Beirut's new phone book is an act of faith in Lebanon
Beirut — A telephone book does not seem like much to celebrate. But in Lebanon, publication of the first directory in nine years is a milestone accompanied by much fanfare - and relief.
As the preface comments, the book ''constitutes an act of faith in the country, a symbol of its continuity. The directory appears at a time when - it is hoped by all - the war is becoming increasingly a feature of history rather than a condition of daily life.''
It also serves as a symbol of hopes for reconstruction. Georges Frem, minister of post and telecommunications, wrote in an opening letter to the public: ''No service, however small, shall henceforth be neglected, not least the telephone directory.''
During the chaotic years of civil war, a system verging on a black market in numbers was one of the few ways to get personal numbers, often at considerable cost. Newspapers and magazines also tried to publish lists of key diplomatic and government phones, relief agencies, and hospitals for stranded readers.
But the sporadic rounds of fighting often destroyed lines, and new numbers after repairs were never added. In other cases, entire buildings were destroyed, but the media never struck them from the published lists. And more than a dozen embassies closed up shop and went home during the 1975-76 civil war, although they remained on the few circulated lists throughout the civil war era.
Telephones cannot be overestimated in a country like Lebanon, since they play a pivotal role in political and military events.
During the siege of Beirut last summer, key Muslim negotiators, like former Prime Minister Sa'eb Salaam, often conveyed messages from west Beirut to United States mediators in east Beirut by telephone when fighting made it too difficult to cross the notorious Green Line.
And telephones are playing a crucial part in ending the gun battles in the Shouf mountains. When a reporter recently asked diplomats about the logistics of arranging cease-fires between warring Druze and Christian militias in the Israeli-occupied area, the response was, ''The Israelis phone them up.''
Before the civil war, Beirut was the center of telecommunications in the Middle East. But like everything in Lebanon, the phone system has taken a battering. Mr. Frem claimed 72,000 lines were out of order, or 26 percent of the total. It can take hours to get a dial tone.
Unique among world directories, the Beirut book has an entire section to explain the ''consequences of war,'' complete with special coding. A black dot in front of a number denotes ''uncanceled number in totally destroyed zone. Out of order unless reconstruction goes ahead.'' A star means ''partially destroyed area, may be out of order according to location.'' In other words, cross your fingers and dial.
On random selection, page 609 had 76 stars and 18 black dots. And in the yellow pages, the status of Lebanon and the hopes for reconstruction were reflected in the fact that 52 construction and engineering companies have phones that are not functioning, and six insurance companies are still listed but with no working phone links.
The ministry hopes to repair all lines by the end of the year, with United States, French, German, and South Korean funds or technology. But it is not simply a matter of putting up poles and installing new circuits. Eight years of improvisation must first be unraveled.
During the period of anarchy, ingenious Lebanese would often tap into lines. It was not uncommon to see a lone pole with hundreds of homemade wires strung, somewhat dangerously, up through balconies or windows to phones nabbed from abandoned homes or partially damaged buildings.
It was also not unusual, during times of heightened tension, for any of the four dozen militias or gangs to knock at a private home and commandeer a phone system, with promises to return it during the first lull. Some actually did.
Although Beirut is going through a period of comparative peace, the new phone book indicates there is still a good deal of nervousness about the future.
The editors pledge that there will be annual publication from now on. At the same time, the book provides a complete guide to a planned area code system that may be years away, and there is a complete list of numbers allocated but not yet installed.