BEIRUT, LEBANON — Three men dart around a small office, fielding phone calls, retrieving faxes, and fetching coffee. At the center of them sits Roula Ajouz, the first woman here to run a political campaign for an elected seat and not just fill one vacated by a father, brother, or husband.
"They call me Mustafa," Ms. Ajouz jokes, referring to a common name for Arab men.
Across town, Mona Hallak climbs over waist-high piles of dirty rubble and sandbags that the landlord installed to deny her access. But it's not enough to stop her from soldiering into the heart of her beloved battleground. The circa-1924 building - used by snipers from both sides during Lebanon's 15-year civil war - is slated for demolition. Tearing it down, she argues, is like ripping out a page from Lebanon's darkest chapter of civil war.
"People say, 'who wants to remember the war?'" says Ms. Hallak, her shoulders rising in mock doubt. "But ... if we don't remember, we'll just fall into another war."
The two high-powered women were childhood classmates: Hallak was the class brain, and Ajouz, the self-described wisecracker who got kicked out of school. Now in their early 30s, Ajouz is a magazine publisher and city councilwoman. Hallak is an architect and preservationist. Today the women are making their marks on Lebanese politics and policy - defying stereotypes about women in the Arab world.
Just two years ago, Ajouz became Lebanon's youngest and first female city council member. Gaining a name as an anticorruption reformer, she has played everything from Beirut's Upton Sinclair - forcing the city's filthy slaughterhouse to clean up its act - to its Bill Gates, winning grants from the US and the International Monetary Fund to computerize the municipality's archaic offices.
Last week, she won a grant from Rome to create public parks in Beirut.
While Ajouz pursued a career in politics, Hallak was drawn to urban aesthetics. But architecture has pulled her into a very politicized battle over the future of Beirut - a still war-scarred city that many developers want to rebuild.
What she's up against is Solidere, the Lebanese real estate company formed in the early 1990s by construction magnate and former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. With a virtual monopoly on the job of rebuilding Beirut, it has torn down hundreds of damaged buildings to make way for the construction of shiny new ones.
Hallak would like to renovate the neoclassical building with its mustard-yellow faade that has the air of faded grandeur of an era when Lebanon was known as "the Switzerland of the Middle East." She wants to turn it into a "museum of memory" - a controversial concept because it might unleash sectarian tensions, ever below the surface of Lebanese life, over who would be betrayed as victims and aggressors. "If you come here with your child and show him what the snipers did," she says, crouching in a darkened corner of the building to peer through the holes marksmen used, "that child might learn to hate war."
Hallak did. Childhood, as it was for so many others in her generation, was marred by an ongoing question of whether there would be school tomorrow, or whether the shelling would be too heavy to go out.
"There were days when we slept and thought we'd never wake up, and moments when you didn't know if you'd ever see your mother again," she says. "Now people just want to go out dancing and forget. I think we have to keep something so beautiful that the war made so ugly."
"She's very courageous and I think she's done an amazingly good job of making the public aware of what's happening," says Osama Kabbani, Solidere's director of planning. "But she does have a degree of nostalgia for certain things that don't have value anymore. There was no way we could have saved everything. We have to keep moving, we can't sit and only reflect."
Plans for destroying the building have been put on hold until after Lebanon's elections this fall.
Many women here applaud the work that Hallak and Ajouz do, but still others see them as troublemakers.
One day, a group of 12 angry women came into Ajouz's office - she calls them "walking tents" because of their floor-length, shapeless black cloaks - and told her she was sinning against Islam and would be punished in the afterlife.
"Sometimes it really gets to you," says Ajouz, with the flip, smart tongue of a Madison Avenue advertising exec. "If I listened to them, I'd end up doing nothing."
Still, as a Sunni Muslim filling an elected seat reserved for her sect, she started dressing more conservatively and no longer goes to the beach. "I can't make mistakes because I'm young, and I'm representing the women. Otherwise, they'll say, 'We let a woman in, and look what happens.' "
Women's rights activists applaud Ajouz, who is planning to run for the national parliament in a few years.
"Credit should be given to them for having done a good job," says Mona Khalaf, the director of the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World, at the Lebanese American University. "But this does not explain why no woman was ever appointed as minister in a country where women represent half of the students enrolled in universities."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society