It was with this -- and the situation in Syria in mind -- that I set off on a winter's evening to watch the news with a couple of guys from Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. One of them (we'll call him Hassan) is a midlevel Hezbollah commander from a small village in the south. His best friend, whom we'll call Ali, is a secular Shiite with close family ties to Hezbollah and a history as a civil war-era gunman that gives him a strong dose of respect on the streets of the southern suburbs. Along with my friend who follows the situation in Syria closely and speaks near-native Arabic, we planned a night of watching Lebanese television.
But first Ali and Hassan had to pick me up from my apartment -- less than two miles from where they've spent most of their lives.
We promptly got lost in the warren of one-way streets around my home. As I barked directions in my crude Arabic, everyone in the SUV began laughing at our inauspicious start. The lack of basic geographical knowledge wasn't limited to my comrades. I can safely say that virtually none of my neighbors can find their way around the Hezbollah-controlled areas of Beirut either.
"I've been here before; I know where to go," muttered the taciturn Hezbollah commander. He was quickly embarrassed, as he fancies himself slightly better traveled and open-minded than many of his colleagues. We blasted down yet another one-way street amid pissed-off honks from Christian commuters stuck in Beirut's notorious rush-hour traffic.
I ventured that a civil war between Christians and Shiites might be difficult if neither side can find its way around each other's neighborhoods, and even Hassan let out a small giggle.
"If there's a civil war, I'll be able to drive any way I want on the street," he joked. "But there will never be a civil war between Christians and Hezbollah because our weapons are only for the Israelis and not to be used on the Lebanese."
It was the first of many moments that began candidly and turned into a recitation of the straight party line. Hezbollah members aren't really allowed to socialize with foreigners and don't give interviews to the media. But Hassan and I have known each other for nearly five years, and though he's comfortable in my company, getting him to say anything that isn't more or less the official line of the self-described "Party of God" can feel like an ordeal.
And here's the thing: Hassan isn't lying to me or putting on a show. He completely buys into Hezbollah's worldview. Outsiders tend to marvel at the military and psychological discipline of Hezbollah's fighters, but ideological discipline is much easier if everyone involved profoundly believes the party line is The Truth.
"The captain of the ship doesn't like getting lost," Ali teased his friend.
"I'm not lost," Hassan muttered. "Now how do we get to Hamra?"
At that point we were in downtown Beirut. Hamra, perhaps the city's most famous neighborhood, was less than a mile away. My cheeky suggestion that we follow the signs that said "Hamra" elicited only a scowl. It was yet another example of this fractured country: Its divides are not only religious and political, but imprinted on the geography of the land.