look forward to reading your dissertation. More on the “language” of Aita in the upcoming posts please. And say Hi to the volunteers from me.

  4. Great Bech. Did you see any posters of Georges Hawi? They were definitely there in some villages alongside those of al-Musawi, Berri and the other actors. I wonder if that piousness you identify could also function as a blanket cover for more diverse political affiliations and beliefs than first greets you – side-effect, symptom, pill. The occupation didn’t really end so long ago (correction – it hasn’t ended), and that the most recent Israeli onslaught was aided by Lebanese collaborators is not lost on the people of the south. Could you not see it as the filial piety of a people barely subsisting in an intermittently functional region, and by necessity receptive to various narratives defined and redefined according to the socioeconomic and political milieu? Is Shi’ism necessarily the overarching narrative? Can it not be resistance, i.e. is it out of the question that resistance is the overarching narrative that other more transitory narratives resonate with, including Marxism and Shi’ii movements like Hizbullah and Amal?

  5. Thanks again for encouragements friends.

    m.i. I totally understand your point and what you’re saying goes hand in hand with what I say. But in both case I just want to make sure that we get this straight:

    I don’t know if there is an ‘overarching narrative’. For me it is too soon to speak of any of this.
    One thing is sure there is nothing such as a generic “Shiism” out there. It does not mean much in the social reality of conflicting discourse and influx of so many signifying elements that all can incorporate the practice of “resistance” or any other for that matter. Meaning that whatever Shiism ‘means’ for people, it partly means resistance.

    So some people do consider themselves as “shi’a” whatever that may mean for different actors at different social locations, and that this narrative went hand in hand with concepts like resistance, but also oppression, etc.

    But if they say “I define myself as Shi’a”, it means very different things to different people (for party cadres to the simplest supporter, from a rich investor in Africa to the peasant of the south).

    So to talk of these in the abstract is to suffer from falling into the reification trap i.e. taking concepts and elevating them to the rank of reality. These concepts are not the reality. There is no grand narrative that has a logical internal coherence. Something earlier writers on Hizbullah and for that matter researcher on other “Islamic” movements in general love to indulge in.

    By the way, the few places I went to have no Hawi posters.

  6. Hi Bech, nice post actually great post. If I may i have a small correction. The CoS has not adopted any village, all villages are adopted by forgein countries. The CoS jsut works the files for the HRC (high relief Council). Irregularities have been reproted as to the damage assessments carried out by the CoS but the pace of rebuilding is dictated by the procedures set in place by the gov. ( which is not meant to be read as a defense of the CoS, in no way.).
    As to Shiism, and I am not an expert, but if i am not mistaken it is in itself a rather dynamic set of rules. That are supposed to have a complete over haul every hundred years.(talk to experts about this) Similarly the marajas seem to play an important role in how people chose to live out the ‘rules’ as they give interpretation etc. again i think making it relatively dynamic. (again I am certainly not advertising religion(s) but in this case it might explain, how discourses readjust (or are readjusted) more fluidly or something like that).

  7. Stop using the word “reification.” It is not a trap. To use words is to reify, so stop saying it is a bad thing.

  8. To reify is to give more reality to the word you use than to what this word is refering to. There is a reification process at work to some extent whenever you use a word but the full extent of reification goes way beyond that.

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