Just over the partition separating hundreds of female Hezbollah supporters from their male counterparts, a heated discussion is being held. A teenage security guard, identified as Hezbollah-approved by a green card badge safety-pinned to his T-shirt, wants to pray without leaving the large square in south Beirut where the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is due to speak.
The only thing he can find to pray on, however, is one of the A4 posters of Ahmadinejad that had been laid out on endless seats to be raised in adulation at the appropriate time. A discussion ensues between the teenager and a couple of security guards. He can’t place the poster on the floor with Ahmadinejad facing upwards, because it would be considered idolatry if he kneels over the image of a man. Would it send the wrong message to pray on the back of the poster, leaving Ahmadinejad nose down on the rubble floor?
Another teenager excitedly brings an A2 version of the same poster into the discussion: if you are going to do it – he offers – you might as well use the bigger version and not get yourself dusty. A compromise is reached, the boys agree that they will rub Ahmadinejad’s face into the dirt but that they would use the smaller poster to minimise the insult.
Media reports covering the hero’s welcome offered to Ahmadinejad in Lebanon on Wednesday assumed that flag-waving and cheering crowds suggested profound support for the Iranian president. But in Dahiyeh last night at a rally organised in honour of Ahmadinejad, thousands of bored Hezbollah supporters sat around on brown plastic chairs as the Iranian president addressed them in person.
Several women behind me tittered at Ahmadinejad’s soft Iranian accent when he began to speak. Others started to look over the partition to check out Hezbollah’s male talent. The girl in front of me, who had been excitedly waving her Lebanese flag when Ahmadinejad made his grand entrance, now yawned and picked the thread out of her flag instead of bothering to listen to his speech.
The support that Ahmadinejad enjoys in Lebanon’s Shia heartlands can be compared to the support that a corporate sponsor might expect from Manchester United fans: bored gratitude. The biggest cheer that Ahmadinejad’s speech managed to raise out of the crowd came when he thanked Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as a «dear warrior and scholar».
Nasrallah was the real star of the show. Rumours that he might appear in person at the rally drew large expectant crowds. Though there was a sigh of disappointment when Nasrallah only appeared via video link, the forceful and impassioned clarity with which he spoke whipped the crowd into a flag-waving and slogan-chanting frenzy. Nasrallah spoke mindfully of his larger audience in Lebanon, and tried the novel approach of presenting Iran’s foreign policy as «unifying». He praised Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for issuing a fatwa forbidding Muslims to react to the Qur’an burning-fiasco in the US with «similar acts», claiming that Iran was acting in the best interests of Christian-Muslim unity.
He also congratulated the Iranian cleric for his handling of a highly controversial London conference in which a little-known Shia activist disparaged Aisha, the wife of the prophet Muhammad, who is highly revered by Sunnis but considered a traitor by many Shias. Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei had responded with a statement forbidding insulting talk about the wives of the prophet, thereby – according to Nasrallah – acting as a force for unity between Sunnis and Shias.
Many Lebanese would have a lot to say about claims that Iran is a «unifying force in the region», but the speech did make clear that Nasrallah’s crowd appeal is unmatched and that his power among many Shias does not need to be enforced by Iran. If anything, Hezbollah deftly staged a welcome for Ahmadinejad designed to encourage the Iranians to dig deeper and give more generously to Hezbollah’s cause.
While Ahmadinejad was still speaking, I whispered to the teenage girl sitting in front of me: «Who do you prefer; Ahmadinejad or Nasrallah?» «Nasrallah!» she replied rolling her eyes. «Nasrallah is one of us. And anyway, Ahmadinejad is boring.»
Nussaibah Younis, a doctoral candidate in international relations, a freelance researcher and a journalist based in Beirut and London.