A City Lives On With Its Ill-Fated Charm

BEIRUT, Aug 5 (IPS) – The poster on the corniche near the American University campus in Beirut has become justly well known. It shows a Muslim woman in full black abaya walking next to a slender woman in a bikini. Together, they’re the face of Beirut.

Again this weekend Israeli jets bombed the Muslim areas of Beirut, ‘Hezbollah strongholds’ as Israel sees them. It also bombed a bridge in the Christian area of the city in recent days. But attacks on a Christian area are rare; Beirut is not quite one in getting shattered.

This has been a city with two faces, Christian and Muslim. The distinction between the two has not always been that sharp. Beirut at its most charming merges the two entirely. But it is in that division that Beirut has found its troubles, and also overcome them.

It’s the conflict between Christian and Muslim groups that ripped Beirut apart over years of civil war through the seventies and eighties. It was ignited when a militant group of Christian right-wingers massacred all 27 Palestinian passengers in a bus Apr.. 13, 1975. Reprisal killings followed, setting off a spiral of violence that continued 17 years.

Beirut was before then a city that had merged two faces, even two worlds. The West gave it the title ‘Paris of the Orient’. Its white villas with those red tiled roofs sent well-heeled shoppers to the chic shopping districts downtown. It was a city on holiday.

Beirut drew Westerners who could ski on Mount Lebanon overlooking the city by day, and drive down to a seafood feast on the warmth of its beaches by the crystal blue Mediterranean in the evening. Odd, how this little country of less than four million has managed to include so many contrasts.

Western influence has been strong on a large middle class. Many parents have traditionally sent their children to the West for higher education. Many young Lebanese married abroad, and carry two passports. And in turn their children are often raised both in Lebanon and the West.

Over time, that became more the pattern for the Christian than the Muslim population. And among Muslims, Shias have grown to almost 60 percent of the Lebanese population now. With the growth of Shias came the rise of the Hezbollah to counter the Israeli threats from the south.

Within the country religious groups began to splinter in the early seventies. Sunni and Shia Muslims, displaced Palestinians, Maronite Christians, Druze groups, all began to go their different ways; they often found themselves in the way of others, and others in theirs. The bus massacre only gave this explosive mix the ignition.

Syrian intervention, followed by an Israeli invasion in March 1978 brought yet more killing. It reached a point where several countries including France and the United States had to send in peacekeepers. But they too became targets; in 1983 220 U.S. marines and 21 other servicemen were killed in their barracks in Beirut in a terrorist attack. The peacekeeping forces withdrew.

The civil war claimed 18,000 lives in Beirut alone.

The Taif Accord, signed in Taif in Saudi Arabia Oct. 22, 1989, reduced some of the disproportionately high power that Maronite Christians held, and provided for a Cabinet divided equally between Christians and Muslims. But that arrangement still did not make room enough for the growing power of the Shias. At the same time the government could do little to counter Israeli threats.

The Hezbollah that rose in the eighties proceeded to become a militant power stronger than the Lebanese military. The Hezbollah were the ones preparing to take on Israel.

But even so, after a couple of years of the signing of the Taif agreement, peace had become fairly stable. Trade picked up, and tourism began to flourish as it had in the Beirut of the years between World War II and the early seventies. Israel continued to occupy portions of southern Lebanon, but the people of Beirut began to wipe off the dust, and began to rebuild.

That was until the new destruction began last month, that has made about a quarter of the population refugees in their own country. The Shatila camp too has become a refugee camp again. This is where Israel-backed Christian militiamen killed close to a thousand Palestinian refugees in 1982.

Once again Lebanon has fallen just as it had begun to rise again. Before this round of Israeli bombing of Beirut began Jul. 12, you could pass a shelled building, with its walls pockmarked by shrapnel and bullets from the civil war days, standing next to a gleaming shopping centre with workers polishing the glass for the perfect shine. The new bombing is providing more such contrasts. You can still pass villas and fashionable restaurants, not far from the born again Shatila refugee camp.

Old Mercedes taxis, many more than 30 years old, belch out black smoke as they get overtaken by new Mercedes cars driven by chic young Lebanese on the roads that are still motorable. That contrast Beirut has lived with. The new one between the destruction of southern Beirut and the rebuilt smartness of central and Christian Beirut will be a lot harder to bridge.

Beirut still boasts some of the finest restaurants around the Mediterranean. And it has exported its traditional salads, rice and lamb dishes and its kebabs and hummus around the world. But it lives with 20 percent unemployment. The old civil war drove capital away from the city; the new one is likely to drive back much that had come in after the Taif agreement.

It’s the Shia population shattered most. Through these days of destruction, Hamra, a ten-minute drive from the southern districts where most of the Shia population live, presents a face of life as usual. Joggers are doing their rounds at the coast as usual, shops remain open, the streets are clogged with traffic. Israel has chosen with some care the face of Lebanon that it has picked to bomb.

Hamra remains pleasant, but under the cloud of war. The waves of tourists have been replaced by a trickle of journalists. Electricity supply is sporadic, queues for petrol are lengthening. Beirut – and Hamra too – are on a precipice. The way down from the cliffs this time may not end with seafood on the Mediterranean coast.