Beirut Gives New Meaning to `Wall Street'

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

THE front page of Al-Diyar, one of Beirut's daily papers, said the other day much of what there is to say about Lebanon and the Lebanese. Below columns full of the usual grim tales and optimistic assessments of the latest peace moves was a small advertisement: ``Civilian fortifications. 24-hour delivery service. Sandbags and barrels, full or empty.''

Where there is a need in Lebanon, someone will find a way to fill it - and make it worth his while doing so.

After its longest and worst ordeal in 15 years of upheaval, and with no end in sight, Beirut finds itself in much reduced circumstances.

But the will to survive is still there, the pulse of life still strong.

Opportunists to the end, the Lebanese are now living more than ever on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis. Over the past few days, they have quickly adjusted to a new pattern of existence dictated by the vagaries of the heavy guns, which have recently only been firing at night.

In the Shiite villages of south Lebanon, and at fashionable ski resorts in the Christian mountains, the pre-dawn silence is disturbed by revving engines and slamming doors.

An hour later, the highways leading into both sides of Beirut are jammed with thousands of cars, as many who fled the shelling inch back into town for a few hours.

``They're crazy,'' says a Christian who stayed on in east Beirut. ``If the shells start falling they'll all get killed.''

The city's streets are briefly animated by this influx. Shops, banks, and restaurants, many hidden from shell blasts behind sandbags, barrels, or cinderblocks, open their doors for a few hours. The universal hum of generators - for there is still no electricity - mingles with the beeping of taxis.

On Hamra - in golden, bygone days, Beirut's answer to Fifth Avenue - well-dressed women pick their way past huge garbage heaps that rot on every corner. Posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and other grim, bearded Iranian clerics are plastered on walls alongside shop windows displaying lingerie.

Shady money-changers wave aloft handfuls of Lebanese ,1000-pound notes - $100 buys a thick wad nowadays, but it will not last long. Partly because of the moneychangers, but mainly because of the sandbag fortifications screening many shops, local wits have renamed Hamra ``Wall Street.''

Just about anything can still be found, from almost-the-latest fashions, to smoked salmon and frozen duck around the corner at Smith's Supermarket.

Although the airport and Beirut seaports have been closed since March, plenty of ships unload goods at other ports in both Christian and Muslim areas.

Bikini-clad women still swim in the pools of the Summerland and the Coral Beach, luxury hotel complexes on a less-shelled stretch of the west Beirut coastline.

Despite the supposed Syrian blockade, even the acute fuel shortage in Christian east Beirut has eased. Some gasoline is smuggled ashore from small tankers; some is sold at the roadside from jerrycans brought in through the mountains from the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley. Some is bought in the no-man's land at the museum crossing-point on the Beirut confrontation line, siphoned from the tanks of cars filled in west Beirut.

Where there's a will, there's a way.

But by early afternoon, the new commuters are clogging the roads out of town again, to rejoin the families they have stashed away beyond range - they hope - of the heavy guns.

The city is left to the few (10, 20 percent? Nobody knows.) who stayed behind, to the prospering rats and cats that live off the garbage heaps, and to the dogs that roam the empty streets at night, barking when the shells begin to fall or the mosques start broadcasting the muezzin's pre-dawn call to prayer.

Always a city of startling contrasts, Beirut's disparities are more acute now than ever.

About 150,000 families were on food handouts when the fighting broke out in March. Many of them have fled. But not for them the expensive mountain chalets or village houses rented at crisis-inflated prices. They are camping out along the coast and on the Awali river north of Sidon, or just living in their battered cars.

Aid officials are already worried about what will happen if winter comes and there is still no peace.

At the hard-pressed American University Hospital, where nurses are so scarce that relatives have to tend the sick and wounded, the accountant was caught with his hand in the till to the tune of $600,000. But he could not be prosecuted, because he is protected by one of the Muslim militias.

Yet every night, the young men of the Ras Beirut Unified Front and other civil defense teams patrol the streets under the shelling, seeking out the wounded. They cannot afford flak-jackets to reduce their own chances of being hurt. And they are paid nothing.

Where else but Beirut.

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