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in the midst of religious warfare August 10, 2006

Posted by Brad Richert in politics, religion.
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I know my wife would not allow it, and I probably would not have the guts, but I would love to be able to do what National Geographic photographer Alexandra Avakian is doing. She has been a photographer in the Middle East for almost twenty years and is the first Western photojournalist in five years to gain intimate access to the “Party of God”, Hezbollah. The following is an edited transcript with excerpts from an interview between NG podcast host Patty Kim and Avakian. All photographs taken by Alexandra Avakian.

PK: I am sure there is no public relations wing where you can just make that polite phone call and arrange to get access, so it’s really astonishing. How did you even get in?

AA: I brought them the National Geographic [magazine] story I did on Iran in 1999. They loved that, because they have historic and military ties. They didn’t say yes [at first], but little by little I managed. … They were [initially] very suspicious, but I’ve been working in the region for 18 years, in the Middle East, so I’m a known quantity.

When you realized that you were finally going to get in, what was your reaction?

Well, I was happy, but I knew it would be a challenge every step of the way, which it was. They really don’t want outsiders to develop relationships with Hezbollah members at all. And the way they achieve that is they don’t allow you to see anybody twice. … It was frankly painful for a photographer, because the kind of work I like to do is very deep. [Instead] I would go out in the street, I would go down to southern Lebanon. I met a family that I went and visited many times … and that was a great way to see home life.

So there’s a lot of improv when access is denied.

Right.

What was your first impression of these people who run Hezbollah?

[They are] extremely disciplined. They have a taciturn way about them, especially the men.

As a women journalist inside a militant Islamic group run by men, my instinct would be to think, How daunting. What was it like for you?

Well, people would be surprised, but I think they’re easier to deal with if you are a woman. … I think as long as you cover yourself—and that doesn’t necessarily mean a scarf. With Hezbollah, they really adamantly did not want me to wear the scarf.

Why?

They exist within Lebanon and, even in their neighborhoods, plenty of women you can see without a headscarf, in very tight jeans. They don’t want you to [wear a scarf] for them unless you’re seeing a big sheik. … But of course you dress very modestly, you cover your body really well.

Did you ever feel in danger?

The only time I felt nervous was when I was on the border [with local Sunni residents during the time of day Hezbollah usually launches their operations] and hearing a lot of gunfire coming from the Israeli side. …

[Most experts recommend that outsiders don’t try to interact with Hezbollah when the group is conducting military operations. In at least one instance Hezbollah members severely beat United Nations workers who were found nearby during an operation.]

But as far as being with [Hezbollah members], never. I never felt nervous.

What was your impression of Hezbollah before you went in, and how did that ultimately change?

I expected a taciturn, tough group of people who would be very hard to crack. …

It surprised me when they would let me hang out for such long periods of time. It surprised me when … people I would meet on the beach would invite me to their homes, give me their home phone numbers.

So you saw them as real people.

Yeah, [at times] I saw them as people playing in the surf with their kids. It doesn’t mean that [some of them] weren’t responsible for all those kidnappings. [But] they’re also fathers and sons and wives and children and so forth.

I think if you are going to tell the story of any group of people you have to try to understand their mentality as much as you can. It doesn’t mean you’re making excuses for them, it just means they have a voice too and they deserve to be heard too, right or wrong.

What do you think is the significance of covering a group like this? Why should the world know who these guys are?

Because they are not going away. They’re part of the fabric of not only Lebanon, but the Middle East. It’s always important to understand extreme groups, and they are [an important] Islamic guerrilla—and political and social—group.

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