Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Iranians in Lebanon: Between History and Politics | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- When asked about Iranian presence in Lebanon, linguist and Professor Dr. Ahmed Lusani stated, “This presence is as old as time itself and it has witnessed great changes over the centuries, especially during the clashes between the Persians and the Romans.”

Lusani has been living in Lebanon since 1929; he was 40 days old when his father Sayyid Hassan took him to Damascus then travelled on to Jebel Amel to visit friends in southern Lebanon. He then went on to settle south of Sidon and became involved in the religious and jurisprudential activities1 of the town. At the time there was no link between the religious authority in Iran and Lebanon’s Shia community, however there were relations and ties.

Jebel Amel’s history is filled with stories of Shia clerics who immigrated to Iran to escape the Ottoman Empire’s persecution. However, some of them returned to Lebanon with the collapse of the Ottoman rule, bringing with them the social and familial ties that they had established there. The same emigration movement to Lebanon recurred during Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s era.

Today, this movement is still active in Lebanon and many attribute it to the freedom that Lebanon offers to those that live on its land while others believe it is because the Shiism in Lebanon is more inclined towards Iran’s Shiism than that of Najaf.

Imam Musa al Sadr was part of this movement. His great-great grandfather, Sayyid Saleh Sharaf al Din was born Tyre district, south Lebanon in 1710. Following the massacres in Mount Amel and his maltreatment by the Shia clerics, Sayyid Saleh was detained and sentenced to death but managed to escape and seek asylum in Najaf, Iraq.

Four generations down, Sayyid Musa al Sadr was born in Qom in 1928 and he immigrated to Lebanon in 1960. He was instrumental to launching dialogue between the various religions and sects in Lebanon and can be credited as one of the most important pillars of the Muslim-Christian dialogue, in addition to pioneering in defining Lebanon’s Shia within a framework through the establishment of the Shia Higher Council. Moreover, he was the first to define ‘Shia resistance’ which came about with the founding of Amal movement and the ‘Lebanese Resistance Forces’, the latter of which carved a niche for themselves among the Lebanese militias during the Lebanese Civil War.

The number of families whose names can be traced back to Iranian origins and etymologies are countless; some of them are the families of Iran’s most prominent carpet traders, such as Mektebi, Simsar Zadeh and Voldkar.

The golden era of Iranian-Lebanese relations over the past century was during the late President Camille Chamoun era; he was on friendly terms with the Shah and Beirut was home to some the Iranian bourgeoisie and aristocratic families. Many of the Iranians residing in Lebanon refuse to speak negatively against the former Shah of Iran, they uphold that he, ‘has his virtues and vices as all rulers do – but he was a faithful man and the Iranians enjoyed a good standing internationally during his days.”

Does this statement mean that some Iranians are starting to feel like they have lost something, be it in Lebanon or worldwide? Can the reason be traced back to the ‘Islamic republic’s’ position towards Lebanon’s internal conflict, in addition to its political and military support of Hezbollah against the majority? Or is what is being reported about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) true, that it has a hand in the leadership and training of Hezbollah? Today, the IRGC’s presence is only limited to the leadership since the party has become capable of training its own operatives, whether within Lebanon or abroad.

Sources from the Iranian embassy in Beirut fully reject this notion and the embassy affirms that it is not partial to a specific Lebanese party and denies any security presence. A spokesman said, “During Lebanon’s Civil War and the absenting of the state, the Iranian security presence was unregulated, however since the reinstatement of the state, it [Iranian security] has been subjected to diplomatic laws and regulations that govern the procedure. Moreover, Iranian presence in Lebanon exists on the level of civilization, not the religious one. This presence is not remotely linked to Hezbollah. Relations are good with all Lebanese parties irrespective of sects and creeds. The Iranians have existed on this land and with its people long before Hezbollah, since 1,400 years, they said.

As for Lebanon’s Shia emulating their Iranian counterparts in their rituals; Iranian Consul to Lebanon, Nizamuddin Kalhasni told Asharq Al-Awsat, “It resembles the Christian attachment to the Vatican as a religious authority. If this authority was based in Najaf, then Najaf would be the religious marja’a (reference). If it was based in Qom then we would go there and if it were in Isfahan or anywhere else then we would go [to its location].”

However, the Iranian character was not deeply entrenched in Lebanon until the emergence of Hezbollah. Prior to that, the Iraqi Najaf character was more prevalent. Even the texts that are recited during the Ashura remembrance rituals and celebrations have taken on an unmistakable Iranian hue, but Kalhasni argues, “Let me highlight the issue from another angle: This shift took place with the internet and communications revolution through which the world was transformed into a global village that has eliminated borders and expanded the cultural circles. As such, a significant segment of the people was able to obtain more sources and references.”

What about those that emulate this manner when they have no access to the internet and suchlike? The answer is: it is popular culture, not a technological one. An Iranian doctoral student said, “There is convergence between the Iranians and the Shia resistance in Lebanon; it is not an emotional, doctrinal or political influence. Prior to 2005, the present animosity towards Iran was nothing to be compared to now. Also, there was former president Mohammed Khatami’s Dialogue of Civilizations. Today, there is a war of civilizations; however there are no conflicts with the Lebanese as a people. There is interaction and vitality between the Iranian and Lebanese people. As for the friction, it began after the July 2006 war but the situation is currently under control.”

He added, “Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran is an emotional religious one. The Iranian state is presently supporting it [Hezbollah] out of national and religious sympathy. The rapprochement is the result of the unity of the goal and political harmony.”

The controversy over disparate and contradictory views with regards to the Iranian presence in Lebanon is never ending. Some say that there is intolerance towards the Iranians, particularly from the Sunni side. Others say that they do not sense this racism or intolerance and that the relationship with the Lebanese is a good one on all levels.

In the aforementioned student’s opinion, “Away from the conflict, what the Iranians consider the most attractive about Lebanon is the culture of the Lebanese people, they appreciate this culture. Moreover, a considerable number of Iranians went to Lebanese universities, including officials, MPs and ministers who have graduated from American University and the Jesuit University. Shahpour Bakhtiar was one of the people who studied in Lebanon and he was appointed as the prime minister of Iran. Today, there are approximately 100 students in Iranian universities.”

Naji Baqeri, a carpet trader who has been working in Lebanon for 12 years is quick to profess his love for Lebanon, despite the hardships and rising prices. He said: “Perhaps life is easier in Tehran but I love Lebanon because it is liberated; Iran does not enjoy the same degree of freedom as Lebanon. But I have regrets for not having bought a house and a shop, I rent both. The problem with Lebanon is in its ongoing political crises and wars, however; this does not change the fact that I want to relocate my family to Lebanon so that they may live in a more liberal environment but the high cost of the standard of living [makes it difficult].” Baqeri does not interfere in politics but rather only observes it. He likes Lebanon but not its political parties. What about Hezbollah? “I love Allah, not parties and sects,” he said.

As for Reza, a young carpet trader, he said, “I want to ask you; why does the Lebanese embassy give us such a hard time to get an entry visa into Lebanon?” He added that it could even entail bribes in some cases. The ‘wasta’ (mediation by a third party, a practice used in some transactions in many Middle Eastern societies) needs to go through. “I don’t know why it is so difficult, we spend more in Lebanon than the Lebanese people do and we spin the economic wheel. We are benefiting the state,” he said.

So why do you still come to Lebanon despite the hardships? “The Lebanese people are good-natured people and the women are beautiful. We also have freedom here; I want to live without anybody preventing me [to do things]. Here I can live the way I want to,” he said.

Reza stated that he loves himself more than he loves [political] parties, he added, “The Secretary-General of Hezbollah Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah is a good leader but why is Iran paying all this money to the party? Iran is a rich country but it also has a lot of poor people that deserve to be assisted using their state’s money. I do not know how they manage the affairs of the people. During former president Khatami’s term things were not like that. I love Khatami, he is the man.”

Reza does not concern himself with politics unlike his Lebanese friends, 90 percent of whom are Shia, however; he stresses that he feels no hostility towards any Lebanese people irrespective of the sects they are affiliated to. “This is why I love this country,” he added.

But Reza is no different from other carpet traders in Lebanon who number approximately 300 Iranian strong and who believe that there are specials relations between the Lebanese and Iranians. One dealer said, “The story of Iranian carpet trade in Lebanon is unique and we have invested millions of dollars despite the fact that it is a thriving trade worldwide.”

When asked what he thought the reason for this was, especially since most of the Lebanese people are middle income earners whilst Persian carpets are a luxury in rich countries, he answered by saying that Persian rug making is not simply a commodity but is rather a craft that requires special skills, in addition to being a culture, art and lifestyle.

“Profit is not important to me,” he continued, “the important thing is that the Lebanese buyers understand the craft, appreciate it for its value, place in their home and pass it down to their children. An Iranian carpet maker can give 15 years of his life to weave a carpet on which he depicts his ideas, dreams and visions and reflects the beauty that he sees. Persian carpet traders know that the Lebanese people in particular know the value [of Persian carpets] and appreciate them.”

“I was once invited by a Lebanese man who was obsessed with Persian carpets. I went to his home and it was as though I had entered a museum; he had hundreds of pieces some of which were rare and would be priceless since they were over 250 years old. A small one, believed to be 150 years old, has left experts the world over trying to estimate a price for it. The owner told me that he had received an offer from the American ambassador to transport it to the US whilst providing all the necessary facilitations but that he rejected the offer. He has kept his collection throughout the most trying times of war and firmly states that it is not for sale,” the carpet trader revealed.

Persian carpet traders consider their business to be trading culture in Lebanon; most of them have moved to Lebanon some 150 years ago and have settled there since then. They also form the nucleus of the Iranian community, thus 80 percent of the present generation of Iranian youth are third-generation immigrants. The first generation did not speak any Arabic, the second spoke both Arabic and Farsi while the majority of the third generation does not speak Farsi but still retains their Iranian nationality.

According to Nizamuddin Kalhasni, “there are no accurate statistics for the number of Iranians in Lebanon; however, the figure is believed to be approximately 5,000. The most pressing problems they confront have to do with housing and with the rights of Iranian women who marry Lebanese men to obtain the Lebanese nationality, as the law stipulates. This right is often obstructed for reasons that having nothing to do with the law but rather with the personal conduct of some employees. The same applies to Lebanese women married to Iranian men who also face problems getting the citizen paperwork straightened out for their children who are based in Lebanon. In Iran, the woman passes on the nationality to her children and they are granted free residency [in Iran], in addition to a number of facilitations by the state if they are born outside of it. In Lebanon the situation is very different, the Lebanese mother struggles to obtain these rights and the state should be helping these women.”

But the Lebanese are also drawn to Lebanon for its tourism, in 2005 alone, 93,000 Iranian tourists visited Lebanon. Kalhasni relates that an Iranian family travelling in a rented car once mistook a sign [the Arabic alphabet is very similar to the Farsi with the exception of some letter variations] and ended up by head of the Lebanese Forces (LF), Samir Geagea’s house. Thinking it was a religious site; they started to take pictures without realizing the ramifications of their actions and thus were promptly arrested on the scene.

According to Kalhasni, the ensuing media uproar was blown out of proportion upon groundless claims. It was a completely innocent incident, he said. As a result, however, Iranian tourists were warned to take heed of security specifications during their visits.

“It is unfortunate that some Lebanese people deal with Iranians on the basis of sectarian beliefs,” said Kalhani.