Beirut, before the bombs

BRIAN WINTER is the coauthor of "The Accidental President of Brazil."

'THE HEAD OF Hezbollah sends his regards," the note read, "but he will not be able to attend your book signing." Bummer, I thought. What else could he possibly be up to?

I figured he might be at a rave, or maybe watching the World Cup on one of the big-screen TVs at the sidewalk cafes in Solidere, the heart of the city's stubbornly-won rebirth, where teenage girls in tank tops and women in black burkas mingled well past midnight, casing the jewelry stores and lining up at Dunkin' Donuts. This was Beirut only two weeks ago, when it still seemed like a post-apocalyptic amusement park. Enough time had passed since the civil war that the handful of battle-scarred buildings that we saw seemed almost quaint. "That's where the Green Line used to be," my guide gushed. "Those are real bullet holes!"

The city pulsed with that giddy, heartbreakingly innocent feel of the early stages of youthful revolution. "SEX!" blared the cover of the June issue of Time Out Beirut, bearing a racy photo of crossed legs with black panties around the ankles. A bullet-ridden water tower downtown had been converted into a discotheque; at the plaza where in 2005 thousands of Lebanese protesters demanded Syria's withdrawal, there was an outdoor jazz festival. Just two weeks before my visit, the rapper 50 Cent had played to a packed house; surely he found it infinitely less threatening than Queens.

For my book signing at the brand-new Virgin Megastore downtown, I was assigned two bodyguards; fewer than 50 Cent, probably, but I still felt positively gangsta. For laughs, I went to the bathroom just to see if the guards would follow me. They did. Apparently, American journalists hadn't enjoyed the best safety record in Lebanon two decades ago, but now I was armed with a white flower bouquet and a good-luck letter from the Lebanese prime minister. Besides Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah (smiling posters pasted all over Beirut made him look like such a pleasant man), the guest list included diplomats and uniformed representatives of the Lebanese armed forces. They each bought several copies of the book for me to sign. One was for a general whose name I couldn't catch. "Verrrrry important man in Lebanese army," one of the soldiers purred in halting English. "You sign now."

It was only on the last night of our visit that we caught a glimpse of a long-ago past, as if we had stepped into a time machine. My mother-in-law, a Brazilian diplomat stationed in Beirut, threw my wife and me a party to celebrate our recent wedding. Within half an hour, the subject turned to politics. Everybody at the party, we soon discovered, was Christian. "The Muslim neighborhoods here, they are all so dirty, full of trash," spat a young woman who had been sugar sweet until that point. "They're all like that, everywhere in the world. Why would you visit a Muslim country? They are awful!"

When I told another guest that we had driven to Baalbek, a site of spectacular Roman ruins deep in the Bekaa Valley, he was horrified. "Are you crazy?" he shrieked, nearly dropping his champagne. "That area is controlled by Hezbollah!" But that guy Nasrallah is my homey, I replied, not believing the hype.

We left the next morning for the airport, where my last images of Lebanon came from an exhibit inside the terminal. There, someone had proudly hung before-and-after images of Beirut, with black-and-white pictures of bombed-out buildings and streets next to shiny, colorful snapshots of the same spots after years of rebuilding. The centerpiece was the $500-million reconstruction of the Beirut airport, which in the 1980s had been obliterated by Israeli bombs. Isn't it remarkable, I happily mused as we boarded our plane home to Washington, how quickly countries can change?

Ten days later, the airport was bombed and Beirut was a devastated war zone -- again. I watched on TV as entire buildings were raked with fresh bullet holes, the cafes of Solidere were shuttered, and Nasrallah, not smiling any longer, vowed to make the streets of Israel run red with blood.

Meanwhile, as Israeli bombers roared overhead, my mother-in-law, her 87-year-old mother and their Yorkie puppies set out for the northern border with Syria, desperate to flee the onslaught. The rest of us were left to marvel again at how, in the Middle East, countries can change so quickly -- or, perhaps, how they never really change at all.

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