Beirut sets about rebuilding the good life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The Beautiful People are back at the St. Georges Yacht Club, bikinied by the pool and Izoded on the tennis courts.

They shift effortlessly from French to Arabic to English; urbane chatter all the more incongruous for its setting.

The yacht club sits amid hulking concrete skeletons of battle, the pocked and burned cityscape of the suicidal civil war of Lebanon.

But then, this is Beirut. Its red-painted nails never were totally obscured by the grime of war.

Lebanon's capital city is being reborn after the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, including the Israeli invasion of 1982.

Beirut today is a work zone of jackhammers and bulldozers and construction cranes. This is a city changing shape. The contest now is between construction and destruction: Are the old buildings coming down fast enough for the new ones going up?

The ambitious rebuilding plan pushed by Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri is billed as the largest such public project anywhere in this decade.

It will redevelop a 400-acre swath of central downtown largely destroyed by the fighting.

Buildings grotesquely dismembered in battle still fill the core of the city. Many are stunning monuments to arms manufacture, their thick cement walls pocked with thousands of bullets and shells, as though rotted by a cancer.

But new granite bank complexes and balconied apartment high-rises are beginning to replace the shattered shells.

To an occasional visitor, this blossoming is a curiously mixed emergence. Here there is a heady rush to reclaim the good life. The swank boutiques have multiplied. Jazz rocks in the Blue Note Cafe. Sleek sports cars and cellular phones are de rigueur.

But here, too, there is the sordid slag of war. The squatters huddled over makeshift stoves inside destroyed buildings. The lean and hungry men from the countryside roaming city streets in search of work. The plunging darkness of the city when the power goes off.

Once extravagant

Beirut always reveled in wicked contrasts. It was a bit of Europe in the Middle East. It was falafel and French food, Arab robes and Guccis. Tired of the Christians? Cross town to the Muslims. Tired of them both? Climb the mountain to the Druze. Tired of the mountains? Go down to the sea.

Even in war, Beirutis defied economic logic by buying extravagant luxuries. Maybe they had no electricity, but they had baubles and silk.

Eighty percent of the economy was wrecked in the war. Now, more than 380 contracts have been awarded to companies to rebuild. They are starting to demolish hundreds of broken

buildings, rehabilitate 1,200 schools, rebuild the electric system, the water supply, the sewage and waste disposal, fix the roads.

Martyrs' Square, the core of downtown, is now just heaps of concrete as ruined buildings succumb to explosives, or wrecking balls, or a good yank by a bulldozer. Metal scavengers swarm over the piles be fore the dump trucks haul the rubble away.

Gone already are the old detectives' building, the prostitutes' block, the gold market and the sturdy Rivoli Theatre, which withstood three punches of dynamite before it crumbled.

Grumblers and visionaries

Already Beirut residents have forgotten how bad it looked. "Look how terrible this is," complained Abed Takoush, a taxi driver surveying the demolition.

"Who is this Hariri to tear down the beautiful old buildings?"

Grumbling about the redevelopment is the new city sport. Lebanese believe if there is so much business going on, somebody must be getting paid off. It seems beyond their imagination that any program -- especially a government one -- might be honest.

Their suspicions gather easily about the millionaire prime

minister. Mr. Hariri is a contractor who has invested $125 million of his own money in the redevelopment project. Of course, the Lebanese Parliament chose him in November 1992 for just that )) reason, hoping he would bring his money and background to save Beirut.

The project managers weather this grumbling with the enthusiasm of visionaries. They see a city planner's dream: a chance to rebuild downtown, to cure old urban ills from haphazard growth, and to reclaim Beirut's importance just as it seems peace will bring an economic boom to the Middle East.

"We can tailor the needs of the city to a new reality," said Ramez Maluf, an official of Solidere.

'Everybody is painting'

The recovery is uneven, Mr. Maluf acknowledges: "You ask people in the paint industry, and they are going crazy. They can't meet all the orders, because everybody is painting.

"But other industries aren't doing so well." he said. "You meet a couple guys every day who are miserable, and a couple guys who are feeling great."

Mohammed Mustafa Hamiya lives across the road from Martyrs' Square, but he does not share in the boom from all the activity going on there.

He watches another damaged building brought down with a tremendous clap of explosives. Acrid smoke wafts into the first-floor flat in which he squats with his family.

This flat was riddled by shells in the war, and its owners have not reappeared.

Mr. Hamiya and his family of nine now stay in two rooms on the ground floor. He came here a few years ago from rural Baalbek, because there are no jobs there.

Now, a driver for a soap company, he earns $125 a month; this in a city where nothing is cheap.

"It's not enough," he says dryly. He scrapes by only because he pays no rent to live in the abandoned building. His water and electricity are pirated through jury-rigged lines to the city utilities. He could be evicted tomorrow, he knows.

"I don't know where I would go," he says.

Others who fled Lebanon during the war are returning.

"I came back because it's a lot more exciting here," said Eyad Kayali. The hotel manager parlayed his skills and fluency in five languages into getting Canadian residency, but then returned to Beirut.

To those here, the clatter of construction is an encouraging sign. It is also a call to patience, as there are few other indications of improvement. The electricity still cuts off six hours of every 12. The water comes only every third day. Prices are going up.

When the power quits, back street Beirut still can be spooky. Depthless shadows whisper old memories of danger.

Only a few lone souls emerge in the dark, sliding past in urgent, mysterious missions.

But on al-Hamra street, the main shopping avenue in West Beirut, generators blink on to showcase a harvest of new neon signs. Bright-lit storefronts advertise everything from Walls Ice Cream to Paris lingerie to Nike sneakers and Head tennis rackets.

The blackened Hotel Commodore, residence of journalists who covered the civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, is ever so slowly being rebuilt. An architect's sign out front shows a glamorous high-rise in the making.

For now, its concrete shell still is a barracks for Syrian troops. If you stand looking at the architect's sign too long, a soldier with a machine gun asks your business.

Syria's control here is clear from the soldiers, the obligatory posters of Syrian President Hafez el Assad, and the ever-present Syrian secret police. The secret police seem always to wear floral shirts. They have hard, intense eyes set in slim faces. If their interest is piqued, they slide toward you and begin to ask questions. There is no explanation, no identification. They simply expect to be obeyed.

Traffic police in real uniforms have been on the streets for two years.

Grudgingly, now, cars usually stop for them.

Every traffic light in the city disappeared in the civil war. The government is putting up new ones, so far blinking only yellow.

No one predicts what will happen when they start to flash red. The unruly Beirut drivers are reluctant to give up the abandon they learned in the war.

Driving is much more fun when there are no rules. They still approach intersections with fatalistic glee -- at high speed with horn sounding.

Some tolerance

But now there seems to be some social toleration, too. On Hamra street in Muslim West Beirut, there are pool halls and pubs.

The cinemas are showing slightly naughty movies. Their huge banners feature Kim Basinger in a slip and Catherine Oxenberg in a garter and stockings.

Even in religious Shiite Muslim south Beirut, a long-legged woman in a miniskirt walked under the scowling portraits of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini recently. A sign -- perhaps -- of new harmony in a land wracked by divisions, she strolled unchallenged through the Muslim neighborhood.

Unchallenged, though certainly not unnoticed.

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