Beirut rises from the ruins
By Jim Muir
The outcome of the US presidential election may mean difficult times ahead for parts of the Middle East, particularly for Syria and the pro-Damascus regime in Lebanon. But Lebanon has taken enormous strides to overcome the legacy of the civil strife which broke out in 1975 and devastated Beirut and the rest of the country.
The Serail, or government house, was devastated during the civil war
I arrived in Beirut on a Saturday morning in January 1975, after driving all the way from Wales in my Renault 4. I did not know the place at all, so I headed for the town centre, parked behind a cinema, and went exploring while waiting for a friend to come and collect me. I had landed by chance right beside Martyrs Square, at the heart of Beirut's downtown commercial district.
The souks crowding the narrow side-streets near the square were just throbbing with life. I was bombarded with colours, sounds, and smells as I wandered, dazed, through this jostling, vibrant throng, thrilled by this first taste of the exotic world I was seeking.
I went back to my car, and found I had been given a parking ticket. It must have been among the last issued for a very long time. For three months later, the war broke out.
Round after round of fighting, ceasefire after broken ceasefire, saw the line between the Christian-held areas to the east, and Muslim and Palestinian-controlled West Beirut, pushed slowly back until it stabilised exactly here, on Martyrs Square. The souks were ruined, every building throughout the area gutted, blasted, pockmarked and eroded by years of gunfire. The heart of Beirut was dead. It stayed that way until the early 1990s, when peace of a sort took hold.
My excuse for going back to Beirut now was to attend the wedding of some friends. That in itself says a lot about what has been happening in Lebanon. The bride was an Iranian-American, the groom a Brit, and they wanted to celebrate their union in style, in a place which relatives and friends from around the world could get to easily.
And a very grand affair it was, held in a magnificent Ottoman palace in east Beirut, complete with fireworks, Lebanese musicians, a belly dancer, and sumptuous food and drink. The last time I had seen that same palace, at the end of the 1980s, it was a grim, rather frightening place, almost a Dracula Towers. There were gaping holes and damage from artillery hits; with no electricity, everything was dark and ominous.
It was around that same time, in July 1989, that I was last at a Beirut wedding. There had been heavy shelling between east and west during the night, with many people killed. At the last moment, my friends Joumana and Nabil had to change the venue to a church further away from the front line.
There were only 15 guests. Some of them had to cross the line under sniper fire. And there could be no honeymoon; in fact the happy couple spent their first night with me in attendance, since I was staying with them. Nonetheless, they now have three lovely children, all born after the war. With the peace, they have been able to return to their original family home in Bhamdoun, a hill station on the main highway to Damascus which was trashed in the early '80s.
As I sat on their balcony there now, there was a sudden crackle of what sounded like gunfire. But it was actually a bunch of Kuwaitis, who had rented nearby villas for the summer, letting off fireworks. For Kuwaitis, Saudis and other Arabs have also rediscovered Beirut. The massive project to reconstruct the city centre was a big gamble, but it seems to have paid off, saved by a big influx of rich Arabs.
The whole area around Martyrs Square has been comprehensively reconstructed, with selected buildings tastefully renovated. The place has sprung back to life. But it is a different form of life. The shops have been taken over by the most exclusive and expensive international outlets. Many of the streets where the souks were are now jammed till the early hours of the morning with busy pavement cafes and restaurants. Having seen the redevelopment plan and scale models put together in the early '90s, I could not escape the feeling that this was some sort of computer animation, a Beirut Theme Park.
There are similar transformations all over town. New hotels, restaurants, beach clubs and vast, gleaming shopping malls have sprung up in many places.
Comprehensive reconstruction has given Beirut a new lease of life
But there are some, almost reassuring, reminders of the past: the towering Holiday Inn, the scene of a famous battle in 1975, is still gaunt, empty and battered. So too, nearby is the once luxurious St Georges, favoured watering hole in the '60s of the international press corps, including the spy Kim Philby, who famously defected to Moscow from here.
As I started to rediscover Beirut, I kept asking myself: Could it all happen again? Probably not. But the new, obvious prosperity is only benefiting a small minority; many are left out. Thousands of Palestinian refugees are still trapped in miserable camps. With Syria still deeply embedded here and Israel just next door, the country is still at the mercy of regional struggles.
A lot has changed. But a lot has not.