Alice Fordham attends a rally to commemorate Musa al Sadr, the first leader of Lebanon's poor Shia. The Beirut sky in August is a blue so bright it is almost oppressive. The green flags of Amal supporters as they charge through the streets have a similar quality: bright, flat and glowing in the Mediterranean sun. The colours stand out against the grey streetscape of the Dahieh, a suburb of south Beirut where the buildings are closely packed and crumbling, with faded shades on the balconies. Fruit and vegetable stalls sit under a patchwork of shabby tarpaulins. The poverty is not desperate but it is dingy; a grotty, pockmarked sort of place that would be unremarkable were it not for the Technicolor stream of people pouring through its closed-off streets. Anarchic drumming fills the air, and a gang of young men with straightened, gelled-up hair dances past on the way to hear the leader of the Amal movement speak. Women in immaculate clothes and sequinned hijabs move more sedately alongside, but their hum and bustle contribute to the feeling of holiday. The people pass under flags, Ramadan decorations and posters of a bearded man in a turban who disappeared in Libya on this day - August 31 - 31 years ago.
Musa Sadr was the leader of the dispossessed Shia of Lebanon before Hizbollah was so much as a twinkle in the Islamic Republic's eye, the man credited by poor Lebanese Shia with empowering them, lifting them out of deprivation under the Christian-dominated government and strengthening them against Israeli attacks. He preached religious tolerance and non-sectarianism as well as armed resistance, and is to this day cited approvingly by Lebanese politicians of every stripe. It is in memory of this Iranian-born cleric (who happens to have been the cousin of another Shia leader, the Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr) that these people are cheering in their potholed streets.
The crowds press on down roads half-heartedly guarded by men in beige Amal uniforms, passing through a square lined with people sitting on steps as speakers boom out the words of the Amal leader Nabih Berri, who is in mid-flow on the subject of Saudi-Syrian relations. Most keep going a little further to an open space where a tattered green canopy is stretched from high, uneven walls. Thousands of white plastic chairs are ranged in front of Berri as he expostulates and gesticulates. He asks the supporters to refrain from shooting off fireworks and guns in the air during his speech, but to no avail. His paeans to Musa Sadr are punctuated with bangs. The crowd is nominally separated, men from women, but people of both sexes are pushing and shoving, wandering in and out, climbing over the walls and squeezing through gaps which serve as doorways. While the party leader's speech is technically the highlight of the event, the lads with the elaborate hair and flags seem more interested in letting off steam in the street, and the women are for, the most part, chatting animatedly.
This enthusiasm without organisation is to some extent representative of the Amal party's position in Lebanon today. Afwaj al muqawamat al Lubnaniyya (Battalions of the Lebanese Resistance), whose acronym "Amal" means hope, was originally the fighting wing of Musa Sadr's political Movement of the Disinherited. Sadr established the Movement in 1974 after he had been the driving force behind the establishment of the Shia Council, a government body that called successfully for some public money to go to the South. But when Musa Sadr was invited to Libya by Muammar Gaddafi in 1978, he disappeared, never to be seen again, and was widely assumed to have been murdered - either by Libyan authorities or with their collusion. After Sadr's disappearance, a rift opened between Libya and Lebanon, and Amal began to change dramatically.
Religious and more radical members of the group broke away and, with Iranian support, founded Hizbollah; Amal itself became more secular and less militant. After the Israeli withdrawal from most of Lebanon in 1985, Amal's bellicose anti-Israel activities largely stopped. Hizbollah, of course, remains heavily armed and accrued immeasurable prestige throughout the Arab world for the damage it inflicted on the Israeli army in the 2006 war. Amal, once the party that represented the awakening of the Shia, very much takes second place now.
Hizbollah, which the US State Department has called the most technically capable terrorist group in the world, is well-funded by international government sponsors and individual supporters and is supremely organised. When Hizbollah holds an event, no one climbs over the walls. Hizbollah rallies are regimented by men in brown suits with earpieces and women in full chador. The genders are segregated, without exception, and the strict Islamic ethos is reflected in the all-black clothes of most of the women. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the adored Hizbollah leader, speaks by video link for security reasons, and tens of thousands of people hush to listen, breaking their silence only to cheer and shout agreement at the appropriate times. Walking through neighbourhoods - and not just Shia ones - when a Nasrallah speech is being televised, there is a rapt communal concentration of the sort more usually devoted to sporting events, broken only by the voice of the Sayyed drifting out of open doors and windows.
The visceral devotion inspired by Hizbollah can be attributed to many things, from their success in combat to their social endeavours, including hospitals, schools and microfinance. Hizbollah and Amal are allies who run on the same list in elections, but Hizbollah is big, rich, dominant and successful, while Amal is smaller and more chaotic - known for street scrapping but not "divine victory". But many still feel old loyalties to Amal, and memories of the glory days are being passed on, not least by the honouring of Sadr. At the Amal rally, I sat next to four teenage sisters who had won scholarships to attend the Amal Educational Institute, an impressive school run by Musa Sadr's daughter, because their father had been injured fighting for Amal in Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. They were there to remember Sadr, they said, because "he is not just a political landmark, and he cares about humans and their needs - he was in direct contact with the people." In school, they said, they were taught that he spoke in churches as well as mosques, that he supported the whole Lebanese country. He taught, they said, that people are not defined by their money, "but by their thought and dignity. We should raise our voices and believe we can change," they said, explaining that although they were poor and lived in a house with only intermittent electricity and water, they knew they could do anything. The eldest had just won a scholarship to study medicine at the American University of Beirut. Her younger sister asked me: "Do you like chemistry? I love chemistry - I love the details." Her cousin in America, she said, studied chemistry as well, but the American syllabus was "so simple." The girls' father had been out of work for two years before Amal had given him a job - an example of the vast patronage network Berri now operates.
Lokman Slim is a Shia who opposes what he sees as the political hegemony of Hizbollah. Accounting for the continuing existence of Amal, he points to a "generation issue" and the fact that Amal and Hizbollah fought for control of South Lebanon in the last years of the civil war. "The old generation of militants," said Mr Slim, "cannot forget that Hizbollah imposed itself by 'occupying' a large part of Amal's playground" - that is, South Lebanon. The younger Shia, he said, have been "acculturated" into Hezbollah's ideology of religion and identity, which stresses pride in being Shia and in having won victory over Israel. While schools and families may influence some young people to keep supporting Amal, the majority of young Shia side with Hizbollah.
After Berri finishes speaking, the crowds disperse and start heading home for iftar. In Lebanon, most people display strong loyalties to the group and the leader that one's family and community cleave to. But Amal's emphasis on their distinguished founder and on the early years when Amal first gave the Shia sect a voice cannot disguise the fact that theirs is a weak group, likely to get weaker as Berri ages. Even the girls feel it. They lament that Musa Sadr is not given a national holiday. "Amal is different now," says one, far too young to remember when Amal was important. "Everything is changed."
Alice Fordham is a freelance journalist who writes about current affairs and culture from all over the Middle East.