Dateline: Beirut

Where life is still under the gun

Sean Toolan November 17 1980
Dateline: Beirut

Where life is still under the gun

Sean Toolan November 17 1980

Where life is still under the gun

Dateline: Beirut

Sean Toolan

Beirut. . . how does it possibly survive? The question is asked constantly by visitors to the war-battered capital of Lebanon, if only because you can’t walk 10 yards without bumping into a gun-toting youth. Guns are everywhere: in the hands of civilians, of hundreds of political militia, of groups vying for control of the streets, of Lebanese security forces, of the Syrian army, and of the shopkeeper who simply wants to protect his property.

But survive Beirut does, and in a spectacular way. The city has become a huge seven-square-mile marketplace, a giant bazaar of 1.5 million souls where, if you don’t like the price of a pair of shoes or a TV set, you walk to another stall and somewhere along the way the price will drop. The people have not only learned to live with war and the threat of war; many have become rich, and many more are making a good living and have shrugged away the sounds of nightly gunfire and explosions.

The Lebanese have always been known as talented traders. In the past the people became, professionally, whatever they had to become to survive. Now they are a city of very small shopkeepers. People do not talk readily

Guns are everywhere on the streets of Beirut; the ugly marks of war (right): through it all the banks are booming

about anything but the price of things. They especially don’t talk politics or war; perhaps occasionally about someone else’s war, but very rarely about their own. There are just too many people with guns, too many groups resembling gangsters, too many people with a grudge and a willingness to shoot first. A married Lebanese couple agrees to talk to Maclean ’s, but only with the promise that no names would be mentioned. For one thing, the man is Moslem and the woman Christian. “Lebanon is full of strangers,” says the man.“They have all come here to escape, but they all carry guns, and as long as they are here the war will never end.” He has a small business and his wife is a secretary. They seem to have a comfortable life. They pay about $2,300 for a small one-bedroom apartment. They have a car and there is always food on the table. Cigarettes are cheap, as is scotch whisky (sometimes a third less than in North America), and gas is about the same as in the U.S. Clothes can be bought from very expensive French boutiques or from roadside stalls, depending on your income.

The woman is particularly incensed by Beirut’s security situation. “What security?” she asks. “There is no security here. We do not leave the house at night. Nothing may happen to you, but why take chances? There is a joke here in Beirut that when you hear the guns firing you say ‘Somebody in China had a baby.’ They shoot the guns here for things that happen in other countries. There is a group here that supports Nasser [the late Egyptian leader]. They don’t have the group in Egypt. But they have it here in Beirut.”

She has a point about the security, or lack of it. The streets of Beirut empty come dark; only visitors in taxis wander about, usually looking for a restaurant or caught late on business. No one can stop the gunmen. Weapons are easy to buy, and anyone claiming to belong to a political group can simply walk into stores and demand money. A Lebanese leftist leader last week likened West Beirut, predominantly Moslem, to “Chicago in the years when the Mafia gangs ruled the streets.”

The couple talk about trying to purchase an apartment in West Beirut. “When we tried to buy one,” says the woman, “we were told £150,000 Lebanese [a little less than $50,000]. Three years later it is nearly double that. If

you arrange to buy an apartment, you must pay the money immediately, even though the apartment will not be ready for a year. If you wait until it is ready, the price will have increased by £L100,000.”

Rents are the major expense in Lebanon. They are prohibitive for a young married couple, which means they end up living with their parents. For a Moslem married to a Christian, that is not possible. So the hunt for a reasonable place goes on. Asked about price controls, the woman admits: “There is no control over anything. The government says they will do something, but they

can do nothing. They cannot tell the Palestinians or the Syrians to stop carrying guns. They cannot tell the Moslems or the Christians to live and work with each other.” Her husband picks up the lament. “It is not the Moslem or the Christian. It is the people who came to live here. They destroyed Lebanon because they love it. They see that Lebanon is a good place to do business, to live, so they killed it in the hope that the businessmen would go to other places to spend money.”

If indeed there was any such motive, the warring factions could not have been more wrong. Lebanese banks are booming. Dr. Asaad Sawaya, president of the Association of Banks in Lebanon, said the balance sheets of Lebanese banks have increased 200 per cent in the past four years, increasing from £L2.4 billion to just over £L20 billion. The number of banks has increased from 55 to 86 since the beginning of the civil wars in 1975, and the hundreds of thou-

sands of Lebanese who fled the country during the civil wars are sending millions of pounds back to the country from the Gulf states.

Since the Iraq-Iran war started, nearly $11.5 million has poured into Lebanese banks every day, either from displaced Lebanese or disgruntled Arab businessmen who see Lebanon, despite its security problem, as a stable financial centre. A Western economist points out: “Even during the wars the banking centres are not touched by the battling factions. It’s as if a sixth sense tells them, ‘Hands off the money.’ ” Reports that the Palestinian Liberation Organi-

zation is also banking its millions here tend to lend a certain sense of security to depositors.

But it is all very big money, very little of which makes its way to the man in the street. It is reportedly very difficult to get a small business improvement loan, and for months the garbage collectors have been on strike because they want new equipment and more money. West Beirut, as a result, has turned into a stinking rubbish dump. The garbage is piled in small mountains on streets that house elite designer stores selling clothes for as much as $1,000 a dress.

Still, it doesn’t deter the Lebanese from going about their business of buying and selling anything they lay their hands on. Smuggling is another Lebanese industry. You don’t need a licence to set up shop, and there are enough illegal ports around the country to keep the new shopkeepers supplied. The married couple laughs away the idea of shopping for bargains. “It takes too much time. It’s time wasted.” They do not explain what they do with the time they save.