BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Few residents of Beirut care, or even dare venture into this mind-boggling labyrinth of over-populated side streets, tiny alleys, and complicated network of roads occasionally intersected by larger newly-built arteries that make up the city's "southern suburbs."
But those who do come here will find a fascinating mixture of cultures that have juxtaposed conservative Islam with the liberal West.
It is here that most American and other foreign hostages were once incarcerated. The suburbs are a mere 10-minute ride from the modern, Westernized, and rebuilt city center, fancy hotels, restaurants and chic boutiques. Yet it remains secluded in a world of its own.
Welcome to the "dahiye," -- Arabic for suburbs, where the vast majority of Lebanon's working class Shiite Muslims eke out a living.
Over the years, thousands came here as refugees from the southern villages, seeking relative safety in Beirut, as Israel bombed, invaded and occupied a strip of land running from the Mediterranean Sea, to the Syrian border. Others came here from villages in the Bekaa Valley seeking better jobs. Many found employment with the radical Islamic militias.
It is here, in this complicated maze that hostages such as American journalist Terry Anderson and Briton Terry Waite, who were kidnapped in the mid-1980s, spent years in captivity, often in dark, damp basements, chained to walls or radiators.
The tenement buildings in the southern suburbs appear old and worn, with TV antennas protruding from rooftops and bundles of washing hanging out to dry. Most traces of intense artillery duels, bombings and fighting suffered during the years of war have been patched up, painted, and have almost disappeared.
Telephone and electric cables stretching from one building to another are so thick, that in some places they almost blot out the sky.
And it is here, amid the clutter of car mechanics, and other small businesses that Hezbollah is based.
This sector of the Lebanese capital, so foreign to the rest of the city offers an interesting window into Lebanon's Shiite community, where one is more apt to find support for Osama bin Laden than for Uncle Sam. Yet, regardless of their politics, American fast food outlets do a brisk business and T-shirts bearing American logos and slogans are a current sight, as are posters of American action films that play in local cinemas and video rentals.
Hezbollah is supported by Iran, (though currently directed by Syria) and influenced by their religious pragmatism. Many of the group's religious leaders have studied and trained in Iran. Yet this place is far from toting the strict Islamic line, as preached by Afghanistan's Taliban, or the ayatollahs of Iran's holy city of Qom.
While the residents of Beirut's southern suburbs may support bin Laden, women here still support Western fashion even more.
It is not unusual to see women in skin-tight blue jeans, tank tops, skimpy blouses or leather pants, accompanied by others wearing scarves and headdresses talking on their cell phones, casually stroll under giant portraits of Muslim Mullahs and Iranian ayatollahs.
Another particularity of the southern suburbs is the presence of armed militiamen. While young men with automatic weapons was a common sight in the past, today, it remains exclusive to the "suburbs."
Since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, militias have disappeared from Beirut's streets, but Lebanon's Hezbollah have been allowed to maintain its militia, some of whom can be seen standing guard around their headquarters, offices and television station.
The Lebanese government considers them a "resistance," and as such, allows them to keep their weapons, while all other armed groups, except for the Lebanese Army, have vanished from Beirut.
Hezbollah professes to be a resistance group fighting Israeli occupation in the south. Israel still controls an area known as the Shebaa Farms, that Hezbollah says belongs to Lebanon. Israel claims it belongs to Syria. And so, every now and then, Hezbollah fighters lob a few artillery shells on the area. There are rarely any casualties, but this is their way of saying, "we are still here."
Many Lebanese view them as the only true resistance to Israeli occupation, filling a role that the Lebanese Army could not undertake.
"Terrorism is not resistance and resistance is not terrorism," echoed a senior American diplomat. "This is their mantra," said the diplomat, speaking of the Lebanese. "From the president of the republic on down, that's all you hear."
Howwever, the United States still considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, whom it blames for a number of anti-American attacks over the years. These include the bombings of the American embassy and the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen, as well as the hijacking of a TWA jetliner and the murder of a U.S. Navy diver who was on board the ill-fated flight in 1985.
As such, there are no direct contacts between Hezbollah and the Americans.
"We are not allowed to talk to terrorist groups," said Anne Bodine, a political officer with the U.S. embassy in Beirut.
Others don't see it that way.
"Hezbollah was the only Arab group ever able to force Israel out of occupied Arab land," say many residents and observers in the Middle East.
"They have succeeded where Arab armies such as Syria and Jordan have failed," said a diplomat who asked not to be named. "Even Egypt was only able to recuperate the Sinai through negotiation."
Hezbollah forced Israel out of south Lebanon in May 2000 by maintaining a guerrilla war that cost Israel a great number of casualties, moved Israeli public opinion, which eventually forced Prime Minister Ehud Barak to pull the troops out of Lebanon and reposition them south of the border.
Indeed, the Iranian backed militia which attained world notoriety in the 1980s when they kidnapped many Western journalist, university professors and diplomats in Lebanon, has transformed itself into a bona fide political party. While maintaining its military wing, Hezbollah today boasts its own television and radio stations, a political bureau and a slate of 12 deputies (that includes one Christian) that were elected to the 128-seat Lebanese parliament.
Lebanon has always been a country of contradictions, excesses and contrasts -- Hezbollah and their southern suburbs stronghold are no exception to that rule.