Sunday, July 16, 2017

In south Lebanon's last Communist holdout, alcohol sale under threat

[Originally published by Now Lebanon on 15/1/2016]

A petition decrying alcohol as “a violation of the shari`a of Islam” demands shops selling alcohol in Kfar Rumman be closed.

Not for nothing has Kfar Rumman long been nicknamed Kfar Moscow (NOW/Alex Rowell)

KFAR RUMMAN, Lebanon – In most respects, Rony Market could be any grocery store in south Lebanon. Sitting just off an intersection at the edge of the village, its modest-sized interior stocks the same basic food and household wares one would find in any so-called dikken across the country. As a handful of customers trickle in and out to buy phone recharge cards or packets of mixed nuts, two middle-aged men in leather jackets stand bantering with Rami Saleh, the shopkeeper, while smoking cigarettes.

In one crucial regard, however, Rony Market is highly unusual for a dikken in these predominantly Shiite Muslim, pro-Hezbollah provinces: its shelves also stock a (fairly extensive) range of wines, spirits, liqueurs, and araks. Two tall, glass-front fridges, moreover, are packed top-to-bottom with bottles of beer, both local and imported. For residents of Nabatieh governorate – whose eponymous capital lies just a kilometer and a half away to the southwest – Rony Market is one of the very few places where refreshments of the Dionysian variety may be sourced.

To a large extent, this is a product of the peculiar history of Kfar Rumman, the wartime headquarters of the leftist Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF) militia and still one of the last holdouts of Communism in the country. On the drive into the village, which boasts a large hammer-and-sickle monument just across the street from Rony Market, NOW encountered a bright red truck with a debonair Leon Trotsky painted on the side: not for nothing has it long been nicknamed Kfar Moscow. Today, though, the flag most visible on Kfar Rumman’s lampposts and balconies is not the red-and-yellow of the USSR but the yellow-and-green of the militia that helped crush the LNRF in the mid-1980s: Hezbollah.

And while the godless comrades and Partisans of God have largely made peace today, events this week demonstrate the tension remaining under the surface between the village’s secular-minded residents and their Islamist neighbors. On Wednesday, a petition written by “Sons of Kfar Rumman” surfaced online listing eight shops in the village that sell alcohol – including Rony Market. Citing a Quran verse critical of alcohol (“Verily, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing at] stone altars, and divining arrows are an abomination from among the works of Satan, so avoid them” – 5:90), the petition decried what the early Islamic poets fondly dubbed “the daughter of the vine” as a bane that “leads to the spreading of iniquity and evil and the violation of religious sentiment and the shari`a of Islam,” concluding with a demand that the governor of Nabatieh close the eight shops.

Talking to NOW in Rony Market Thursday, the shopkeeper Saleh spoke the words of a defiant man, though his demeanor at times appeared uncomfortable.

“No official, whether from the municipality or the governorate, has ordered us to close,” he told NOW. “On the contrary, the municipality has confirmed to us that we’re a legal business like any other […] I don’t accept anyone coming to say ‘I will close your shop’. I follow the law.”

Municipality head Kamal Ghabris did indeed confirm the same to NOW, saying he himself had received no request to close the shops, and there was no legal or other reason why they couldn’t continue to sell alcohol.

“We belong to the Lebanese republic, and we abide by the laws and constitution of this republic […] we want to keep our democracy, freedom and pluralism,” Ghabris told NOW.

Legal or not, though, alcohol shops have been the targets of similar campaigns in south Lebanon in the past, in some cases even being burnt down. Were there not fears, NOW asked another man in the shop, that something comparable could happen to Rony Market?

“Those arson attacks were probably done by [Islamist] Palestinians, who don’t exist here,” he replied. “If Hezbollah wanted these shops closed, it wouldn’t have to burn them down, it would just” – he gestured with his cell phone – “make a call, and they would close. But they haven’t made any such call.”

Indeed, Saleh, like the others in the shop, was very adamant on emphasizing that he didn’t blame Hezbollah for the petition.

“We don’t fear Hezbollah; they haven’t done anything against us,” said Saleh. “There are just individuals, certain religious zealots, who are against us. From time to time, some people get annoyed that we sell alcohol. We’re used to it here.”

Whether Saleh genuinely believed Hezbollah had nothing at all to do with the petition, or was simply exercising prudent diplomacy, is a matter about which one could only speculate. At any rate, Hezbollah involvement has been suggested by some local media. The south Lebanese news site Janoubia, which called the petition “ISIS-like,” cited an anonymous “exclusive source” as claiming a draft of the document had been prepared by “a number of clerics affiliated with Hezbollah.” Other analysts suggested any role played by the Party was likely to be of an indirect nature.

“I don’t think the Party is directly responsible for issuing the petition,” said Ali al-Amin, a columnist from south Lebanon often critical of Hezbollah. In Amin’s view, the issue began when a relative of Saleh’s wrote a widely-shared anti-religious Facebook post – for which he received death threats– in light of Hezbollah’s participation in the siege of the Syrian town of Madaya. This angered “young people” among Hezbollah’s supporters in Kfar Rumman, said Amin, who then wrote the petition of their own accord.

That, if correct, could explain the timing, which is also interesting for coming two weeks after Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General, Sheikh Naim Qassem, raised eyebrows by telling an interviewer the Party was still committed to its ambition of creating a Shiite Islamic state in Lebanon. “As an Islamist, I can’t say, ‘I’m an Islamist and I propose Islam, but I don’t propose the establishment of an Islamic state,’ because that’s part of the project that we believe in, on the doctrinal and cultural level,” Qassem told Al-Mayadeen TV. “We believe the application of Islam is the solution to mankind’s problems, in all times and places.” While Hezbollah has never renounced its goal – formally articulated in a 1985 open letter – to one day establish an Islamic state, a speech given by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in 2009 outlining the Party’s political program was seen by some as a relaxation on the point.

To what extent Qassem’s remark may have given further encouragement to the “religious zealots” Saleh blamed for the petition may never be determined. In the murky circumstances of the incident, perhaps all that can be said with confidence is it would have been unlikely to happen if Communism were still the prevailing ideology in the town.

Amin Nasr contributed reporting.

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