DATELINE: LEBANON

A new Beirut enjoys its borrowed time

March 21 1983
DATELINE: LEBANON

A new Beirut enjoys its borrowed time

March 21 1983

A new Beirut enjoys its borrowed time

DATELINE: LEBANON

The smiling face of Lebanon's President Amin Gemayel,

painted on giant murals, pasted on walls and taped on windows, looks down reassuringly from hundreds of buildings in East and West Beirut. The portraits survey a scene that is stunningly different from one that existed only six months ago, when Beirut was deserted shell, ravaged by war and terrorism. Now the Lebanese capital is city that breathes life again. Beirutis who have not ventured out for an evening since the 1975-76 civil war are crowding into fancy discotheques and paying $25 for a bottle of scotch that they could buy elsewhere for $5. Restaurants are turning away more people each evening than they used to see in week. Traffic police are handing out tickets without fear of being shot. On Hamra, West Beirut’s main shopping street, the current film attraction is E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and the store windows display the latest in French fashions. Beirut’s ravaged Martyrs’ Square, for years a no man’s land of sniping and killing, is now accessible, although there are signs in some alleyways that warn about hidden land mines.

But for all of the relative serenity, there remains a darker side to the new Beirut. In the past two months the city has been hit by a new wave of turbulence. In February a car bomb rocked the centre of West Beirut, killing more than 20 people, Renewed fighting in the mountains east of the capital led Beirutis to fear that the violence might once again spread to their city. Bemoaned Mona Tabet, a 24-year-old Lebanese journalist: “Beirut might be safer, cleaner, brighter now, but how can I enjoy it?”

Still, their apprehensions aside, Beirutis are enjoying a city more secure than it has been in years. Since last August, when the Israelis stopped shelling Beirut, thousands of Beirutis have returned, many for the first time since the civil war, to swell the city’s population of about 1.2 million people (since the last census was taken in 1932, there are no official counts). The mood of investors is buoyant—most well-to-do Beirutis and many outsiders are investing heavily in the war-ravaged city. A Saudi consortium has bought the unfinished, badly damaged Hilton hotel for $30 million. A Gulf potentate has taken over the bullet-scarred wreck of the once elegant Phoenicia Hotel for $44 million. Beirut has not looked better since the days before the civil war, before wide swaths of the city were devastated and divided into two snarling halves—the eastern half run by the Phalangist-led Lebanese forces and the western half controlled by the Palestinians and their Moslem allies.

Beirut’s new liveliness contrasts sharply with the city of last summer. Then, the streets of West Beirut were deserted after dark. Nightclubs were shuttered, abandoned to the rats that feasted on the mounds of garbage lining the streets. Girls wore shirts over their dresses to avoid the unwelcome attention of militiamen. Kidnapping, murder and rape were too commonplace to rate more than a line or two in the newspapers. All too often, traffic disputes led to pitched battles that raged for hours. When Beirut’s “Vegetable King” (the head of the vegetable sellers’ union) was shot to death by a speeding motorist, rival militiamen supporting the two antagonists fought an artillery battle that lasted for nine hours, and nearly a dozen people were killed.

After the Israeli invasion in June, with the hard core of West Beirut’s fighting force evacuated, the Christianofficered Lebanese army entered the Moslem sector and disarmed the orphaned militias. Gemayel, 40, elected president last September to replace his assassinated brother, Bashir, pledged to restore national unity. In their desperation, people believed in him, and the reconstruction of West Beirut began. Armies of small boys, brooms in hand, swept the streets. When they had disposed of the garbage, they began cleaning up the dust. Lebanese businessman Rafik Hariri donated more than $7 million, 300 trucks and the labor of 700 workmen to the clean-up operation. The once elegant seafront, a ribbon of wreckage after three months of pounding by Israeli gunboats, was replanted with palm trees. Lucky Luke’s, a stylish nightclub, once again hired hostesses and opened its doors for the first time since the civil war. Repair crews moved into the battered hospitals, and reconstruction began on schools and roads.

The spirit of Beirut, broken for so long, soared. Beirutis even made light of the Israeli invasion. T-shirts carried slogans like i’M SUFFERING FROM POSTINVASION REMORSE. Exulted Raja Hakim, a 36-year-old economist: “It has become a great city. The Beirutis, who previously were interested in only one thing—money—have acquired a certain amount of civic pride. Beirut has come back, and they are madly in love with it.”

Despite the infusion of life and money, the new Beirut still has problems. It is now impossible to eat in the best restaurants without making reserva-

tions—and it is often impossible to do that because the telephones do not work. Waiters, overcome by the volume of restaurant patrons, have suddenly developed a tendency to snap. And prices are skyrocketing. Since many apartment buildings were destroyed, rents have doubled or even tripled. The monthly rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment rose to $1,660 from $730. The price of a tiny cup of Lebanese coffee has doubled to 50 cents.

As enjoyable as the new Beirut is for many people, for others the change has brought misery. It became clear that the rebuilding of the city was being carried out selectively, favoring the business community over the poor and the homeless victims of war. The government, in its eagerness to turn the clock back, with one day’s notice bulldozed hundreds of illegal dwellings in the slum district of Ouzai, adding thousands of people to the already long list of homeless. Asked Ali Babri, a 32-yearold laborer who fled to Beirut from the countryside in 1978 after Israel invaded South Lebanon: “Where do we go? Twenty-four hours is not enough to find a house. They can have their land. All we need is time to find a house. I think I will go to the sea and push my children into the water. It will be better for them.”

In the sprawling, depressed refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, 25,000 Palestinians struggled to rebuild their lives despite the departure of many breadwinners. Although memories of the September massacre by Phalangists of more than 700 of their friends and relatives were still vivid, the survivors valiantly endured the winter rains that turned their streets into rivers of mud

and their homes into puddles. Proclaimed painted signs at the entrance to Sabra Camp: POOR, BUT HONORABLE.

Indeed, living conditions for the most unfortunate Beirutis are far from favorable. But there is an air of hopefulness, an anticipation of better times to come. Still, the mood is transitory at best. The first dampening of optimism took place in January when Druze militiamen fighting Christians in the mountains east of the capital shelled East Beirut, raising fears that the sectarian violence of the mountains would once again engulf the city. With the Lebanese government fiercely resisting Israel’s demands for a peace treaty and Israel vowing not to leave without such an achievement, the capital seems to be slipping back into its old pattern of violence—bombings, shootings and murders.

In early February a massive car bomb exploded in the heart of West Beirut outside the Palestine Research Centre, virtually all that was left of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut. The explosion profoundly shocked West Beirutis, who, pacified by the Lebanese army and policed by the multinational peacekeepers, had hoped that they might once again become the Paris of the Middle East. The blast left more than 20 people dead and more than 100 wounded. Scores of apartments were heavily damaged. Abu Farid, whose grocery store is located across from the research centre, had his tiny shop reduced to ruins for the third time in six months. “At least £25,000 [Lebanese equivalent of $6,000] in damage,” he lamented, his neck cut by flying metal and his merchandise destroyed. “We thought it would be all right with the Palestinians gone. But nothing ever changes. Nothing. Ever.”

As a result, people are somewhat more reluctant to go out as freely as before. “The word on the street is that there will be another big round in Beirut if the fighting in the mountains is not contained,” explains Saleh Dik, a West Beirut shopkeeper, gesturing to half-empty shelves. Fewer merchants are importing merchandise in recent weeks. Although it is quiet now, there is increasingly a feeling that the peace will not last and that the next round, if it comes, may never end. Suggests Youssef Atiyeh, a 42-year-old businessman who experienced the golden years before the civil-war slide into wretchedness: “There is a certain similarity with the months before 1975. I am not too optimistic. This peace may prove to be a mirage.”

The guns may be off the streets, but many are still in militia hands. “Let us not fool ourselves,” says a United Nations official based in Lebanon. “We cannot see them, but they are there. The army found the stockpiles in the basements but it did not find the Kalashnikovs [rifles] under the beds.” Although the 24,000-man Lebanese army, supported by the 4,500-member multinational peacekeeping force, is fanned out across the capital, there is considerable skepticism about its competence. Says one Western diplomat scornfully: “All 24,000 together could not pull the skin off a milk pudding in a year. Eighteen months? Maybe. Maybe not.”

Clearly, there is an acknowledgment, even among the most hopeful, that the civility of the past few months could disappear again. Many Beirutis are convinced that Israel will never pull out, that Lebanon will never be fully restored. Says Riad Hajjaj, a 24-year-old student: “We Lebanese think that we are so clever, the cleverest in the Arab world. But we are so stupid. We never learn.” Still, the process has clearly begun.