Hiba Qassir dreams of making movies. She’s ambitious and precocious enough. At 18, she’s taught herself how to edit video and sound on a computer, and has her sights set on directing gripping social and psychological dramas.
But if the movie business doesn’t work out, that’s OK. She has other dreams: perhaps to become a cop or a pilot. Or maybe a suicide bomber.
“Martyrdom is the shortest way to heaven, and the history of martyrdom is not like any history,” Hiba says. “It made victory. We wouldn’t have achieved victory without these martyrdoms.”
Hiba wears a colorful head scarf and faded bluejeans and running shoes under a black cloak as she gives a tour of Hezbollah’s annual “martyrdom” exhibit here in this southern port city.
Cheery and rosy-cheeked, she helpfully guides visitors past mannequins of guerrilla fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, and placards chronicling suicide operations against Israeli troops during the Jewish state’s two-decade occupation of southern Lebanon. Recorded sounds of machine-gun fire, helicopters and walkie-talkie chatter fill the halls of a drab brick community center on the outskirts of Tyre.
“Here is some information about each martyrdom operation,” she informs a small tour group.
She points to a hall lined with posters adorned with artificial flowers. “The first one was in 1982 here in Tyre,” she says. “You can see that [late Israeli leader] Yitzhak Rabin said that this operation took the lives of many people, especially those with special qualities and skills.”
That suicide bomber was 18, just like her, when he drove an explosives-filled Peugeot sedan into the Israeli command post here on Nov. 11, 1982, and killed 75 Israeli soldiers, border guards and intelligence officers, according to Lebanese accounts. Israel has long maintained that the blast was an accident, caused by a gas leak.
His name was Ahmad Qassir, and Hiba is particularly proud of her uncle, martyr No. 1 in the official history of Hezbollah’s long war against Israel.
“Israel usually says that these people are hopeless people and lovers of death,” Hiba says. “But we always say that martyrdom is our way to heaven.”
Hiba says she feels bored with kids her own age. All they want to do is shop at Beirut Mall, gossip and chitchat about clothes and makeup. She’d rather spend a free afternoon at the swimming pool or visiting the Internet cafe to surf the Web for news of the world.
She’s a dutiful daughter, baby-sitting her three younger sisters without complaint. Her mother, Samar Qassir, 38, who stopped attending school when she was married at 14, is immensely proud. Her parents let Hiba do mostly as she pleases, shuttling from the bustle of the capital, Beirut, where they live, to the farmlands of the south, to visit relatives.
But that’s not enough for her. She wants to learn about the world, to travel. That’s why she eagerly took up the temporary job of playing English-speaking tour guide for the three-week martyrdom exhibit, a chance to interact with foreigners and dignitaries, as well as make a little cash before she begins college next month. She spends all the extra money she makes as a docent on movies, books and software to help her prepare for her filmmaking career.
The martyrdom exhibit and similar shows are part of an occasional series of public multimedia installations organized by Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite political organization and militia that is a state unto itself within Lebanon. Like recent exhibits about the late Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah in Nabatiyeh and another in Beirut last year about the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, this one is filled with captured Israeli weaponry and giant posters of Israeli leaders in anguish.
Grim-faced portraits of the father of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah’s spiritual and political guideposts, stare out at visitors.
Parents bring children to walk through the exhibit, past the posters of martyrs and works of art commemorating their deeds, which usually involved ramming vehicles packed with explosives into Israeli positions. A preteen boy with a messy mop of brown hair takes photographs of mannequins of bearded Hezbollah fighters praying in the battlefield.
“This operation was done by Ibrahim Jamil Daher,” Hiba says, pointing toward one of the displays. “It was first a battle against a team of 22 Israelis. It wasn’t supposed to be a martyrdom operation. But when he found it was a good opportunity to make such an operation, he took advantage of the situation and did it.”
She adds with satisfaction: “It took the lives of so many Israelis.”
Hiba loves Arab and Iranian movies -- not the highbrow films shown at festivals but corny action capers, and romantic comedies such as the Egyptian film “I’m Content,” about a set of triplets played by the same actor who fall for the same girl. She says she’s watched it repeatedly, looking for clues as to how the film editors manage to so deftly juxtapose the actor three times in the same scene and make it look so real.
As soon as she finishes up her classes at a Hezbollah-sponsored high school, she’d like to go to Tehran to study directing, and make movies about the south of Lebanon. “I like the idea of directing films, because you meet many people and learn more about them,” she says.
Despite her love for the movies, fantasies of martyrdom also tug at her. Hiba grew up hearing the stories of martyrs, their lives and their sacrifices. In addition to the uncle in Tyre, another uncle was killed in a 1996 operation and a third during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
She talks about their deaths with the same pride another teen might display describing an older sibling’s feats on a football field.
“We have many martyrs in the family, and we like this thing,” she says. “As ordinary people, we have to work and say prayers, and despite all of that we might not go to heaven. But the martyrs go directly to heaven.”
Hiba insists that she’s not just repeating political slogans. She says if given the chance, she would sacrifice herself and her dreams to become a martyr.
“Let’s speak logically,” she says. “The path of each person is not decided by us, and our years are limited by God’s wants, so if it was offered to me to die as a martyr, it’s better than to live life with all its sins.”
At the end of the Hezbollah exhibits, visitors are typically guided into a darkened theater filled with a big screen, dioramas and colored lights. They’re a bit like the “Chicago Experience” or “New York Experience” multimedia shows popular during the 1970s and ‘80s, with movies, music and robots telling visitors the history of a city.
The “experience” at the martyrdom exhibit begins with blaring action-movie music and shots of black-and-white footage from the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1940s and ‘50s. They are spliced with shots of a young boy on a rocky beach, watching with sadness as Israeli soldiers pat down Arab men and old women cry over corpses.
“That’s supposed to be a young Ahmad Qassir,” Hiba explains.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shake hands as Jimmy Carter smiles. Khomeini descends from his airplane in Tehran. The actor playing Qassir continues to stare out at the sea, thinking.
“Qassir is watching,” she says, over the music.
Israeli fighter jets and tanks roll into Lebanon. Artillery barrages pummel cities. Lebanese guerrillas begin to train. A black-turbaned cleric speaks.
A Peugeot races down a street.
“This is Ahmad Qassir’s car,” Hiba says.
The car makes a sharp turn, and crashes into a building. Explosions erupt. On the soundtrack, the voices of the choir sing like angels, and cymbals clatter.
The spotlights shine brightly on a plaster model of a building next to the movie screen, its facade ripped off to reveal the structure’s innards, orange lights flickering on and off. The fire dances in Hiba’s big brown eyes.