Paintballing with Hezbollah
Is the Path Straight to Their Hearts
A Hezbollah fighter relaxes during a break in the paintball action.
The honeymoon is soon over, and Soha picks up on a little whisper campaign about me. She tells me Coco and Andil want to know why she’s hanging out with us foreigners: “So how do you know these guys? How are you friends with them?” A secular Muslim, Soha knows we’re entering territory loaded with cultural land mines. And although the fighters seem to have taken a peculiar liking to me, the fact that I’m dating a local Muslim girl is counterbalancing that impression; I’m also the one who challenged them to the game they’re now losing. There is pride at stake, and to my surprise, they suddenly seem more intent on shooting me than Exum, our US Army representative, and up until now their most prized target.
I’m immediately eliminated from the next game when Andil, at a dead run, shoots me in the face from 30 meters away. But we wind up winning that game, the fourth, the overall score now 3-1. It becomes evident that the Boss has had enough, and he announces that he’ll suit up for a few rounds of five-on-five.
“He’s come to save his boys,” says Nick, as the referees announce a new game. Each team will select a captain (me, the Boss) and defend their respective towers on opposite sides of the arena. Only a captain can enter the other team’s tower, and when he does, his team wins. Hit the opposing captain in the head, game over; the shooter’s team wins.
In our first five-on-five match with the Boss, Exum designs an elaborate strategy that takes five times as long to describe as it does for the Boss to sprint the length of the field in a flurry of paintballs, amid the screams of his fellow guerrilla fighters. He reaches our tower untouched; the game is over before I can even break into a stride. It’s now 3-2, and Team Hezbollah erupts like a volcano of insults and boasts. Even Khodor, the quietest of the bunch, joins the boys in chanting, “20 seconds! 20 seconds!”
The next round is even shorter. The horn blares, and the Boss sprints into our tower. Done. But this time I notice that while he’s pretty fast, he’s not that fast. I might even be faster than him. He’s not even engaging the field at all, but simply holds his gun alongside his head for cover while sprinting in a straight line. I can do that.
After our two-game, 30-second ass whipping at the hands of the Boss, things are all tied up. There’s talk of changing the rules once again to ensure the tiebreaker is a more drawn-out battle, but it’s after 11 PM and Khodor needs to be at the mosque by midnight for Ramadan prayers. His teammates, all of whom also celebrate Ramadan, pressure him to hold off long enough for the grand finale, and while he clearly wants to keep at it, he has got to pray. There’s only time for one more round of shoot-the-captain.
We decide to appropriate the Boss’s strategy: I’ll head straight for the tower, with my gun protecting my head, while Bryan is “volun-told” by Exum to run alongside me and eat paintballs. As the horn blows, I ignore our opponents and stare only at the stairs to the tower, about 50 meters away. The race is on. Bryan immediately gets tangled in his giant legs, felled like Gulliver by a swarm of Team Hezbollah bullets. Andil fires at me the entire time but can’t connect with my head. Seconds later I hit the tower half a stride ahead of the Boss on the other side of the room. We win: 4-3.
In some Arab cultures there is a custom known as baroud: the moment at a wedding, funeral, or other cultural event where the men shoot guns into the air in a display of emotion. A few years back, Hezbollah officially banned the practice, but tonight, with everyone still holding a full clip of 200 paintballs, the Boss and Co. join us in the center of the arena to celebrate the night’s fun by joyfully shooting into the air. Language barriers are overcome to rehash moments from the night, or to gently talk trash, while shaking hands and hugging in recognition of having together pulled off something, if not special, then notably unique.
At the very end of the evening, things take a chilling turn. The Boss walks over and takes Ben’s gun away from him while criticizing his marksmanship. In an exemplary display, the Boss takes careful aim at a rope hanging on the other side of the arena and fires shot after shot, squarely hitting the rope each time while chanting Yahoud (“Jew”) on each pull of the trigger. He seems to think it’s funny, but no one else laughs.