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While Beirut burns, skiing and style survive

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``Ten years ago, if you talked to any Lebanese and said there was a plan to cantonize Lebanon, he would say you are crazy,'' he adds. ``Now it is in the heart and in the blood of everyone. There is no way we're going to see a mixed community living together in one place again.''

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I spoke to Debbane and his neighbors on a Saturday. That night we drove to the ski slopes, where teen-agers were barreling downhill in the season's first night ski party. We could see the lights of west Beirut beneath us. Advance parties of Syrian troops were massing to enter the shattered mostly Muslim half of the city, where people were still burying the dead after a week of street battles between militias. But west Beirut might as well have been on the other side of the planet.

``You see,'' Debbane said as he motioned to the skiers shrieking with delight on the slope. ``People want to be able to enjoy life, to know there is more to life than bombs and killing.''

The need to enjoy life is evident throughout east Beirut and the surrounding suburbs. Before the civil war, east Beirut was little more than a bedroom community of Christians. Cut off for years from what was once the business and entertainment center in west Beirut, the Christians have built arcades, restaurants, nightclubs, and cinemas in east Beirut and farther up the coast. There are jazz clubs with first-rate musicians.

Although the Lebanese pound fell from roughly 19 pounds to the dollar in February 1986 to 118 last month, the consumer society survives in east Beirut.

Boutiques burst with fashions from Paris and Italy. Gourmet shops offer Danish blue cheese, the finest Russian caviar, and delicate p^at'es from Paris. The restaurants remain by far the finest in the Mideast and are still jammed with businessmen and elegantly dressed women.

The Lebanese who frequent these spots have largely been protected from the ravages of inflation because their wealth is in foreign currency, often invested outside the country.

In Beit Mary, a Christian village in the hills, lunchtime diners at the La Mer Mijou restaurant literally could watch the fighting that rocked west Beirut earlier last month as they ate. Conversation buzzed in ``franese'' - the fluid combination of French, Arabic, and English - as puffs of smoke rose from the city below and shells boomed in the background.

East Beirut's seeming normality is only relative to the utter chaos that gripped west Beirut until the Syrians marched in Feb. 22. Scratch the surface here on the east side and you find poverty, violence, and a society ruled by the increasingly powerful Lebanese Forces militia.

The sense of danger present just beneath the surface is evident in as mundane an occurrence as a traffic jam. Traffic snarls occur every day and can often back cars up for blocks. A traffic jam in Beirut, where practically everyone is armed, can be fraught with danger.

``Every time I am in a traffic jam or there is some small accident, I am afraid,'' says Issa Goraieb, a newspaper editor. ``You ... sit quietly because you know that at any moment someone can lose his temper and start shooting.''

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Christians (no one knows exactly how many) have given up and emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, or Africa. It is a drain of talent and capital that even hard-line Christians such as Dany Chamoun - the sort of Christian who would rather fight to the last man than yield Christian prerogatives to Muslims - acknowledge as a threat to establishing an autonomous Christian enclave.