Beirut Emerges From Destruction With a New Vibrancy and Hope

City tries to regain its reputation as the Paris of the Middle East

BEIRUT is striving to shake off the legacy of a bitter civil war that left large parts of the downtown area looking like a movie set of the nuclear holocaust.

But amid the rubble, a raw determination to bury the past emerges, which makes it one of the most vibrant places in the Middle East.

The demolition of some 450 wrecked buildings, the preparation of scores of sites for new ones, the laying of pipes and the building of roads, has unearthed a hoard of archaeological treasures dating back to Phoenician times. It serves to remind Beirutis of a historical and cultural heritage that far outweighs the ravages of contemporary war.

One of the most potent symbols of opportunity emerging from the chaos is a large sculpture unveiled recently outside the headquarters of the restructured Lebanese Army - itself a symbol of hope for the recreation of a central authority to contain the rival religious sects, which have torn the country apart.

The 5,000-ton sculpture features a series of tanks and other military hardware partially encased in concrete - neutralized, but a constant reminder of Lebanon's violent past.

The proliferation of free-market activity and the robust criticism of politicians in the vibrant print and electronic media contrast sharply with the authoritarian and centralized system in neighboring Syria.

In the southern area of Beirut one can enjoy a meal at a seafood restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean in a poorer neighborhood dominated by an Iranian-backed rebel group. On one side are larger-than-life posters of the former Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran; on the other, Lebanese women sunbathing in bikinis.

On a wooded hill above the sea, the reconstruction of the central tower of the American University of Beirut - destroyed by a massive suicide bomb in 1985 - is nearing completion, and students mingle on the shady terraces of one of the region's most famous institutions of learning.

At night the city comes to life, and a host of new restaurants and night spots are packed by an endless stream of patrons striving for normality among the ruins.

But perhaps the greatest paradox of Beirut - and all of Lebanon - is that most of its inhabitants live abroad. Only 3 million or so live in Lebanon, while an estimated 9 million live in a wealthy diaspora scattered across the globe.

Chakib Boudargham, a Druze hotel owner and businessman who has lived abroad for most of his life - most recently in Boston - is one of an increasing number of Lebanese who have decided to return.

"I was born here and worked in Nigeria for 20 years and in Boston. I wanted to educate my children and give them the best opportunity in life, and they have followed my leadership. I have businesses and a lot of property here, but I will not force my children to come and live here," Mr. Boudargham says.

His daughter and two sons are studying in the US and are ambivalent about returning to Lebanon because of the limited economic opportunities and the enduring sectarian mentality.

They identify more with a Western way of life but feel a strong pull to their homeland. "The leaders want us to come back to Lebanon, but they are not making the environment attractive for the youth to return," says Boudargham's son, Imad, who was due to return to the US for post-graduate study after graduating from Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

"We are still judged according to our religious sect, and by our Western clothes and styles," he says. "And your degree and qualifications are not respected. I can earn three times as much with my qualifications in the US than I can earn here," he says.

"But I do feel I have a responsibility to my country, and I want to make a contribution.

"If I return to Lebanon, it will be with an American company. The paradox is that I will have to return to my homeland as an American to earn the respect and remuneration that I deserve," he says.

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