TYRE â€” In his spacious sun-splashed apartment in Tyre’s old city, surrounded by a dozen grandchildren and feasting on generous portions of lamb, Tawfiq Bahr, like many of his Shiite brethren, has seen his lot improve since his youth.
“We Shiites used to be beggars,” Bahr, 62, recalls, “Now our people have started to live comfortably.” For many of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims, Hizbollah, currently waging a bloody conflict against Israel, deserves much credit. It has won support by providing much-needed social services and healthcare.
It is the secret to its popularity among Shiites and its ability to pose problems even for the Israeli army, the mightiest in the Middle East.
At age four, Bahr was an orphan. His mother died when he was two, and his father was killed while shuttling Palestinian refugees from Haifa to Tyre during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
He was raised by his aunt, who cleaned the homes of Tyre’s well-to-do. Instead of an education, at age 10 Bahr went to work for a shoe cobbler for one Lebanese pound a week.
“I couldn’t even buy bread,” says Bahr, now the proud patriarch doted on by his eight children and dozen grandchildren.
“I never went to school. There was nobody to help me get an education.” Not so for Khadija Farraj, a 30-year-old mother of three, reclining on a stoop in Bahr’s neighbourhood, quietly watching the children of the alley chase around a deflated soccer ball.
Her husband, an over-the-hill boxer, is now unemployed. When their kids needed money for text books last year, they found their savings wouldn’t cover the costs.
“We went to them,” she says, “them” being Hizbollah. “We said we need help. They gave us a piece of paper and said, ‘Take it to the bookstore, they’ll give you what you need.'” Bahr’s own family has also benefited from Hizbollah’s help. When his granddaughter Amani, 21, needed an operation, Bahr’s son-in-law Abbas Hassan didn’t have the 1.8 million Lebanese pounds ($1,500). He appealed to the ministry of health and other government agencies, but was ignored, reinforcing his suspicions that Beirut cares little for the Shiites of the south.
The 46-year-old taxi driver shakes a strand of prayer beads angrily as he recounts his government’s refusal to help.
Instead he went elsewhere for assistance.
“I finally went to a local Hizbollah-run charity and asked them,” says Hassan. “They said ‘yes’ and paid for the whole thing.” “Today, I thank Hizbollah for everything I have.” Were Bahr an orphan today in south Lebanon, he would have a formidable support network to fall back on â€” Hizbollah.
“They don’t let anyone live in need,” says Bahr. “Anybody who needs help gets it. How can you not love these people? They do so many good things.” His young grandchildren all agree. With Israeli planes pounding their cities and villages, and its tanks slowly creeping into southern Lebanon, these youngsters say Hizbollah makes them feel safe.
“I am not afraid as long as the resistance is here,” says Bahr’s eight-year-old granddaughter Lara Al Ayan through blue candy-stained lips.
“If Hizbollah wasn’t there, Israeli troops would be here in Tyre and we’d be dead,” says Aya Hassan, 18, another of Bahr’s grandchildren.
Lebanon’s Shiites have long been deprived citizens in Lebanon.
Hizbollah grew out of earlier Shiite movements who long worked to remedy this political imbalance. The legacy of four decades of advocacy has bound Shiites to their sect’s leaders â€” now embodied by Hizbollah.
Before there was Hizbollah and its fiery charismatic leader Hassan Nasrallah, there was another equally revered Shiite leader, Mussa Al Sadr, dispatched to Lebanon by Iranian clerics in the late 1950s.
Bahr tells the story of how he grew from orphan to middle class family man and Sadr’s own story as one interwoven narrative.
“Sadr brought all the beggars and widows to his house and gave them a monthly salary,” says Bahr. “He saw what the poor people needed and he provided for them.” “He taught us that we don’t need money and charity from Britain, America or any country in the Western world, and that we can rely on ourselves.” For Bahr, and for many other Shiites, Sadr and Nasrallah blend seamlessly together into one tradition of Shiite activism.
“I would die under the feet of Sayyed Hassan,” says Bahr, referring to the Hizbollah frontman.
“He returned our dignity and the dignity of all Shiites.”Â