The suburb around Beirut International Airport was nicknamed ``Hooterville'' by American marines who could not pronounce the Arabic original, Hay al Salloum, during their deployment as part of the multinational force between 1982-84 in camps scattered around the airport. It is likely that the American hostages are being kept in that area or in one of the seven other adjacent Shiite Muslim suburbs and shantytowns in west Beirut.
Hay al Salloum is a microcosm of the Shiite condition in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. It explains much about the ultimate motive behind the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 by Shiite Muslims: a historical sense of persecution at the hands of both the West and other Muslims.
Most of the neighborhood's residents are squatters. Many have constructed their own crude cinder-block and corrugated tin homes -- often more than once because of battles that level entire blocks. Many roads are only rutted dirt tracks, and electricity and phone services are usually luxuries.
Beirut's southern Shiite suburbs originally grew up after the 1975-76 civil war as Shiites fled right-wing Christian gunmen. They expanded further when Israeli troops invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 and the Shiites fled their stronghold in the south, mushrooming again during the 1982-85 Israeli occupation.
In Lebanon, as communal strife heightened, the Shiites -- with the lowest education, incomes, and living standards -- in general suffered more than any of Lebanon's 17 recognized sects. Minority Christians, who dominated power, and Sunni Muslims, theoretically brethren, both discriminated against the Shiites.
But, except for the war damage, Shiite suburbs elsewhere in the Mideast are not too different. Benaid al Qarr is a shabby, dusty suburb of Kuwait City. The buildings, their paint usually peeling, do not suit the image of a nation with the highest per capita income in the world.
Benaid al Qarr is a Shiite suburb in a Sunni-run country, a neighborhood where militants mobilized in 1979 to march on the United States Embassy, which was badly damaged by a Shiite suicide bomber in December 1983.
Shiite areas in Bahrain, oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates tell the same story. Even where they make up the majority of the population, such as in Iraq and Bahrain, the Shiites are usually treated -- and often feared -- as a lower class minority.
However, the persecution complex is not recent. Indeed, it is at the root of the faith. A 13-century-old parable explains why the Shiites believe in martyrdom, or purification through death.
The biggest schism in Islam occurred within 40 years of its founding by the Prophet Muhammad, whose revelations from God are recorded in the Islamic holy book, the Koran. The schism began as a political dispute over leadership of the new Islamic empire.
The group that eventually became the Shiites felt that the line of leadership should descend through the family of the prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali, who eventually became the Caliph, or God's representative on earth. The single strain of Islam formally split after Ali was murdered in AD 661 and a new leader was selected from outside the family. Those who broke with the mainstream Sunni sect became known as the Shiat Ali, or followers of Ali -- today's Shiites.
But it was Hussein, Ali's son, who set the tone for the Shiite faith. Hussein and a small band of followers set out to defend the right of the prophet's family to hold the title of Caliph. To Hussein it was more honorable to die for belief than live with injustice. At the Iraqi town of Karbala, Hussein and his followers were massacred by the Caliph's army. It was a precedent for a tradition that not only survived, but grew in importance with time. Hussein left a legacy of ``the ultimate protest,'' the roots of a movement centered around revolt against tyranny and oppression as a duty to, and in the name of, God.
Today, the world's largest concentration of Shiites is in the Gulf, where they account for nearly 75 percent of the population, mostly in Iran and Iraq. Just over 10 percent of the world's 832 million Muslims are Shiites.
The sense of persecution is fueled by the fact that Shiites have for centuries lived in oil-rich nations. The 8 major Gulf states -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates -- account for 60 percent of the world's known reserves.
The Shiites, who make up the largest work force on the oil fields, feel their areas have not reaped adequate benefits from petrodollars, the majority of which have instead been used to develop other parts of their home countries under Sunni rulers. All the Arab Gulf states have experienced growing threats from Shiite extremists, resulting in part from Shiite resentment over feelings of exploitation and discrimination by the Sunnis.
Shiite hostility toward the West dates back two centuries, to Napoleon's conquest of Egypt, when France became the first Western power to control a Muslim territory. Western colonization further entrenched Sunni rule even in countries where Shiites were the majority. In the wave of independence in the Arab world after World War II, Shiites have been allowed very few positions of power, politically or militarily.
The only major nation to be ruled by Shiites since 1502 is Iran. But as witnessed during the protests of 1979, many Shiites felt Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi had sold Iran's soul to the West, particularly the US. The Shah and US influence were banished from Iran.
Iran's experience since the Islamic revolution there in 1979 has been an inspiration not only for the minority extremists, but also for the general population of Shiites and some Sunnis. Iran has survived the challenges of its 41/2-year war with Iraq, economic sanctions, and political ostracization by most of the world.
Even for the Shiites who disagree with the often ruthless tactics of the theocrats in Iran, the Islamic Republic now serves as an inspiration. Those who have seen themselves as underdogs and victims at the hands of other Muslims and foreign ideologies finally have a base and an advocate -- and, as in the case of the TWA hijackers, an example to follow in challenging a superpower.
The writer is a former Monitor correspondent based in Beirut. Her book on Shiites, called ``Sacred Rage,'' will be published soon.