During the Israeli war against Hizballah in the summer of 2006, the innocuous Arabic word dahiya, meaning simply “suburb,” achieved an unprecedented notoriety. For several days, Israeli warplanes pounded one particular dahiya, the southern suburb of Beirut, whose neighborhood of Harat Hurayk contains Hizballah’s “security quarter” (al-murabba‘ al-amni). Various media presented Harat Hurayk as a fortress, a place whose destruction was justified because it sheltered terrorists who threatened the security of Israel. About 265 residential buildings, housing more than 3,000 housing units and 1,600 stores and workshops, were razed to the ground or heavily damaged. Some 15,000 residents were relocated to the houses of extended family or in rented apartments nearby. Renamed “capital of the resistance” to Israel by its mayor, at the end of the fighting Harat Hurayk attracted a crowd of curious tourists, journalists and politicians, all come to see destruction worthy of a world war.

Harat Hurayk harbors other stories besides the well-known narrative of destruction—stories of stigma and fearful perception regarding an unknown “other.” This “other” is a Shi‘i, bearded, dark-skinned and not very slick, preferably associated with Hizballah as this makes him easier to dismiss. Nowadays, he is rejected by some of his fellow Shi‘a and many of his fellow Lebanese, as well as by his long-standing enemies—Israel, the United States and, more broadly, the West. He is conceived as essentially different from “us” and threatening to “our” way of life, where “we” are Westerners and the Lebanese who identify with the West. But this “other” is not so different from “us.” In Lebanon, Harat Hurayk is unexceptional, just another Beirut neighborhood managed by a sect-based political actor. Its main peculiarity is that Hizballah has reserved for itself the right of armed resistance to Israel, a claim interpreted by the party’s detractors as a threat to the legitimacy of the state as the sole bearer of the right of violent coercion.

Several experts describe Hizballah as a foreign, fundamentalist agent manipulating the moderate Lebanese Shi‘a, and denounce it as a tool of Syria and Iran. But to demean the party faithful as indoctrinated or seduced by payoffs does not suffice to explain the party’s success and durability. Hizballah’s constituency is an educated middle class that chooses to support the party not only because of economic interests but also because of the socio-cultural returns and the political meaning with which it endows them. Hizballah is more accurately considered as a political player that is thoroughly integrated into Lebanese politics at the same time as it maintains ties to Tehran. It leads a holistic network of institutions providing an array of social, economic, cultural and religious services in the largely Shi‘i regions of the dahiya, southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Hizballah is therefore a product of the Lebanese political system, which encourages sectarian groups to implement their own mechanisms of service provision. These mechanisms range between two extremes: They are either grafted onto the state, scrounging public resources for private use (as is the case with Amal, Hizballah’s historical Shi‘i rival and current ally) or they develop autonomously from the state (such as the networks built by the Sunni ex-prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, or those of the Maronite Lebanese Forces). Hizballah is the success story of that second extreme.

Moreover, like other Lebanese parties, Hizballah forms alliances across sectarian boundaries for mutual strategic and political advantage, for example during elections. Currently, its most well-known ally is the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party led by Gen. Michel Aoun, with whom Hizballah signed a memorandum of understanding in the summer of 2005. Hizballah and Aoun’s current Today lead the opposition to the Lebanese government. They jointly organized the ongoing sit-in in downtown Beirut with the objective of forcing the formation of a government of “national unity” that includes them.

Ordinary Lives in a Political Territory

In July 2006, Harat Hurayk was not a military base hiding Hizballah guerrillas or the abducted Israeli prisoners. It was a residential neighborhood, located along a main artery of the dahiya, linking Ghubayri to Burj al-Barajneh, and around which the southern suburb of Beirut was developed beginning in the early 1960s. The neighborhood was conceived according to the vision of French urban planner Michel Ecochard, who wanted to decrease the density of the Lebanese capital and transform its suburbs into areas well-equipped with services and infrastructure that would attract an educated middle class. One can still see luxurious villas with gardens along the airport boulevard, as well as foreign embassies nestled in small pine forests.

Harat Hurayk is run by a Maronite Christian mayor who works closely with Hizballah. Indeed, before the 1975–1990 civil war forcibly displaced them, Christian groups inhabited these areas. One famous native of Harat Hurayk is Gen. Aoun. With Hizballah’s blessing, the neighborhood’s church was restored at the beginning of the 1990s. On Sundays, mass is held in the crypt, drawing elderly couples nostalgic for the yellow daisies, cactuses and orange trees of their childhoods. Today, most residents are not natives. Some arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving their villages and towns in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa in search of jobs and a better life near the growing capital city. others came in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, fleeing the Israeli occupation of the south and escaping the displacement caused by the civil war. New migrants were attracted by the prospect of affordable apartments within a community with which they identified. Progressively, the migrants came to outnumber the natives, transforming the social and economic environment.

Before the destruction of the “security quarter,” there were about 100,000 low- to middle-income households living in buildings of eight floors or more. The neighborhood was laid out on a grid with some pockets of organic old urban fabric. The section of Harat Hurayk that is now razed was formerly the dynamic center of commerce and small enterprise, especially print shops, for the whole of the dahiya. The area also housed the headquarters of Hizballah’s party offices and NGOs: the main Shura Council, the public relations and media offices, the information unit, the think tank, the television and radio studios, the Martyrs’ and Wounded organizations, the micro-credit lender, the service for orphans and the needy, and the youth group. These facilities did not stand out; rather, they were located on the first floors of residential buildings. The employees lived nearby. The destruction of Harat Hurayk’s center has therefore affected the socioeconomic and urban structure of the whole dahiya. Not surprisingly, the government left Hizballah to lead the task of reconstruction in the dahiya, a job the party has been doing quite effectively, with the support of a (multi-confessional) team of architects and planners working as volunteers.

Typically, the Harat Hurayk dweller owns his medium-sized apartment, which he shares with his wife, 2-3 children and a live-in helper, as both members of the couple work outside the home to bring in a double income. The couple’s apartment is not too far from their parents’ and siblings’, enabling close-knit family ties. The couple owns a car, maybe two, since public transportation in Lebanon is inefficient and unreliable, and the rest of the family still lives in the village in the south or the Bekaa and needs visiting. Kids attend private school, as it is important that they get a solid education that will allow the couple to enroll them in a private university, such as Saint-Joseph or Beirut Arab University, or, ideally, if they get a scholarship, in the American University of Beirut. The apartment is modernly furnished, displaying the taste of the family, with carpets, fabric, decorated wood, paintings and, sometimes, Qur’anic verses praising God. After the August 2006 ceasefire, hundreds of such families searched the rubble for remnants of their personal belongings, bewildered at the extent of their loss.

As of 1982, Hizballah positioned itself strongly in Harat Hurayk and adjacent areas. The marking of territory, with icons in streets and murals painted on walls, started to reveal the presence of the party, along with practices linked to religious and political commemorations like ‘Ashura (the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein), Jerusalem Day and Martyrs’ Day. Gradually, the name al-dahiya al-janubiyya (the southern suburb) came into use to indicate that section of the city as a homogeneous whole; this was soon shortened to the dahiya. In 1989, Hizballah evicted Amal from the suburbs and, aided by Syria and Iran, consolidated its strategic position at the southern gates of Beirut. The dahiya became Hizballah’s fiefdom—and became looked down upon by other Lebanese who distrusted the party’s intentions.

Not all residents welcomed the transformation of the dahiya into a political territory. Some felt alienated in an environment with which they did not identify. Most of those people chose to leave for neighborhoods nearby that are less marked ideologically. Some stayed, avoiding provocation, notwithstanding their marginalization. Others resisted in their own way: They refused to use the stigmatizing label of dahiya, insisting on referring to their neighborhoods by their original names (Harat Hurayk, Ghubayri, Murayja or Burj al-Barajneh) or tried, in vain, to introduce a more neutral term, “the southern coast of Matn.” Still others were more vocal in their critique of the rise of Hizballah, which they described as a “state” imposing its rules and Islamizing the southern suburban spaces, which were turning into a Shi‘i enclave. [1]

Hizballah’s Suburb in the Lebanese Formula

Nonetheless, in the early 1990s, following the signature of the Ta’if agreement redefining the distribution of political power among Lebanese confessional groups, Hizballah underwent major changes, despite significant rivalries within the party. Its leadership decided to integrate into the national political system and run in the 1992 legislative elections. As of then, the party of God became “Lebanonized” and, slowly but surely, opened up to others, increasingly tolerating diversity that it had previously repressed. This adaptation to the Lebanese “formula” soon became visible on the dahiya’s streets, where not so pious clothing and practices began to appear. Market-led consumerism is a dominant logic that informs real estate development in the dahiya as much as in other parts of the city. By the turn of the century, the dahiya’s consumption and entertainment services had grown significantly: shopping centers, department stores, fitness clubs, cafés, restaurants and amusement parks attracted a growing middle-class clientele, eager to enjoy their free time.

Hizballah also adapted to the Lebanese system by investing in local governance. In 1998, party lists ran in municipal elections and won all the seats in the dahiya, demonstrating supremacy within the Shi‘i community. Hizballah’s mayors take their roles as leaders of local development very seriously: They are keen on providing services effectively and seek sustainable development and community participation, concepts they ground in religious texts advocating shura (consultation) and hadara (modernity). Interestingly, Hizballah does not shy away from translating such concerns into partnerships with international donors and civil society organizations. For instance, the municipality of Harat Hurayk has established a public library, which brings together hundreds of youth, with funds from the Francophonie University Agency. In addition, the municipality of Ghubayri, in association with the UN Development Program, UNESCO and the World Bank, has implemented various social, environmental and infrastructure projects in its district. The mayor of Ghubayri insists that such achievements be reported internationally, as they demonstrate, in his words, how “we, too, can be modern.”

Hizballah’s dahiya is not, therefore, a space of exclusivity. Certainly, several restrictions apply, such as bans on alcohol and advertisements exposing sections of female skin, Internet censorship and Hizballah’s private police, who do such things as prevent visitors from using cameras without permission. Yet the dahiya is not a ghetto isolated from Beirut. Interactions and exchanges occur: People go to the dahiya to buy food, clothing and furniture; to visit a mechanic or doctor, as those in the city are too busy or too expensive; to process paperwork at the Ministry of Labor; to volunteer at NGOs; or simply to visit friends or family. Seldom do observers—Lebanese or Western—notice these nuances. They choose instead to confirm their biases by associating the dahiya with one-dimensional media nostrums: The dahiya is a district vaguely situated south of the capital city, a Shi‘i stronghold managed by Hizballah, scorned and shunned for its chaos, filth, poverty and backwardness; the dahiya is a place to avoid, as it is shameful, fearful and hateful. Often, during the summer war, Harat Hurayk was referred to as the “slum” of Beirut, home to “thousands of poor.” [2]

Avoidance of the dahiya has been facilitated by new highways, built under Hariri, which skillfully bypass the suburbs. Indeed, the priorities of reconstruction were defined according to the neoliberal concerns of the ruling merchant elite, which sought to position Beirut as a regional and global service center. These priorities led, on one hand, to the establishment in downtown Beirut of the private real estate company, Solidere, which took over the development of prime, reclaimed land in the city center. On the other hand, they directed the execution of infrastructure projects that ultimately aimed at servicing the downtown area. Either way, post-war reconstruction choices bolstered sectarian polarization and social divisions. The design of highways and roads did not prioritize linking together the territorial enclaves generated by the civil war; on the contrary, it physically strengthened sectarian segregation by following war-produced boundaries. The Solidere project gentrified the old downtown and excluded lower-income groups from its expensive neighborhoods. The government did not encourage interactions among Lebanese, across sect and across class, by providing public places where such interaction could occur. For example, the Pine Forest, the largest public garden in Beirut, located between the dahiya and downtown, remained closed for several years after the end of the civil war, while the trees grew back. In 1999, the mayor of Beirut, affiliated to Hariri’s networks, opened the garden to the public, only to seal it off a few days later. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he did not appreciate its invasion by a large number of Shi‘i families. Today, park access is restricted to holders of special permits issued by the mayor. Only a small section is open to the public. [3] Today, such attitudes are reiterated in worries circulating among the Beirut elite about the dahiya residents camping in tents in the city center since early December 2006: “Our” downtown is becoming “ruralized” by these “Shi‘a” who are “rioting in our space” and “do not respect our city” (and hence cannot be “real” Lebanese).

Not all Lebanese avoid the dahiya: Many live and work there, while many others visit friends and family there. These people perceive the dahiya as a collection of rather ordinary neighborhoods, similar to many others in Beirut, like Sunni Tariq al-Jadida or Maronite Bushriyya. They do not see the dahiya simply as “Hizballah’s land,” but as a more diverse place. One finds in the dahiya, in proximity to Hizballah’s “security quarter,” a hangar, established by a group of intellectuals, in which cultural events are held, often contesting the social and political project of the Islamist party. In addition, the streets of dahiya accommodate the veiled young woman walking hand in hand with her unveiled, made-up and sexily dressed friend, as well as the young urban professional befriending the pious bearded male.

The socio-cultural particularities of the dahiya have rarely interested researchers, novelists or journalists, nor has the use of space there. [4] For most, the southern suburb is simply a place one enters to meet Hizballah members. Space is décor, background. When space is noticed, it is dismissed as unattractive and inhabited by people who are not worthy of urban living. [5] The dahiya serves only as a location for studying Hizballah’s capacity to mobilize the great majority of Shi‘a, as has become apparent in its notorious electoral successes and its growing role on the Lebanese, regional and international scenes.

The Faithful

The spatial dimensions of Hizballah’s political action are important to understand, as they reveal the subtle strategies the party of God uses to inscribe itself within the social and cultural environment from which it stems. Indeed, Hizballah’s networks are successful because they are able to speak a language rooted in the historical journey of Shi‘a in Jabal ‘Amil, the old name of the south of Lebanon. The “resistance” narrative disseminated today by Hizballah can be associated with al-‘amiliyya—that sense of territorial identity peculiar to the inhabitants of the south, linked to their collective social and cultural memory and grounded in their land. [6]

Indeed, for the Shi‘i pious (al-multazimin), resistance is not only military but also social and cultural—expressed in the values and norms that guide one’s actions and thoughts. Such values stem from the history of Shi‘ism, rich in examples of struggle against oppression and injustice, of courage, bravery, pride and dignity. one observes this commitment to the mission of resistance as much through collective public practices such as ‘Ashura as through everyday individual practices. Thus, a pious Shi’i will claim her belonging to the “resistance society” (mujtama‘ al-muqawama) by greeting others, dressing, eating, studying, going to the gym, marrying, raising children, socializing, volunteering, working, reading, watching television, saving her money, listening to music and buying artwork in ways that obey faith codes broadly defined by clerics and peculiarly redefined by shared personal experiences. [7] Together, such practices make up an iconography of signs and images conceptualized by its producers as al-hala al-islamiyya, literally, “the Islamic situation,” but more felicitously, “the Islamic sphere.” In the dahiya, this Islamic sphere takes a physical and spatial form: It becomes a political and an identity-based territory, a place where society, space and politics are intertwined, negotiated and reproduced.

Because Hizballah’s suburb is not an isolated Shi‘i ghetto, the destruction of large sections of Harat Hurayk affects the whole of Beirut. As long as the dahiya is not acknowledged (by Lebanese and others) as part of the city and its denizens are not recognized as worthy Beirutis, the demolition of Harat Hurayk will be perceived as rightful since the area hosted a terrorist group who used civilians as human shields. Few will perceive the loss of Harat Hurayk’s buildings, enterprises, playgrounds and streets as an erasure of urban and social histories, memories and intricate spatial practices that hold evocative meanings for a collective whole. Few will grasp that the destruction of Hizballah’s spaces will not really decrease the party’s political power or affect its mobilization abilities, which might even be reinforced. During the summer war, Hizballah’s networks continued to function, supplying aid to the refugees in Beirut. Today, these networks are actively engaged in the reconstruction effort. In addition, the tenants of the Islamic sphere used the war to their advantage, thriving on the war’s violence as well as the ongoing laissez-faire policies of the government, both of which confirm its perception of a world in which oppressors are constantly trying to defeat the faithful. The pious will continue their historical struggle and ultimately emerge triumphant, given that “the party of God are the victorious” (a Qur’anic verse deployed by Hizballah). It was this deeper “divine victory,” not just the stalemate with Israel on the battlefield, to which Hizballah’s media unit referred on the posters and billboards that proliferated after the summer war.

Few, moreover, will realize how dire the effects of the destruction are on ordinary people whose quotidian lives have been wiped out. Few will relate the existence of Hizballah to the structure of the Lebanese political system in which allegiances go to one’s religious group rather than a state yet to be conceived. Few will question the socioeconomic structure that has been reproducing for decades the same domineering patronage networks that exclude larger and larger sections of the population. Instead, many will resort to convenient binary platitudes for the realities at hand: The struggle is between “us” and “them,” “we” being liberals and democrats who “love life” (see sidebar), and “they” being Islamists and terrorists indoctrinated into a “culture of death.” We are backed by the United States and France, while they are instruments of Iran and Syria. We are Sunni and genuine Christians, while they are Shi‘a and treacherous Christians. Few will perceive how religion is laid over politics, distorting all historical antecedents to suit hegemonic power interests. Instead, many will undergird the sectarian construction of the conflict.

Author’s Note: This article is a revised and updated version of Mona Harb, “La banlieue du Hizballah: un territoire détruit, une lutte renouvelée” in Franck Mermier and Elizabeth Picard, eds. Liban: une guerre de 33 jours (Paris: La Découverte, 2007), pp. 36–43.


[1] See the works of Wadah Sharara, Dawlat Hizballah (Beirut: Dar al-Nahar, 1997) and Fadi Tawfiq, Bilad Allah al-Dayyiqa (Beirut: Dar al-Jadid, 2005).

[2] See, for instance, Robert Fisk, “Paradise Lost,” The Independent, August 19, 2006.

[3] See F. Shayya, “Horj Beirut” in FEA Student Conference Report (Beirut: American University of Beirut, 2005).

[4] A notable exception is Lara Deeb, author of An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi‘i Lebanon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[5] See, for instance, how Samir Khalaf describes the dahiya’s inhabitants: “Dislocated groups that converge on squatted settlements in the city center and urban fringe are generally strangers to city life. on the whole, they are dislodged, dispossessed and unanchored groups, traumatized by fear and raging with feelings of bitterness and betrayal. They are, so to speak, in but not of the city. Hence, they have no attachments to, or appreciation of the areas they found themselves in, and are not likely to display any interest in safeguarding or enriching its character. To many, in fact, their makeshift settlements are merely places to occupy and amenities to exploit.” Khalaf, Beirut Reclaimed (Beirut: Dar al-Nahar, 1993), p. 119. This stands in stark contradiction to all observations I made in the suburbs where dwellers appropriate spaces and manifest attachment to them in a variety of ways. See also Mona Fawaz, “Strategizing for Housing: An Investigation of the Production and Regulation of Low-Income Housing in the Suburbs of Beirut,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004.

[6] See S. Mervin, Un réformisme chiite (Paris: Karthala, 2000); and S. Mervin, “Le Liban-sud, des bandes armées à la guérilla,” in Mermier and Picard, pp. 103–110.

[7] See Deeb, particularly ch. 5 and ch. 6.

How to cite this article:

Mona Harb "Deconstructing Hizballah and Its Suburb," Middle East Report 242 (Spring 2007).

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