Meanwhile: An Arab battleground and playground

Meanwhile: An Arab battleground and playground
John Schidlovsky IHT

International Herald Tribune
May 26 2004

BEIRUT and playground

A traveler returning to this city for the first time in 29 years
feels an odd mix of nostalgia and disorientation. Lebanon’s civil
war ended 14 years ago, yet the scars remain highly visible, and the
causes apparently unresolved.

I first came to Beirut in July 1975 as a 27-year-old American
journalist intent on learning Arabic while soaking up the cosmopolitan
city’s sybaritic life-style. A job at the English-language Daily Star
newspaper covered my bills, including rent at a seaside apartment in
the heart of the city’s posh hotel district.

Within a few months, however, the hotel district had become the
site of fierce fighting between Christian Phalangist and leftist
Muslim militias. By the end of 1975, the Daily Star had suspended
publication, the war had spread to many areas of the city and I had
fled for the peace of Cairo. None of us guessed the war would last 15
years, take 100,000 lives and make Beirut a synonym for urban terror.

Now, leading a delegation of 13 U.S. news editors on a fact-finding
trip to Lebanon and Syria, I have returned to Beirut for the first
time. The city has been at peace since 1990 and is rebuilding its
downtown in a huge multi-million-dollar project spearheaded by Prime
Minister Rafiq Hariri. Beirut remains a dazzling city, perched between
the achingly blue Mediterranean and the snow-capped mountains to
the east, and it is tempting to imagine a scenario in which the city
regains its former allure as a dynamic regional center.

But Lebanon is a far different place than it was in 1975. A crushing
$35 billion public debt will hamper the economy for years. Foreign
investment is a shadow of what it used to be. Syria, which keeps
20,000 soldiers in the country, controls the country’s politics. On
a regional level the bloody conflict in Iraq and the deadlocked
Israeli-Palestinian issue provide little reason for optimism.

Between our meetings and appointments, I sneak away to revisit some
old haunts. My first stop is at my old apartment building, a four-story
structure that is still padlocked and pockmarked with the bullet holes
that I remember from 1975. A block away, the huge war-ravaged carcass
of the Holiday Inn casts its eerie shadow over the neighborhood. Both
of these damaged buildings – one tiny and anonymous, the other a
hulking symbol of a nation’s collective madness – may be renovated,
I’m told. If the price is right.

When Beirutis talk about war these days, it is about Iraq, not the
old civil war here. At the packed night clubs in the Monot district
and in the glittering new restaurants in Beirut’s rebuilt downtown,
the questions being debated are whether Lebanon’s experience provides
any lessons relevant to post-war Iraq.

Lebanon’s war ended with the 1990 Taif Agreement allocating political
power to the country’s various religious sects and communities. A ratio
of 50-50 in the country’s Parliament was fixed between Lebanons Muslims
and Christians, with proportions allocated for subgroups: Shiites,
Sunnis, Druze and Alawis, Maronites, Greek Orthodox and Catholics,
Armenian Orthodox and Catholics and others. In Iraq, the political
challenge is finding an appropriate system of sharing power among
rival Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations.

Is Lebanon’s formula a workable model for peaceful coexistence? The
peace has held for 14 years but some thoughtful Lebanese wonder if
the country isn’t more divided than ever. “Sure it could,” said a
filmmaker in his 20s when asked if sectarian violence could erupt
again. “Nothing’s really changed from the civil war.”

Lebanon is a small country and suffers the fate of many small countries
in having its fate determined by external players – in this case,
Syria, Israel, the Palestinians. And of course the United States.

The U.S. Embassy is far out of town on top of a heavily-fortified
citadel, its diplomats rarely venturing out without armed escorts
– a grim reminder of the bombing in 1983 that destroyed the former
embassy site and the subsequent bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks.
At the beautiful campus of the American University of Beirut, the
school’s president, John Waterbury, describes U.S. relations with
the Arab world as the worst he’s seen in 40 years.

But Beirutis are nothing if not resourceful, and some are managing to
cash in on the chill in U.S.-Arab relations. Wealthy Arabs from the
Gulf are staying away from the United States because of the Iraq war
and traveling here instead, and many are investing in expensive real
estate along Beirut’s rebuilt waterfront. A new condominium tower –
built directly in front of my little old apartment building, now cast
into permanent shadow – offers units at more than $2 million per floor.

John Schidlovsky is director of the Washington-based International
Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced
International Studies.