A World of Outsiders in Lebanon’s Akkar
By: Doha Shams
Published Thursday, January 3, 2013
In the Alawi villages of North Lebanon, the residents are anxious. They speak of road blocks, ID checks, and a cast of “outsiders” that threaten their livelihoods. Al-Akhbar speaks with the residents of these Syria strongholds about their daily fears and thoughts on an uncertain future.
“We are now in Syria,” said a friend sarcastically as we entered the Akkar region in North Lebanon. “Politically speaking, of course,” he hastened to add.
He laughed, then began to mock the political polarization that has turned the country – particularly this Lebanese district that lies adjacent to Syria – into a secondary battleground for the conflict that has blighted Syria for nearly two years now.
To be sure, there are as many cars with Syrian license plates as there are Lebanese cars along Akkar’s so-called “international” highway. Local graffiti is a mixture of obscenities against the Syrian president and praise for his opponents and their Sunni Muslim Lebanese allies alongside drawings of the “revolutionary” flag.
This somewhat extremist display, which occupies a public space that is supposed to be shared among all communities, finds its answer not very far down the road, specifically in the predominantly Alawi villages of Akkar.
A person entering the village of Masoudiyeh may feel as though she has travelled back in time to Lebanon before the Syrian withdrawal in April 2005. Pro-Syria slogans cover most walls surrounding the modest homes, in addition to portraits of the “Commander and the Leader,” a reference to Ali Eid, a former Alawi MP, and his son Rifaat.
One may even find other villages in Akkar where the clock is set even further back in time to an era long before the Syrian “presence.” It’s as though Lebanon has preferred to leave these underdeveloped regions buried in its past.
There is much tension in Akkar today. The coastal plain sleeps and wakes as if it is awaiting something major to occur at any moment. Since anxiety is a classic trait of minorities, we expected it from the Alawi households we visited, particularly so after many residents of the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood of Tripoli have fled to safer areas after repeated clashes.
But a ground survey shows that this anxiety – which many denied – is endemic not only to the Alawis, but also among the Christian and Sunni residents. Here, it is almost amusing that many in all three communities blamed their anxiety on “outsiders,” a specter that, after repeated sectarian episodes in Lebanon, has become a necessary way to resume coexistence afterwards.
The Alawis of Akkar like to say that they are not afraid of their Sunni brethren, as much as they are concerned about “outsiders,” or those extremist elements coming from Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine. These, they say, adhere to fatwas, or religious edicts, that have nothing to do with the kind of peacefulness that once characterized Islam in North Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Sunni concerns seem to be primarily socio-economic in nature. We were told that the outcry among Sunnis first began with women. Initially we thought this was a joke until several sources corroborated this version of events.
What had happened was that, with the influx of refugees from Syria, several “newcomer” clerics started issuing fatwas urging that Syrian women refugees be given priority in marriage, particularly if they were widows of “martyrs.” These clerics encouraged this even for married men, since Muslim men are allowed four wives, as they purport.
Yet many people do not downplay other more serious causes for the restlessness among the Sunnis of Akkar, including competition for jobs in a neglected region beleaguered by unemployment.
Many in Akkar who depend on daily labor for their living are barely making ends meet, especially with the disruption of smuggling activity, which hitherto provided both work and cheap goods. For this reason, the refugees are increasingly heading for the cities, we were told.
“There, they are lost in the crowd and the women can find work as housemaids. What woman from Akkar can afford to pay LL10,000 lira (about $6) to a refugee to clean the house?”
In the Villages
“No, there is nothing wrong,” according to one woman we met. We sat in the yard outside her home, and declined her husband’s invitation for us to sit in their dimly-lit lounge inside. The husband, Mohsen al-Issa, said, “We do not hate anyone in our area. But if someone wants to impose something on us, then that is a different matter altogether.”
Issa went on to say, “Why should we be afraid? If I am affiliated with Syria, then he’s affiliated with Saudi Arabia. To each his own! If a person is not free then what meaning does his life have? Should I be affiliated with America or Israel instead?”
The man continued, “We have no real state. In Arsal, they surrounded the army and shot at it. So what did the state do? If the state can’t protect me, then I will protect myself.”
But what of his relationship with his neighbors who are from a different religious community? The wife answered, “Nothing out of the ordinary…Praise to God, there is nothing wrong.”
Next, we went to the nearby village of Tal Bireh. The walls along the main road boasted graffiti supporting Assad, the Resistance, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
At the home of the mayor, Abdul-Hamid Sakr, a black and white portrait of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad hung on one wall. Sakr spoke slowly, in the usual manner of village dignitaries, and said, “I don’t like for just about anybody to be called a Salafi. Not all the Salafis are takfiris,” meaning those who declare their opponents apostates.
After we asked him to elaborate, he said, “I mean someone like Sheikh Bilal Duqmaq is a Wahhabi who believes everyone else is an infidel. He started this with other Muslim sects, but soon it will be your turn,” in reference to me and my Christian colleague.
We asked him whether sectarian tensions might force them to leave their homes, for example. The mayor replied, “We were born here, raised here, and we will die here. If they want to target us as a part of the Lebanese people, then self-defense is a right sanctioned by all international charters.” But is this a real possibility?
Sakr responded, “If we came under attack, then of course. But we neither intimidate our neighbors nor they us. Our actual fear is from the outsiders.” Again, those nebulous outsiders.
“They are now present in many villages and towns of Akkar. We consider them the equivalent of sleeper cells. When they are instructed to mobilize and become involved in strife, then they will. They are mere instruments who have no real project or principles.
“For example, when an incident such as the ambush in Tal Kalakh or clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen occur, and even in Saida, they cut off roads and when they encounter an Alawi they assault him.
“Officials like us restrict their movements in those times to contain the anger. But we fear for workers and students at their workplaces and schools,” he replied.
How are the assailants able to tell that they are Alawis, when official identity cards do not list any information about one’s sect?
“Masked men often help them identify certain people from the region. Even Alawi soldiers are being stopped by the so-called Free Syrian Army,” he replied. It appears to be another Syrian occupation then, but this time, by the Syrian armed opposition.
The man continued, “There are two kinds of refugees: civilians who fled because of the fighting between the two sides in Syria; and fugitives who have found a safe haven in which to hide until they receive their orders from Lebanese officials such as MP Khaled al-Daher and former MP Talal al-Merehbi. To us, those people are a ticking time bomb.”
So does he believe that the timing of their explosion, so to speak, would coincide with the presumed collapse of the Syrian regime? With this question, we seem to have breached a taboo area.
Sakr answered confidently, “It will not collapse. But if the battles spread here, then whoever wants to assault us will not have his way.”
This train of thought would mean that they intend to arm themselves, we countered. Here, he smiled, and said, “We have individual weapons.”
We smiled back at him, and asked whether they intend to ask for backup. Sakr insisted on his answer, and still smiling, said, “We will protect our presence even with sticks and knives. Write this down.” Are people talking about this in their homes? Sakr responded, with the same confidence, “In every home.”
At another house, we spoke to the owner, who asked not to be named. The man, in his 60s, said that there is more anxiety in villages with a “mixed” Sunni-Alawi population. Just then, a visitor entered the house who had just come from Talil, an Alawi village located amid a cluster of Sunni villages in al-Dreib region.
The man was accompanied by his only son, who is studying at a university in Jbeil. The youth said that he almost flunked the whole academic year because he had to miss classes for 17 days as a result of the tension that followed the slaying of Sheikh Ahmad Abdul-Wahed.
“We have been living this sectarian polarization for a while now,” he said. “There were many times when my parents would call me to tell me to take indirect routes between the villages to avoid dangerous places. My father would even tell me to change cars, and whenever I got in one, to send him the license plate number. If I ever suspected that the driver may take a different route, he told me that I should call him immediately.”
Here, the father said, “Al-Dreib is a den for the Free Syrian Army. We have to ignore them because we cannot protect ourselves. We are no match for them, they have taken over the country.”
Next, we travelled to Hisah, the village we had visited in 2006 when the Israeli Air Force bombed a bridge there during the war. When people from the area went to check the place, another missile struck, and many were killed or injured.
We went to the home of Mohsen Melhem, the father of two individuals wounded by the missile. “The Akkar region has become a haven for fugitives from Syria. In the day they are workers, but at night, they are with the Free Syrian Army,” he said. We asked him if that’s a serious possibility. He answered, “The night the second batch of the bodies from Tal Kalakh were handed over, clashes took place from here all the way to the border regions. They are in big numbers and there are many strange faces and bearded men. Even at night, there are movements.”
Melhem continued, “If the army does not put up checkpoints, we would not be able to move. Frankly, as a result of the incidents in Tripoli, we are having big problems in Akkar. There is hatred, and people look down on us. They are strong, and our rights are unattainable.
“From the western junction of Tal Abbas and onwards, attitudes and affiliations are similar. They have erected checkpoints that stop people to ask about their sects. An Alawi man from Beit Aziz was nearly beaten to death. They have no shame. They are either stupid or they are bullies. There is something wrong. They have external support.
“Some people, back when the Syrians were here, did not have enough to eat. Now they have villas and mansions. How is that possible? Money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Saad Hariri. This is why the situation in Akkar is frightening.”
After a brief silence, he added, “But the Sunnis are afraid too because there are rumors that the Syrian Army is nearby, and may enter north Lebanon to eliminate the tafkiris.”
“Chaos, Miss, brings money,” he then proclaimed. Very well, but what about a scenario in which the Syrian regime crumbles? Does that not scare them?
Melhem replied, “Let’s tell it as it is: Either we prove ourselves, or we leave. There is no other solution. We are reassured by the situation in Syria. Villages from Masoudiyeh to al-Heker are all very close to the border, and weapons can be easily brought from Syria if necessary. This would be the worst-case scenario. MP Khaled al-Daher said that if needed, he would go to Syria and take thousands of fighters, but that the Syrian people are stout and do not need him….”
Here, his wife interrupted him, “So now the Syrian people are stout? What about when he trod on them with his feet? They weren’t stout back then, were they?”
Disregarding her comments, Melhem continued, “There are obscenities being uttered even by their clerics. For example, Salafi Sheikh Bilal Duqmaq uses the term Nusairi, which is derogative and belittling, even for Christians, since the word is a diminutive of Nasrani, or Christian.”
What about their movements? Is anyone restricting them? He answered, “We are being careful. But if we, for example, go to Halba, I do my errands and return immediately. At night, we only travel within our areas, that is, Tal Bireh and Masoudiyeh. We do not go to areas with sick mentalities, like Tal Mehyan, not even in the daytime.”
Finally, we asked him, do they intend to leave? Melhem said, “Many people are buying property in Syria these days.” In Syria? Despite the war there? Defiantly, he answered, “I promise you, it is safer than our village.”
After Hisah, we went to the village of Rihaniyya. There, we met a man who was washing his car outside his house. He said, “We are Alawis. [Lebanese Forces leader] Samir Geagea wants to deport us, but he is going to be deported with us, God willing.
“How are they supporting the extremists who will affect Muslim thinking before Christian thinking? How can the Future Movement pretend to be secular and peaceful? They claim that they do not support the extremists and yet we see March 14 collaborating with extremist Palestinian factions. We stand to benefit from moderation, particularly among our Sunni brethren, because Wahhabism rejects coexistence.
“The Alawi Muslim community is particularly suffering from this bitter reality. All we ask from the security forces, particularly the army, is to control the border and prevent dragging the area into a regional conflict. After each round of fighting, we see militants and masked men on the ground, and we do not know who they are affiliated with. They inquire about Alawis, Christians, and Syrians, and they stop cars.”
Here, we asked him whether he considered emigrating. He said, “Why, are you Christians in Akkar not worried too? We will not abandon our land.”
Concerning whether his community intends to call for Syria’s help “should something happen,” he said, “This is all nonsense. I am a Lebanese citizen. I give to my country and when I need help, I should ask it from another country? Is that reasonable? I am not afraid of our neighbors. I am afraid of outsiders.” Here we go; the outsiders again.
The next stop was Ain al-Zeit, another Alawi village surrounded by a number of Sunni-majority villages. There, we spoke to the mayor, Sheikh Haitham Hamdan, who appeared no different from any layman.
He asked us, “Are you not afraid? Are the Shias not afraid too?” But a youth was abducted at a checkpoint near here, we said. Sheikh Hamdan countered by saying, “I, in Ain al-Zeit am not concerned. True, a young man from here was kidnapped, but he was returned 24 hours later. And who was it that brought him back? The surrounding area, about 40 Sunni and Christian villages, they told me: Hikmat al-Youssef was abducted from our area, and we will bring him back.
“They went to Wadi Khaled to demand him back, and said this man belongs with us. For this reason, I am not worried. Yes, there are problems between Sunnis and Alawis. Other people may be worried. But I have known this village inside out for 50 years.”
Yet moments later, the mayor brought the discussion back to the outsiders. He said, “But I fear outside hands that come from Syria and Palestine, and the catastrophe called al-Qaeda.”
Sheikh Hamdan concluded, “They are planting extremism in good Sunni minds that was not there before. I and many Sunnis used to go to the same mosque together.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.