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Reborn Beirut Coming Back From Brink

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Until a few months ago, crossing between East and West Beirut near the waterfront at night meant threading through a labyrinth of empty streets and past ghostly buildings, the abandoned silhouettes of destruction that served as reminders of civil war.

That quintessential Beirut experience is no more.

Now traffic flies along recently built overpasses and through newly opened tunnels. And from the bridge at Fouad Chehab Avenue, one looks down on a shining cube of light--the new, 18-story regional headquarters of the United Nations, the first building to be opened in Beirut’s central district since the 1975-90 conflict.

Journalist Tewfik Mishlawi said it gives him a boost whenever he sees the lights from the U.N. building burning brightly, a harbinger of renewed life after so many years of darkness in the old heart of the city. The new highways are welcome too, helping to knit together the war-sundered sectarian communities of Beirut.

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“This will have a very big psychological effect,” he said. “This has removed the barrier between Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut.”

An Emblematic Capital

Beirut has always been an emblematic city. For years, it was known as the crossroads of the Middle East, a paradise where East met West, where the jet set played, where spies spied and bank accounts were kept even more secret than in Switzerland.

Then, during the civil war, it was the heart of darkness, a city whose name meant kidnapping, killing and chaos. More than 85,000 people are thought to have died in Beirut alone, among them 241 U.S. Marines blown up by a suicide bomber in 1983, in the worst U.S. military tragedy since Vietnam.

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Now the city is evolving into a symbol of reconciliation and rebirth. Where once echoed the thud of mortars and the rat-tat-tat of machine guns, today there are the ever-present roar of compressors and the grinding gears of construction machinery, merged in an almost joyful din. Where once stood buildings that looked like Swiss cheese, perforated by thousands upon thousands of rounds of ammunition, there are now smooth facades and painstakingly restored Art Deco flourishes.

The U.S. decision last summer to end the longtime ban on Americans traveling to Lebanon was a message to the world that Beirut was back open for business. Now the progress in construction and restoration has become undeniable. The herculean work of Solidere, the private consortium in charge of rebuilding and marketing the ruined district, is starting to pay off.

A Billionaire Premier

“The city will have a bit of Hong Kong, a bit of Paris, a small part of everything,” promises Lebanon’s peripatetic prime minister, Rafik Hariri, a billionaire builder who has been the driving force behind the regeneration of the capital.

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“When you live in Beirut,” he said in an interview, “you feel that you can have anything.”

Despite Hariri’s ebullience, many Lebanese still eye the future with apprehension.

The city has been rebuilding as if peace in the region was an accomplished fact, but these Lebanese fear that any untoward move by Syria or Israel, or a breakdown in authority inside Lebanon itself, could easily plunge the country into another devastating round of conflict.

Even Israel’s recent acceptance in principle of a 20-year-old U.N. resolution to withdraw from the part of southern Lebanon that it occupies gives little comfort, because it was accompanied by warnings from Israel that it would re-invade if it believed that its security was threatened.

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Undeterred by such doubts, Solidere has plunged ahead with its work at a breakneck pace. For four years, it has been clearing rubble, reclaiming land from the sea, removing refuse and installing sewers, electricity and phone lines.

By summer’s end, the streets in the central business district will be reopened to the public, complete with newly planted trees, street furniture and ornamental lamps, said Nasser Chammaa, Solidere’s chairman. He said he expects fellow Beirut residents to be surprised at all that has been accomplished.

“Some people seemed to think that we are just dreaming, that this is some kind of mirage,” Chammaa said. “I say they’re in for a big shock.”

Solidere officials say work on basic infrastructure is nearing completion, as is the refurbishment of about 265 war-damaged structures that were deemed worthy of saving for their cultural, historic or architectural significance.

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Now all decks are cleared for new construction, including the rebuilding, in traditional style, of Beirut’s famed open-air marketplaces--its souks--by the end of next year.

Soon there will be commerce again on the Rue des Banques and other landmark avenues. The shattered sculpture at the center of Martyrs Square has been put back together, and palm trees are being planted in new green areas leading to the sea.

The excavations have laid bare many traces of Beirut’s 5,000-year history, including remnants of the Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic eras that will be on display in new archeological parks.

A Chance to Reconcile

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To Chammaa, all this building is more than a matter of bricks and mortar. It is a chance to bring the city back together after Muslims and Christians retreated to their corners during the civil war.

“Everyone felt that this [the center] was their area, this was the hub,” he said. “And they are feeling that way again, people of all backgrounds,” judging by Solidere’s success in marketing properties to all sects.

“All companies that want to be open to all communities realize this is the right place to be. In this sense, this is going to be a major step toward healing,” Chammaa added.

But the rebuilding of Beirut is not confined to the center. Just to the west, the clock on College Hall at the American University of Beirut, destroyed by a car bomb in 1991 in a last spasm of violence after the war’s end, has finally been rebuilt.

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Students at the American-chartered college that for more than a century educated the elite of the Middle East again hear the familiar hourly chime as they move between classes.

Meanwhile, runways are being extended at Beirut International Airport to accommodate a hoped-for surge in tourists and business travelers. Along the seaside corniche and in the shopping district of Hamra in West Beirut, new luxury hotels, boutiques and restaurants are opening nearly every week, residents say. Parts of Christian East Beirut already look like Paris.

“It’s coming. But I wouldn’t say it’s back,” said Walid Daou, manager of the Hard Rock Cafe, situated on the four-mile corniche that snakes along the turquoise-blue Mediterranean and is now the haunt of joggers, skaters and bicyclists. “We have a lot of people investing.”

Skeptics Abound

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Yet skeptics abound, those who believe that Lebanon remains hostage to the whims of its stronger neighbors. Such people are still “voting with their feet” and moving abroad, observed one longtime diplomat in the city.

Among the skeptics is Edmond Hajjar, a 25-year-old electrical contractor. He is happy about his income, which has risen along with the construction boom. A friend whistles with envy when Hajjar, sipping juice in one of the city’s three Internet cafes, admits to making $2,000 a month.

Yet even Hajjar is not sure whether to stay in Beirut or immigrate to the United States, where he has a girlfriend.

“We are still living in a tense situation,” he said. “You don’t know which day you are going to have a war. We really don’t trust that we won’t endure a war again.”

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The war has caused Lebanon “to lag behind the rest of the world, and this too makes you think of leaving.”

Wisam Hatab, an Information Ministry employee, said the problem for him is not the threat of renewed war but the way that people seem to have changed during the years of peace.

“I loved the war years,” he said matter-of-factly of his boyhood living under siege. “People helped each other then.”

Now people do not care in the same way for each other, he said. “It’s all a matter of appearances and getting rich.”

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Still, many here cherish a hope that Beirut can recover some of the allure that made it so appealing before the tragedy of the civil war.

“Will it be like it was? Well, no country is like it was 20 years ago, not even the United States,” said Iyad Khatib, a 23-year-old pursuing a master’s degree in computer engineering at American University.

“Maybe it can be better.”


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