In Lebanon, tree is seen as sign of ‘divine victory’

Times Staff Writer

bint jbeil, lebanon -- Some would say Fatmeh Shaheen should know better. The 45-year-old psychologist is trained to recognize how a desperate mind might override its own sensibilities in search of solace.

But here she is, piling into this chapel-like building in southern Lebanon with hundreds of other Lebanese Shiites to pay homage to a miracle tree.

A dead, shellacked poplar trunk had somehow sprouted leaves after it was adorned with the names of 43 fighters for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah. They were killed in the war with Israel last year, a conflict that left hundreds of Lebanese dead and destroyed huge swaths of the country’s Shiite Muslim heartland, perhaps setting the nation’s most economically disadvantaged sect back even further.


“Can you have any doubts now?” the well-educated, trilingual professional asks as she stares, eyes aglitter, at the bright green leaves wiggling out of the dark brown tree trunk.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheik Hassan Nasrallah declared the war a “divine victory” for Lebanese guerrillas fighting against one of the most powerful armed forces in the Middle East. In the run-up to today’s anniversary of the war’s end, Hezbollah pulled out all the stops in reinforcing its version of history.

In mostly Shiite southern Beirut, a ruined district of the capital subjected to Israeli airstrikes last summer, Hezbollah has opened a museum called the House of the Spider to celebrate the “divine victory” and demonize Israeli armed forces.

It includes the re-creation of a Hezbollah guerrilla base, with mannequins in camouflage uniforms looking at maps of northern Israel and punching Israeli grid coordinates into laptop computers. Visitors navigate past the wreckage of Israeli tanks, captured Israeli walkie-talkies, a downed helicopter and bloodied boots.

A television screen loops a video game in which a Hezbollah fighter hunts down enemy armor. Footage of exploding Israeli tanks and crying Israeli soldiers plays inside a darkened theater.

Large photographs of President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accompany embarrassing quotes. “Hassan Nasrallah won’t forget the name of Amir Peretz,” says the former Israeli defense minister, who was pushed out of his job largely for his handling of last summer’s war.

And then there is the miracle tree. A Hezbollah official, who gives his name as Abu Mohammed, stands on a stage inside the building and tells the story of the tree as visitors walk in.

Hezbollah officials, he explains, commissioned an artist to make a monument to the war dead of this border town. The artist carved their names on wooden placards and nailed them to the tree trunk. He sprayed it with chemicals and placed it on a block.

Suddenly, about two weeks before the first anniversary of the war, the monument began sprouting leaves, even though it wasn’t getting any water or sunlight, Abu Mohammed says. Exactly 43 leaves sprang to life, one for each of the town’s combat casualties, he maintains.

Hezbollah’s Al Manar television began spreading word of the phenomenon and visitors flocked here to see a miracle.

“Let this be proof to all those who doubt the divine victory,” Abu Mohammed says over the public address system. “The pure blood of the martyrs has watered the earth.”

A recording of brassy martial music fills the hall during a break. Abu Mohammed mingles with the crowd.

“Are roots growing as well?” one woman asks Abu Mohammed.

“What are you going to do with it if it grows big?” another asks as she takes photographs with her cellphone.

“God knows,” says Abu Mohammed.

Shaheen, the psychologist, drove with her two adolescent sons more than an hour from the coastal city of Tyre earlier in the morning. Then she came again by herself, just to marvel at the tree. She says she’s not particularly religious. Unlike most of the women here, she doesn’t don the hijab, or head scarf, signifying Muslim piety.

“You have to live in the south to understand,” she says. “You have to be from south Lebanon.”