In 15 years of fratricidal civil conflict, the mixed community of Ain Mreisse toughed it out, sharing food and danger, surviving. That was war, the neighbors say--but is this peace?
Lebanese resilience was fabled during the fighting in Beirut. Foreign armies and ethnic militias brought the city to its knees time and again, but the noncombatants hung on, long after commerce became impossible, schools closed and utilities were gone.
It would all end some day, the optimists said, and then Beirut would be back in business. Lebanon, the Arab world’s window to the West, would shine again, and Ain Mreisse would once more be its brightest light.
That day came a year ago when Syrian-backed Muslim forces crushed the rebellion of Christian Gen. Michel Aoun. But 12 months of relative peace in Beirut have not brought the good days back to Ain Mreisse. There is still the occasional terrorist blast, like a recent car bombing that devastated two buildings at the nearby American University of Beirut, killing one man and wounding several others. And residents of what once was the Lebanese capital’s most favored quarter say the relative quiet has not brought the economic revival that they see as the real, tangible opposite of war.
“Why don’t the Americans come back and invest? Why don’t they send aid?” asked Anwar Meho, who owns a children’s clothing store. When a friend answered by ticking off the names of Western hostages, including four Americans, still held by Islamic militants here, Meho’s face clouded with frustration.
Norah Katul, executive director of the YWCA, which kept its vocational programs dormitory facilities going in Ain Mreisse during the height of the conflict, seemed equally baffled by the turn of events. “We have a lot to our credit. People around here know our worth,” she said, puzzled at the decision of international donors to cut off aid to the YWCA now that the fighting is over.
Nor is all the blame assessed overseas. The Ministry of Education says it has no money to upgrade the Ain Mreisse school, which was built for 200 students and now has 250 in the morning session, 200 in the afternoon and has had to turn away another 500. Principal Zeinad Kasti says the ministry does not even answer her requests for desks and other materials.
There is an attitude in Ain Mreisse that the sacrifices made in war are not being rewarded in peace. The people are impatient. They did not anticipate the long road back. Nor did they imagine that other Arabs would be competing for help, that the Persian Gulf conflict would erupt from nowhere to overshadow Lebanon’s civil war.
Ahmed Tihailey, who owns a stationery store, said the people of the quarter had counted on rich Arabs of the Persian Gulf region to help rebuild Beirut when the war here ended. “When we were ready to be helped,” he said, the Gulf states had problems of their own and Lebanon was a low priority. “Psychologically, the country felt let down,” he noted.
Before the war, the quarter, which stretches from the port of Beirut west along the city’s coastline to the old unused lighthouse as the coast turns south, was the pride of the city. Its Muslim-dominated population was relaxed by Middle East standards, in part because of the presence there of the American, French and British embassies along the seacoast and the prestigious American University of Beirut, where well-to-do Arab families sent their children for a worldly education on Arab soil.
“Before the war there were the rich and the very rich” living in Ain Mreisse, Tihailey recalled. “Now there are the very rich and the very poor.”
Unlike other areas of Beirut where Arabic street names tangle the Western tongue, signs in the quarter identify John Kennedy and Henry Ford streets. The comfortable embassy grounds and campuses, noted for their open spaces and greenery, set Ain Mreisse off from the crowded apartment neighborhoods set back from the Mediterranean waters.
From the lighthouse district in the west to the five-star hotels in the neighboring Minet al Hosn district to the east, the quarter was a model of social cohesion, with representatives of almost all of Lebanon’s 17 religious sects living together in the atmosphere of a village. The war tested the bonds between the various groups and, in the end, strengthened them.
For much of the war the dominant militia in Ain Mreisse was a Druze outfit. To the east of its turf stood the ravaged hotels of Minet al Hosn--the Holiday Inn, the Phoenicia and the St. Georges--which had become the symbols of the conflict, blackened, rocket-battered hulks of concrete housing teen-age snipers.
The Druze, entrusted with the security of the quarter, typically for Ain Mreisse figured that meant safety for all its inhabitants, including Christians. “We know they were afraid” of their situation, said Salah Diik, who was head of the militia. So his men established a bakery on a street that was generally free from sniper fire and made sure his Christian neighbors got their loaves of bread first.
Then there was a grocer who, at his own expense, built some steps that gave passers-by quick passage to safety when the snipers were active. Grateful pedestrians dubbed them the “stairs of peace.”
From the start of the fighting, there were similar examples of a quarter of vastly different peoples working together to preserve and share what they had:
* A local committee was formed to send cars mounted with loudspeakers around the quarter on days when school authorities thought it was safe to hold classes. They would call in the students.
* Jean-Marie Cook, an American teaching at AUB, broke down the suspicions of a Sunni Muslim neighbor by fetching cooking gas for him from the Christian east side of the capital. Similarly, Lydia Nassar, an elderly Christian woman living on the west side, recalls her Muslim neighbors giving her food when it was too dangerous to go in search of an open market.
Now that the fighting is over, the spirit of cooperation that saw the people of Ain Mreisse through the conflict is waning, a victim of disappointments and personal despair. Even the atmosphere of tolerance among sectarian groups is fading. “The Lebanese forgets too fast,” Tihailey commented.
The social bonds of Ain Mreisse’s people, for instance, do not extend to poor Shiite Muslim squatters who found shelter in the district during the fighting. “They are dirty,” a Sunni woman complained. “Watch them throw their garbage out the windows. We talk to them, but they don’t care.”
There are other signs that the survivors of the numbing years of conflict may now expect too much, or have different priorities. A man named Hashem complained about the citywide renewal project for streets and sidewalks, which became barely recognizable as thoroughfares during the war, blocked by heaps of garbage, wrecked cars and shattered storefronts.
“Before they fix the streets to show them off to foreigners, they should fix up the people with hospitals and schools.” Others, too, seem puzzled by this priority.
There’s conflict in peace, in Ain Mreisse as anywhere else. Here, for instance, the prospect of better times has set off a real estate boom. Even before the war the quarter saw price pressure on the charming, 19th-Century Ottoman villas that line its streets. Now, preservationists expect the worst, with prices soaring for the lots, with or without structures. One family claims that it was paid $100,000 to give up its rented cafe when the building that housed it was sold.
Sami Zeeny owns about 11,000 square feet of corniche property. He says that, in the last three months, numerous speculators have stopped to inquire about his land.
Will he sell? “Sure,” he says, “at $10,000 a square draa "--the equivalent of about seven square feet.
But Ain Mreisse remains blessed with 400 yards of beach, for the water-loving Beirutis an incredible pleasure compared, say, to the overcrowded tenements of the Fakhani district, where the Palestinians once lived. And even more important than the stretch of sand is the cultural mix. Ain Mreisse was not, and is still not, what journalists stereotyped as “the Muslim west and Christian east” sides of Beirut.
It was and is a unique quarter of an extraordinary city, which may be why its people expected more from peace than they will get.