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Documentary : Breaking Bread With Hezbollah : Tea with the militant group can be an enlightening experience. For an invitation, just pull out a map.

June 02, 1992|MARILYN RASCHKA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIRUT — Tea with Hezbollah isn't a bad way to break the rigors of covering south Lebanon, but getting invited is quite another story.

I set out on a Sunday late last month by car for the villages of Jarjou, Jbaa and Jibsheet--targets of Israeli air raids the day before. These villages are so small and little known that I thought it best to circle them on my map. Cameras, zoom lenses and notebooks were next to me. It crossed my mind how suspicious I might look on my own. But counting on the presence of the Lebanese army in the area and a good command of Arabic, I considered the risk factor manageable.

At the army checkpoint in Jarjou, I asked the soldiers where the Israelis had hit. "At the edges of the village," they said pointing vaguely north. It took but a minute to find myself at an edge and even less to see that there was nothing to photograph.

Perhaps the next village. I thought it a wise idea to check my map.

How unwise.

An orange van filled to the brim with young men passed me, then stopped. They approached my car. "Damn the map," I heard myself say, realizing its significance too late. No piece of paper created by God or man is eyed with more suspicion in the Middle East. Of course, the camera, notebooks and my sunglasses didn't help matters.

"Your papers," came their curt demand. Holding my ground I said, "And who are you?"

"Hezbollah," one of them barked--the pro-Iranian Party of God whose militant forces are being targeted by the latest Israeli raids into Lebanon. Their trademarks--neatly trimmed beards, blue jeans and T-shirts convinced me.

As I handed them my Lebanese ID card, one of them leaned toward me saying quietly, "Don't be afraid." I was relieved to notice none was carrying a gun.

Much whispering resulted in a quick CB radio call to headquarters and a decision to take me there. More important types came out to meet us and demanded the map. "Which one?" I asked, anxious to confess to a second one before they found it.

I gathered that the map-scrutinizing was going to take some time and that my presence was not going to be needed. One Hezbollahi told me to follow him. He walked and I drove until we reached a secluded area with a little waterfall--the kind of spot that would be great for a picnic--under other conditions.

My "keeper" decided that a teftiish , or search, of my car was in order and started with the trunk. A bag of paperbacks attracted his attention, but not knowing English he moved on to another bag--this one with a cake tin.

Still hopeful, he moved to the glove compartment. The half-frame reading glasses amused him and he tried them on--his face giving way to a half smile.

Small talk suited to a radical Shiite fundamentalist is not my strong point in Arabic, but the hour and a half passed smoothly with each of us asking the other mundane questions. Occasionally he would chat with headquarters on his CB radio.

"How often do you send stories to your newspaper?" he asked.

"Not so often since the hostages have been released," I replied, realizing my answer was about as wise as flashing a map.

Finally a verdict was reached, and a man carrying the famous maps arrived. "Here," he said, "and we are sorry. But the Israelis are sending in agents posing as journalists. We have to be cautious."

To add substance to my claim of being a bona fide press person, I gave him my business card.

I tucked the maps in my purse, expecting to hear the words "you can go." But the two men stood there. Something still needed settling.

"How much do you make an hour?" they asked. "Are you paid in dollars or Lebanese pounds?"

Confused, I didn't answer. Then the man made it all clear. "We're going to reimburse you for your lost time."

The delicious thought of telexing Los Angeles that I had been on the payroll of Hezbollah for part of a day was almost too much to resist. And wouldn't it have been fun to list Hezbollah as one of my employers on my IRS forms?

"How about a glass of tea?" I suggested as an alternative, and off we went.

We had a lively political conversation in an office where the man in charge turned out to be a graduate of the American University of Beirut Nursing School.

A regular reader of Newsweek, he was eager to voice his opinions on the Los Angeles riots.

"The race problems are (Ronald) Reagan's fault because he cut all those welfare programs," he asserted.

Hezbollah's welfare programs in Lebanon are Iranian-funded. The newest is the Holy War Organization for Building, which finances the repair of homes damaged or destroyed by Israel or its surrogate militia, the South Lebanon Army.

Another glass of tea, more apologies and I was off. All's well that ends well--surely this was the end of the adventure.

But no. About a mile away I came across the Lebanese version of the Good Humor truck. As in the United States, a jingle announces its arrival.

As I stepped out of the car the jingle of the moment was "Yankee Doodle." Grinning from ear to ear, I felt honored and humored.

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