"Does Hizbollah hate America?" asks Tammy Strome, a visitor from the United States.
Her American husband, Mark, is standing in silence beside her, scanning the surrounding scenery through his pitch-black sunglasses. Considering the circumstances, he is decidedly calm and unemotional. He looks like a successful hedge fund manager on vacation.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what he is. "We have no problem with America," replies Rami Hasan, their Hizbollah tour guide. "It's the American government that blinds its people to the truth."
That "truth" is the basis of Hizbollah's ambitious foray into tourism. Set on a mountaintop in Lebanon's wild southern terrain, Mleeta is a "touristic landmark", according to the signs along a winding road that leads to the site. But in reality, it is a sprawling theme park with a memorial twist. This location was a key Hizbollah stronghold during the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, and the vestiges of that conflict have now become the decorative backdrop. By vestiges I mean an extensive collection of vintage Hizbollah weapons and Israeli military effects, all magnificently presented in a US$4 million (Dh14.7million) complex dotted with striking buildings and structures.
Since it opened on May 25 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal, almost half a million people, mainly Lebanese, have come here to take the comprehensive outdoor tours that tell the legendary tale of the resistance. Mleeta features everything from well-designed museum exhibits and breathtaking lookouts to dazzling fountains and a gift shop. Hungry? Pop over to the bunker-themed cafeteria festooned with sandbags, camouflage netting and portraits of popular Hizbollah leaders, past and present. This is just the beginning: hotels, spas and a cable car are in the works across the colossal mountains next door.
Despite Mleeta's pleasant summer resort feel, every inch of it trumpets Hizbollah's supposed defeat of the "Zionist enemy". With a triumphant tagline, "The land speaks to the heavens", the message for visitors is clear: Hizbollah is a (divine) force to be reckoned with. But as the saying goes, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Today, two American tourists are here to find out which Hizbollah is.
"I think a lot of Americans are afraid. But I'm not afraid," says Tammy, her black hair fluttering in the breeze. She sounds convinced - defiant, even - for an American who's never been to the Middle East until now. The Stromes are visiting Lebanon primarily to see Mark's son, who is studying Arabic in Beirut. On this particular Sunday they ran out of things to do, having already seen the mandatory sights in the capital. Being in the middle of a renowned political hot spot, Tammy had the headlines on her mind, "so I told our driver: I want to go to Hizbollah. I want to know what they're all about."
The centrepiece at Mleeta is a stunning, large outdoor exhibit with artistic renditions of Hizbollah's fight against Israeli aggression. We stroll across the elevated section of "The Abyss", a bizarrely beautiful Zen garden of war: Israeli helmets, weapons and tanks are artfully arranged in a wide landscape dug into a shallow circular pit. Chunky sculptures of Hebrew letters are scattered across it. A fake tombstone bearing the Israeli Defence Forces logo lies near the centre. On the edge of the curve, an Israeli tank has been plopped down on its side, its barrel tied in a pretzel-like knot. The entire display is encircled by a robust steel stairway that snakes all the way down to the lower level.
"This staircase symbolises the downward spiral of the enemy," Rami says, one of the many theatrical statements he comes up with throughout the tour, undoubtedly memorised for the media and special visitors such as the Stromes. On the other side of the platform, a bomb-blasted Israeli Humvee floats lifelessly in mid-air, caught in a giant web made of thick steel rods. Rami informs us this is the artistic manifestation of a popular quote about the fragility of the Israeli entity, uttered by Hizbollah's charismatic secretary general, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, in 2006. From a creative standpoint, it is a brilliantly executed work of art. It is also a surprising and unique approach to propaganda.
By now the Stromes and Rami are engaged in a deep dialogue about Hizbollah, Middle East politics and the media, a drawn-out, predictable exchange that I would rather skip. So I wander off to talk to a charming couple in matching straw fedora hats nearby. Issam, a 25-year-old Lebanese-French resident of Beirut, has mixed feelings about what he's seeing: "The Lebanese man in me says it's great to do this for the resistance, but the Frenchman in me believes it's completely absurd!"
His companion, Camille, who's visiting Lebanon from France, finds it disconcerting as well: "I'm not pro or con Hizbollah but the ambiance of this place doesn't seem to suit the movement, you know? I mean... it's like Disneyland." Although Hizbollah's Nasrallah is no Mickey Mouse, the organisation seem to have taken a cue from the Magic Kingdom for its theme park. This is especially obvious on the rugged downhill pathway from The Abyss: mannequins in fatigues and toting machine guns stand frozen in combat poses. One is kneeling on a prayer carpet. And then suddenly a commanding voice startles me: "The legend of Israel that instilled fear in everyone... That legend has ended!" It's a vintage recording of the former Hizbollah secretary general Abbas al-Musawi, blaring from invisible speakers tucked away in the thick foliage.
At the end of the trail is "The Cave", a dark and damp tunnel lined with glassed-in exhibits of what it was like for militants living underground. They vary from the banal (a makeshift kitchen filled with canned food) to the chilling (a resting room containing a stained mattress and personal effects of those who died in combat). It's a way of life that's been shrouded with secrecy until now and the visitors are spellbound.
Fourteen-year-old Yehya Hmayed is among them. "I've always wanted to join the resistance and seeing all this has made me feel stronger about it," he says. His father, Hmayed, who lives with the family in the South, feels it's important to expose his children to the reality of war on display at Mleeta because they lived through the Israeli bombardment in 2006. For him it's an educational outing. Many other parents here feel the same.
And so a former theatre of war and death has been transformed into a refreshing weekend destination for families in search of an escape from the brutal summer heat wave down below. Children dressed in candy-colored outfits are all over the place; while girls examine the vibrant floral landscaping, boys mount the rocket launchers on display. At this moment the stark contrasts play out on a cultural level: Tammy, the black-haired beauty from California, decided to come here in a canary yellow, sleeveless, above-the knee dress. It's loose but flirty all the same. Her cork wedge sandals propel her to unnecessary glamazonian heights. The look might be conservative at a poolside party in Los Angeles. But we're in Hizbollah territory. Nevertheless, the affable Rami obliges enthusiastically and answers all the Stromes' questions. The trio is getting along famously and so now it was time for introductions:
"Well, it's nice to meet you. My name is Tammy by the way... " She attempts to shake Rami's hand. A religious man, he places his palm on his chest as a sign of his piety. Tammy lingers with her arm outstretched. Again, the guide responds with a slight bow and an apologetic smile to excuse himself. She doesn't get it. It's a tremendously awkward moment, especially since the conversation has been going so well. Her arm is left hanging in the air for a bit too long, which prompts her to do a bizarre solo handshake. I imagine the bubbly California girl voice in her head: "Heck, it's already up there anyway."
A makeshift movie theatre in a stand-alone edifice is usually the first stop for visitors. It's a large, carpeted room with rows of banquet hall-style chairs lined up in front of a projection screen. At this viewing, a diverse group of people file in to watch a seven-minute film that documents the course of the conflict with Israel. It culminates with an exultant music-montage of Mleeta's construction process, a cinematic metaphor of the phoenix rising from the ashes of war and destruction.
As the lights dim the film begins with archive newsreel footage of Israeli soldiers invading Palestine. Key dates and events are highlighted with typewriter titles, and then come explosions, prayers, ammo-loading commandos, dead babies and weeping mothers. It's edited at a furious pace. A hair-raising (and utterly un-Islamic) Gregorian chant soundtrack holds the film together for maximum emotional impact, apparently a preferred musical choice judging from what I've seen on television here.
Nasrallah appears in a clip from a 2006 live broadcast, warning Israel with his trademark disciplinarian wag of the finger: "And if you hit Rafic al Hariri airport we will hit Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv!" The transfixed crowd bursts into applause. At today's screening, Hizbollah is preaching to the converted. In the adjacent building there's an exhibit simply named "The Exhibition". Despite the informative displays of captured Israeli war booty, the walls speak louder of Hizbollah's military and political might: on one side, a towering placard details the complex Israeli chain of command, supposedly uncovered by the organisation. On the other, under the headline "If we strike", an image of Nasrallah, again with the wagging finger, presents a map of strategic locations that would be targeted in the event of another Israeli attack. It's a remarkably taunting show of how well Hizbollah knows the enemy.
Maya, a 29-year-old pharmacist visiting Mleeta from Beirut, says that although she doesn't agree with everything Hizbollah represents politically, she's impressed with the sights here: "It's refreshing to see ourselves (the Lebanese) in a different way. For the first time we have exhibits that show us as victors. We've had enough of being portrayed as victims." Hizbollah has mastered the art of marketing and branding the cause. Successfully selling the outcome of the 2006 war as a major victory to the masses within Lebanon and the Arab world at large was in part due to the slick campaign concocted by an ad agency in Beirut. Whether they won the war or not is a debatable issue but one thing's for sure, the organisation has a sophisticated edge when it comes to image engineering.
And Mleeta takes it to the next level. After Hizbollah set up smaller, temporary exhibits in Dahieh and Nabatea in 2006, people attended in droves. They realized they had something going: "That's why we created this permanent exhibit, which we hope will be eternal... unless it's destroyed by the Israeli army, as we're accustomed to," Rami says with a sly smirk as we chat on a bench overlooking The Abyss.
Mleeta is their pièce de résistance, so to speak. I have to admit that I was struck by the overall structural design of the Mleeta project - it could easily fit into the architectural realm of the Guggenheim and the like. But then again, Hizbollah isn't just any old run-of-the-mill Islamist group. It's a distinctly Lebanese one: presentation is everything, right? As the summer sun sets on Mleeta, a wave of electric blue light washes over The Abyss. The Stromes are sipping tea with Rami in a guest room that's ornately furnished with old-fashioned baroque sofas (the avant garde design consultants must have missed this space). Rami is listening intently to the couple's take on their tour.
Mark's doubts about US media coverage of Hizbollah have been confirmed today. It's a story seldom told: "I don't know if I came here with a mindset but I definitely have a broader picture now and I see all sides of this thing," he says. "I see the Israeli side, the Zionism, the paranoia... But I do think they're bullies." Tammy is convinced the organisation is the result of a people tired of being pushed around by Israel. "I'm very impressed with Hizbollah," she says. "Very professional organization and well-run."
Rami replies with a beaming child-like smile: "Thank you". He's pleased that an American couple on holiday in Lebanon have been won over by the Mleeta narrative; a small victory for this Hizbollah member in the war of opinion.