Beirut: It Takes a Long Time to Undo Destruction

BEIRUT – This is a city marked by a civil war and molded by divisions that still run deep within the country and through the fabric of society. With typical Lebanese gusto, much has been done over the past 15 years to repair the physical damage, but much more has been done to gloss over the problems that gave rise to the conflict in the first place.

The Lebanese love their image as freewheeling traders with a penchant for the good life, and capital Beirut is their showcase.

Bustling modern shopping malls have arisen where bullets used to fly. Exclusive designer stores, not sandbagged and burnt-out apartment buildings, now dominate the center of town. And good food, more than anything else, has once again become associated with the city in the minds of people who know it, rather than kidnappings or bombings.

Some 1.4 million people live in the city and its immediate surroundings. When the outlying areas are also included, the conglomeration counts more than 2 million of Lebanon’s population of a little more than 4 million.

Much of the Beirut renaissance is associated with former prime minister and billionaire Rafik Hariri. He died on the edge of the rebuilt downtown area, where his Solidère development company rules supreme. Ironically, he was blown up on Valentine’s Day this year right in front of the one property that he could never get his hands on: the chic prewar waterfront St. George hotel.

Hariri and Solidère dominated postwar Beirut to a huge degree. He was able to achieve what surely nobody else could have: he built a spanking new airport, cut huge swathes to make way for highways through shantytowns that had sprung up during the war, and he gave the town back its center.

But the downtown project also had many critics from the start.. The main objection was that while the old buildings were renovated luxuriously, the soul of the place was lost and its original inhabitants were unable to return. Rents for office space and shops were initially so high that few could afford them, and in the late 1990s the downtown looked and felt like an open-air museum.

Michael Stanton, chairman of the department of architecture at the American University in Beirut, agrees that the original concept was mistaken, but he is optimistic that the company is learning. "The potential is huge and it seems that they have evolved their plan for the area," he said.

The university is one of the main features of the city, its campus taking up prime real estate on the sea-front corniche in West Beirut. It is also part of the social and cultural fabric of the city, apart from forming the only substantial green area in the central part of town.

In the 1990s, several localities came up on both sides of the "green line" that divided Christians and Muslims during the civil war. These still attract a lot of business, shops, and nightlife away from the increasingly busy downtown area.

Both sides of the city now have several shopping and entertainment districts, and people cross the fading green line easily. But it is still there. The closer one gets to it, the higher the bullet-hole count in the walls of the yet-to-be-renovated buildings.

The divisions of the town from the civil war period, though not absolute, still largely hold. Christians may shop in West Beirut, especially in the upmarket Verdun area, but few have moved there. Muslims enjoy the nightlife around Monot street in the Christian Ashrafiyeh area, but they are hardly moving in.

The divisions are even more apparent further south and north along the cost. The Shi’ite neighborhood of south Beirut enjoys a virtually autonomous status, with the Hezbollah movement effectively replacing the authority of the central government. Here, Hezbollah cohorts march over U.S. and Israeli flags on special occasions.

The north too, toward the port city of Jounieh, has its own character. There the Christian Lebanese forces and the Phalange (a Lebanese Christian paramilitary group) still dominate.

Despite appearances, Beirut, like Lebanon as a whole, is still very much divided. And some of Lebanon’s civil war era heritage also lingers on in Beirut, even as the presence of Syrian soldiers bunking in half-finished buildings in the center of town has over the last few years become a thing of the past. Now even the former headquarters of the Syrian secret service in an apartment complex in West Beirut stands deserted.

But other problems that have been around for 15 years since the end of the war are more of Lebanon’s own making and are harder to get rid of. They affect all basic services.

Most Beirut buildings are hooked up to electricity generators because power cuts are frequent and last more than an hour. This is better than the rest of the country, which is sometimes blacked out for hours. The rates are high, and bills are often not paid.

Granted, the power stations were bombed by the Israelis in 1999, but they were rebuilt quickly, with financial aid from Saddam Hussein.

Water is another problem. During the summer it may arrive less than every other day, and the pressure is often not enough to take it to the top of large buildings.

The telephones work these days, and the network is operated by a Hariri company. But the rates, especially for international calls, are so outrageous that they may well price Beirut out of the international business market.

High-speed Internet is available only over dedicated lines and not over the regular phone line, and it operates imperfectly. There is some suspicion that security services monitor Internet traffic.

Cable television is another highly unregulated and chaotic area. Take all the power, phone, Internet, and television cables that link most buildings, and parts of the city look like they are held together by wire.

Add to that the pollution, the terrible traffic, and the recent upsurge in violence, and it almost becomes hard to figure why so many people remain so attracted to the place.

But mountains surround the city, and ski resorts are just an hour away from the slightly grubby Mediterranean coast. Food, music, shopping, and a dynamic population make it still some of the best the Middle East has to offer.

It is one of the region’s most liberal places, and has more freedom of expression and something akin to democracy than any other Arab country. Lebanon feels sometimes like an endangered enclave in the region, with Beirut its cosmopolitan heart.