Nabaa in the Midst of the Fight (by Vahakn Keshishian)

30 Sep

Nabaa in the Midst of the Fight

Marked by flags, devastated by poverty, a Beirut suburb neighborhood is not immune from the Syria war

Nabaa is a northern suburb of Beirut. Unlike the neighboring Bourdj Hammoud and Dora areas, where the majority of the population is Christian, Nabaa has predominantly Shiite and Palestinian inhabitants. During the Civil War Nabaa was a stronghold of Palestinians. Narek, an Armenian elderly who keeps a grocery shop in Nabaa says that “Thanks to the Armenian buffer zones of Bourdj Hammoud, the Phalange Christians were not easily clashing with the Palestinians during the war.” The famous Armenian neutrality was best seen in this geography.

Sis – Nabaa – (C) V. A.

Sis – Nabaa – (C) V. A.

Nabaa today is more of a Shiite stronghold, with both Amal Movement and Hezbollah having their feet on the ground, the two major Shiite parties of Lebanon. Their banners would hang from the parallel chaotic streets, adding several layers to the already crowded skies with electric wires. The Imam Ali Ben Mousa Al Rida mosque might be one of the very few ones in the northern suburbs. The turquoise-blue minaret dome reflects pure Shiite architecture, hinting a clear Iran connection.

The mosque and the school next to it stand as witnesses of organized community. Added to them are area headquarters of the parties positioned in the neighborhood. Institutionalization is beyond the politics however. Economic activity of Nabaa is apparent to the passer by. Narek explains that from all the neighboring areas people come here looking for low price goods. Used furniture and appliance shops are popping on every corner, tools and materials are abundant, no shortage of mobile phone shops. Local brand fast-food shops have groups of boys having narguileh. Some of them veiled, young girls walk the streets wearing pink outfits, which are also on display on the shop windows.

Recently the area is even more crowded by the influx of the Syrian refugees. The inhabitants explain that because of its relatively affordable prices, Nabaa was already popular as lodging destination for the Syrian seasonal workers,. “Now it’s different” says Abu Muhammad, “With the war refugees coming more and more every day, there are no cheap places anymore.” Abu Muhammad is a kind of dealer, a facilitator of rent transactions. He explains that most of the new comers are the families of the seasonal workers that were stationed in Nabaa.

The inhabitants keep inspecting the streets continuously and ask the foreigners entering the area to declare their intentions. A local himself, Rabee is in his early thirties. Being a member in Hezbollah, he prompted on the spot by others when a suspicious activity is felt. “We have to be careful” says Rabee, who identifies himself as Responsible, and adds that “after the bombings of Rweis in the Southern Suburb, Hezbollah was alerted and we have to implement new measures in Nabaa as well”.

If one thing is very obviously connected to the Syria war other than the refugees, are the banners depicting Hezbollah martyrs in Syria. The involvement of Hezbollah in the side of the regime had surfaced in June of this year, during the Battle of Qusayr. Hezbollah’s role was “decisive” wrote New York Times, in making the war tilt in the benefit of the regime. For Hezbollah, the party’s involvement in Syria is ideologically on very solid grounds, the “Shrine of Zaynab cannot be overstepped twice.” As banners with this quote decorate Nabaa, stencils reading “Ya Zaynab” are scattered on the walls of the buildings and virtually on any surface.

It is known that Hezbollah have capitalized on the issue of protecting the Shrine of Zaynab, an important Shiite pilgrimage site, in a southern suburb of Damascus. Zaynab’s story goes back to the early division between Sunnis and Shiites, and becomes important identity factor in times of crisis as Lesley Hazelton explains in her book “After the Prophet”. Hezbollah and Amal were quick in symbolizing their involvement in Syria with the protection of Zaynab’s shrine.

Hezbollah’s grip on Nabaa has many dimensions, among them the control of social conduct. Abu Muhammad is satisfied with the tight control over the area. He says “Although it is becoming harder for the business, but control is better than the spread of drugs and prostitution”. The influx of the refugees brings a certain standard of life that might seem unnatural to even the poorest strata of Nabaa. Yet the biggest of Hezbollah’s concerns are not the habits brought by the refugees, but the ideas of the revolution.

Hezbollah has too much to manage. The anti-Hezbollah factions have their foothold on at least two grounds. One is the 14th March ally Lebanese Forces, who through the Christians sustains an infiltration and show their presence with crosses hanging over the wires, and the posters of their leader Samir Geagea. Second and more important are the Palestinians. In Syria war, Hamas have openly sided with the Anti-regime revolution, and the Lebanese Palestinians were not immune from taking sides. The Palestinian camps gained the reputation of holding the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat Al Nusra militants. And if we can consider Nabaa as an extension to the Palestinian camps, we cannot but portray a high profile tension in this small neighborhood.

Naturally many shops are owned by Hamas supporting Palestinians, but these are seen as enemy spying spots by the Hezbollah sympathizers. Hezbollah keeps an eye on these shops as Rabee hints. He says “Yes, they are our neighbors, but we hope they don’t stab us in our back as their leader Khaled Mashaal did to the Syrian regime.” Added to the Palestinians are the Syrian refugees who are supporters of the revolution. Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs from rural areas, and the many backgrounds that form the Syrian revolution are also present here in Nabaa. They together with the local Palestinians form a Sunni pro-revolution grassroots vis-à-vis Hezbollah’s iron fist.

Lucky for Hezbollah they are in very strong alliance with their most organized neighbors, the Tashnag Armenians who literally manage every corner in Bourdj Hammoud. The Armenians also had their share of refugee influx from Syria, mainly from Aleppo. According to an Armenian organization that deals with the refugees, the numbers of the arrivals decreased dramatically due to the lack of safety on the travel roads targeting specifically the Armenians. Yet the official numbers stand as high as at 10 thousand Armenian refugees.

As the majority of the Armenians are siding to the regime in the war, their official stand is in line with the Lebanese Tashnag-Hezbollah alliance. It is as well in line with the Hezbollah-Sunni struggle in Nabaa. An incident of minor street fight between an Armenian from Bourdj Hammoud and a Kurdish from Nabaa had escalated into an Armenian-Kurdish tension in the October 2011. The pro-revolution March 14 media had accused the deportation of the Kurds decision of the Tashnag-dominated Bourdj Hammoud municipality as racist. Al Mustaqbal daily had written “the pro-Hezbollah Tashnag Party is expelling the revolutionaries under the pretext of safety of the inhabitants.”

The Armenians, on the other hand, are completely aware of the dangers of the clan type formations, armed with white and little weapons who threaten the comfort of the natives of the area. Arakadz and Sis neighborhoods of Bourdj Hammoud are the ones neighboring Nabaa, the streets are so entangled that it is almost impossible to mark the line that separates the Armenians from the non-Armenians. Usually a red-blue-orange flag would indicate an Armenian presence, while a yellow or green would signal the start of a Shiite area. Narek explains that the Armenians are leaving the area for more Armenian concentrated neighborhoods. When asked whether he would stay in Nabaa or leave, he says “Today we are in good terms with Hezbollah, what if that alliance changes tomorrow? We will eat each other here”.

A church, a party center, a healthcare facility, dozens of businesses and maybe hundreds of households make it too expensive for the Armenians to easily surrender the area to Hezbollah. But as the popular base becomes less and less thick, it might soon become a necessary option for the Armenian decision makers. Who knows? Maybe Nabaa would soon need a separate municipality, to free itself from the current Armenian-dominated Bourdj Hammoud center.

As the Nabaa mosque broadcasts its evening prayer from the loud speakers of the minaret, half of the shops are emptied. People end their Sunday evening shopping in preparation of a new week, full of hardships and full of news. Syria war is underway, Lebanese tensions are on the rise, the Sunni-Shiite struggle is getting fiercer, and the small communities, like that of Nabaa’s are not immune from the international-regional-local fights. In the times of scarcity, the daily fight for the piece of bread turns into a fight for identity.

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