BAALBEK, Lebanon: Former minister Mohsen Dalloul recalls the day an irate Progressive Socialist Party member from Hermel, Abu Turki Dandash, demanded a meeting with then-Interior Minister Kamal Jumblatt.
The Hermel police were attempting to arrest Dandash’s son for shooting his own wife. Threatening to kill the police himself, Dandash asked Jumblatt to call them off. He said the government had no business interfering in the private affairs of his son, and he considered their attempt to detain him a flagrant attack on his clan.
That was in 1961.
Three weeks ago, 26-year-old Bilal Hajj Hasan was shot dead while stepping out of a shop in the Hermel neighborhood of Maali. He was killed by the father of 21-year-old Ali Marada, who himself had been murdered only 10 minutes earlier by a member of Hajj Hasan’s family.
Bilal Hajj Hasan did not know Ali Marada, but was the first Hajj Hasan that Marada’s vengeance-bound father came across.
Separated by five decades, the two events highlight the customs for which the clans of Baalbek-Hermel are known. The customs have become de facto law, and long ruled the lives of area residents.
Shiite families began moving to the Baalbek-Hermel strip in the early 1900s from Jbeil and Batroun. Each clan settled into one of the semi-arid valleys there, often making a living raising sheep and selling wood.
Today’s clans stem from two original groups. The first, the Shamasiya, is comprised of the Shamas, Allaw, Dandash, Allam, Awwad and Nassereddine families. The Zeaitariya group includes the Zeaitar, Jaafar, Amhaz, Shreif and Hajj Hasan families. Among the Zeaitariya are also the Meqdads, who have recently gained notoriety for their kidnapping spree and claim to have their own military wing.
Geographic isolation and a lack of development provided the ideal social and economic conditions for the clans to develop and live by their own rules. According to Mahfouz Mahfouz, the secretary of Hermel’s Culture and Development Organization, these include a requirement to take vengeance for perceived offenses and to retaliate against relatives if the perpetrators themselves can’t be found.
Clans close ranks to protect family members who have killed, and will shelter members of other families too.
There is also a traditional emphasis on the protection of women’s “ord,” a concept that gives a woman’s first cousins priority in marrying her, followed by other relatives.
Much is done to prevent women from marrying outside of the clan and in some cases girls are forced to leave school after they physically mature to prevent them from meeting other men.
Women are occasionally are dealt death sentences for marrying men of other clans.
Disputes among clans are resolved without resorting to state authority. Leaders perform reconciliations that can include monetary compensation for killings.
Clan members customarily answer to one leader, who has the last word in all matters.
Mohib Hamadeh, a professor of history at Lebanese University, says that these practices have dominated social and political life in the Baalbek-Hermel area since the end of Ottoman rule, but of late the clans have become fragmented and life is changing. He offers a brief political history of the families.
At Lebanon’s independence, both the Shamasiya and the Zeaitariya were headed by the Hamadeh family, which was allied with neither strain.
The Hamadeh’s first represented the clans in politics, starting with former Parliament Speaker Sabri Hamadeh. With the start of the Civil War in 1975, the family gave way to the Allaws and Nassereddines, who governed with the support of the Palestinian factions and the Kamal Jumblatt-led Lebanese National Movement.
The Syrian Army’s arrival changed the area’s dynamics, and Syrian intelligence showed their preference for the Jaafar family by installing its head, Ali Jaafar, as MP in the first post-Civil War Parliament.
Hamadeh says all Lebanese governments have attempted to tame the clans by splitting them or installing weak leaders, with limited success.
In the early ’60s, the late President Fouad Chehab attempted to integrate the families into mainstream society by building roads and schools in Baalbek-Hermel, as well as by employing members in government institutions. This effort ended with Chehab’s exit from power in 1964.
In the early 1970s, Lebanese Shiite cleric Imam Musa Sadr’s Movement of the Deprived tried to develop a pact between the families which included a commitment to the principles of citizenship, security and stability, a rejection of inter-clan violence and an elimination of coverage for criminals. This endeavor ended with the Civil War and Sadr’s disappearance.
Hezbollah now dominates the mostly Shiite area, and has absorbed parts of families who had drifted from the clan structure. There are a few families who remain outside of Hezbollah’s influence, remaining economically independent some by legal work, but many by planting marijuana, smuggling drugs, committing robberies and kidnapping for ransom.
The Dandash clan’s current leader, Hasan Dandash, says “the clan, as an ideological and historical concept, ended with the decline of its economic, social and political power. Now the Baalbek-Hermel area lacks basic living conditions,” and most members have moved to Beirut’s suburbs or other big cities to work and live.
Dandash says these days, “when marginalized people, who happen to be clan members, commit crimes out of their political and economic interests, they no longer represent the tribe as a whole.”
Ali Jaafar, a leader of the Jaafar clan, agrees that the tribe as a coherent structure with specific traditions and answerable to one leader, is over.
As an example, he gives his own family, one of the largest and last dominant families.
“They used to answer to one leader, for decades, former MP Ali Jaafar. However, after his death last year influence was distributed among several leaders in the family,” he says.