Druse chief in Lebanon carries burden of authority DATELINE: LEBANON


MOUKHTARA PALACE, Lebanon-- Every weekend, as they have for centuries, the supplicants line up at this castle to make their pleas.

Their requests vary: one needs kerosene for the winter, another asks for help to get a job, two families want an arbitrator for their feud.

They wait hours for a few precious minutes with the man they believe can help: Walid Jumblatt.

Mr. Jumblatt is the head of the most powerful family on the Shouf Mountains, a ripple of craggy peaks southeast of Beirut. It is home to the Druse, a secretive Muslim sect.

There are many terms for Mr. Jumblatt: power broker, fixer, kingmaker, overlord (when there is peace), a warlord (when there is none). He is a man of influence. In Arabic, he is called a "zaim."

He presides over this procession as his family has for more than 300 years. It is a scene of undisguised feudal patronage: princes and paupers, the powerful and the poor, all line up for an audience, dressed in their most respectful clothes and elegant robes.

Yet the man at the center of this attention seems unsuited for the role.

Walid Jumblatt, a thin, 44-year-old is is dressed in a casual red sweater, black jeans, and loafers.

He acquired the style of dress at the American University of Beirut, where he earned a degree in political science. He inherited the role from his father, and his father's father, who sat every weekend to hear the pleas of the people.

On some days there are hundreds waiting, on other days only dozens.

He can help them. His word to an employer will secure a job. His order in Beirut will clear up a problem with the bureaucracy. His family treasury seems mysteriously vast, and he is generous with it.

"He wants only loyalty," says Maysun Tabet, a 25-year-old college student, who works in the Jumblatt museum, filled with priceless antiquities. "It's an old Lebanese way: If a person helps you, you will remember for a long, long time."

But it seems a burdensome transaction for Mr. Jumblatt. He wears the plaintive stories as a weight. He looks exhausted. He rubs his eyes, holds his head, paces about.

"It's frustrating to see all these people. The government ought to take care of them," he says.

But the Jumblatt family is the government here. When the Druse clashed in 1983 and 1985 with the Maronite Christians who also inhabited the Shouf Mountains, Mr. Jumblatt's forces razed more than 80 Christian villages and sent tens of thousands fleeing from their homes.

Now Mr. Jumblatt is in the Lebanese parliament, with a ministerial portfolio that -- ironically -- includes helping these refugees. The government is struggling to assert control over the war-weary country, but Mr. Jumblatt is not optimistic.

He proudly shows the family portraits on the walls of his palace. Here is his grandfather, elegant and fearsome on horseback with a sword, killed in 1921. Here is his father's sister, assassinated in 1976.

And here is his father, Kamal, a poet, philosopher and master of Indian meditation, gunned down on the road to Moukhtara with two bodyguards in 1977. A bullet passed through the passport in his chest pocket, and through a picture of young Walid lounging against a tree.

Syrian agents were said to be the assassins. Young Walid learned the lesson well: 40 days after his father was buried, he went to Damascus to forge an alliance with Syria.

"The Syrians killed him, but it's not important for me," he says. "We have a destiny to be in close relationship with them."

"Destiny" is a word that comes frequently to Walid Jumblatt's lips. But he dismisses speculation about his own destiny, given the family tradition of early and violent demise.

He has two boys, 10 and 11, and a daughter, 3. He expects one of them will sit in Moukhtara Palace to listen to the legions of supplicants when he is gone. Whether that is sooner or later is a HTC matter he waves away as irrelevant.

"We have to be buried somewhere, sometime," he says, pausing to muse over the family portraits.

He adds quietly: "I will have a picture, of course."

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