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Book Review: The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel by Michael J. Totten

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Canada was once described as “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state,” but that description fits the tragic Mediterranean state of Lebanon much more closely. For there are two Lebanons: the modern, relatively prosperous and free country in which Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Druze live side by side, and Iran’s theocratic puppet state in the Beirut suburbs and next to the border with Israel.

Sadly, “two nations warring” is not just a metaphor. Lebanon was ravaged by civil war from 1975 to 1990, followed by Syrian occupation for another decade and a half. After reformist Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was murdered by a car bomb in 2005, liberally-minded Lebanese took to the streets to demand that the Syrians go home.

For a while, it looked like something truly incredible was happening in Lebanon. But this story would not have a happy ending; after provoking a war with Israel in 2006 — and, apparently, fighting the fearsome Israelis to a draw — the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia was emboldened, and subsequently turned its muscle against their nominal countrymen. Today, little happens in Lebanon unless Hezbollah and its allies let it happen.

Michael Totten, an independent journalist whose reporting from the Middle East has gained a large online following, was there for much of the turmoil. His first book, The Road to Fatima Gate, is absolutely gripping.

Totten — supported by reader donations, and freelance work for publications like LA Weekly — shows Western readers two sides of Lebanon they probably weren’t familiar with. Much of the country would be unrecognizable to people who remember the capital city, Beirut, as a terror-soaked war zone; the city is now full of posh hotels, fine restaurants and cafes, gleaming new buildings and — amazingly, for that part of the world — people of different religions and ethnic groups getting along remarkably well. (It helps that Lebanon’s population is about evenly divided between Shi’ites, Sunnis and Christians, neither of whom have the numbers to completely dominate the other.)

But then there’s “Hezbollahland,” Totten’s term for sections of the country run by that notorious armed militia, free from control by Lebanon’s official government. Western apologists call Hezbollah a legitimate political party — and, indeed, the group legitimately wins much of the country’s Shia vote, and seats in Parliament — but legitimate political parties do not control their own territories, heavily arm themselves, use civilian houses as launching pads to fire rockets into Israeli border towns, kidnap Israeli soldiers (and erect billboards near the border, in Hebrew, taunting the Israelis about it) and launch armed incursions into the rest of the country when their power is challenged.

The most fascinating sections of The Road to Fatima Gate cover Totten’s visits to the Hezbollah-controlled Beirut suburbs and border region near Israel. The “Fatima Gate” in the title was once the main border crossing, now a shrine for “anti-Zionists” to visit so they can throw rocks at the hated Jewish state. They don’t have to throw the rocks very far — Israeli houses are literally a stone’s throw from Hezbollah’s fiefdom, so close that Lebanese and Israeli neighbors could speak to each other — if that wouldn’t be considered treason in Lebanon, anyway.

Much of Lebanon was occupied by Israel during the civil war, and the brief but brutal 2006 war won the Jewish state few friends. Hezbollah remains popular with Shia Muslims, long the least powerful of Lebanon’s three major ethnic/religious groups, and many other Lebanese grudgingly respected the organization for its “armed resistance” against Israel.

When Hezbollah feels that its power is being challenged, however, the guns are turned away from Israel and toward Beirut. In 2008, when the government attempted to shut down Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network, the group responded with armed attacks against their nominal countrymen. (Nominal, because few Lebanese flags fly in Hezbollah territory, but posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini are everywhere.)

This time, supporters of the late Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Movement and its allies, who drove the Syrians out through non-violent protest, actually fought back. Totten describes the chilling atmosphere in Beirut, when it suddenly seemed like the dreadful civil war days were starting all over again. Anyone in the streets risked being picked off by snipers.

More disturbingly, while the parts of Lebanon not controlled by Hezbollah seemed to be a picture of multicultural harmony, sectarian tension began to bubble up once again. A Beirut resident named Charles described the situation to Totten:

“People I knew,” he said, “stopped looking at me as a person. I became a political position in human form. They stopped thinking of me as Charles and could only see me as a function of politics. And they took up arms against me. Instantly. Everything I held dear in Lebanon and in my neighborhood was destroyed. All the trust I had was destroyed. You can work really hard at being nice and being friendly, and you can do it for years, but when they decide they want to kill you, they’ll do it.”

By the end of The Road to Fatima Gate, Lebanon was once again under the thumb of Hezbollah and its Syrian — and Iran-backed — allies. The Nazi-inspired Syrian Social Nationalist Party was even bold enough to hang its banner throughout the streets of Beirut — one of which was defaced by Totten’s friend Christopher Hitchens, resulting in a surreal and violent confrontation with SSNP thugs.

So far this year, we’ve seen people through the Middle East take to the streets to topple their corrupt, autocratic, and violent rulers. In Egypt and Tunisia, the governments fell with remarkably little resistance, and the people have high hopes for what will come next.

I wish them well, but The Road to Fatima Gate describes what can go wrong, especially when liberal democrats face off against armed religious extremists. The book is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to understand that part of the world, and should rank Michael Totten as one of America’s premier foreign correspondents.

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