Beirutis briefly brush aside anxieties to celebrate Christmas

Four months after the end of a bitter war, Christmas has come to Beirut.

It shows in the visits of Lebanese Christians to New Testament sites in Israel. Its secular side is startlingly visible in the return of Santa Claus to this city's reviving shopping districts.

The European-originated Santa can be found walking in costume and white beard , without much of a paunch (perhaps in respect to Beirut's recent hard times), in front of the Toyfair toy store in West Beirut.

His presence reflects one of those strange paradoxes so common to the Lebanese capital: After a summer under Israeli siege, without water or electricity, under repeated bombing and shelling, west Beirut has reemerged phoenix-like to celebrate Christmas in style.

Hamra Street, west Beirut's Fifth Avenue, is jammed with Christmas shoppers. It had become shabby and sad under the pressure of years of civil conflict that destroyed or drove out many shops and brought innumerable bands of armed young militiamen to its streetcorners.

Over this thoroughfare where Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese leftist forces waving rocket-propelled grenade launchers, once zoomed by in jeeps, tinsel and plastic Santas have been strung at frequent intervals. Red Christmas lights glow down on the shoppers at night.

Stores like My Lady and Red Shoe are full of expensive French and Italian clothing. Other stores are jammed with electronic appliances and new video toys. Fancy bonbons wrapped in gilt paper go for $15 a kilo. Side streets are cluttered with real and artificial Christmas trees and poinsettias in total disregard to the blockage of traffic.

What makes the scene more paradoxical is that west Beirut was the center of Muslim leftist and Palestinian activity. But west Beirut was also the most cosmopolitan part of the city with Muslims, Christians, and foreigners living side-by-side. Nearby are international business headquarters and the American University of Beirut.

Christmas celebrations on Hamra were traditional before the 1975-76 civil war began battering the area. People have returned to them with a consumerist vengeance.

''They want to wipe out years of bad memories with one,'' explains a Lebanese journalist.

Ironically, in Maronite Christian Ashrafyeh, while store windows are bulging, street decorations are relatively subdued out of respect to the late, assassinated President Bashir Gemayel.

But beneath the frenetic gaity of west Beirut's shoppers, deep uncertainty colors the holiday season. The battles between Christian militiamen and Druze (a secretive Islamic sect) fighters in the Shouf region and the town of Aley, just above Beirut, bring daily reminders that the central government is not in full control even of the area around Beirut. They hint of power struggles ahead should Israeli and Syrian troops begin to withdraw from the country.

Future relations with Israel remain a topic of deep concern. Reportedly 3,000 Lebanese will visit Bethlehem for Christmas, crossing the unofficially open border with Israel and traversing that country to the occupied West Bank. The Jerusalem Post is on sale in at least two west Beirut bookshops. Israeli goods which now flow freely into Lebanon are said to have pushed down the prices of many Christmas gifts.

But no one here knows how incipient Israeli-Lebanese negotiations for withdrawal of Israeli-troops and security arrangements with Israel will proceed. And this uncertainty breeds further uneasiness.

And on the outskirts of west Beirut, in Palestinian refugee camps mired in mud, inhabitants struggle to rebuild bomb-damaged shelters and are totally uncertain of their future.

Yet despite the uncertainty, Lebanese as well as Palestinians continue to rebuild. Rocket and artillery holes in apartments are filled in, cement blocks go up to fill in missing walls, and paint is slapped on, hiding the past. In many areas of Beirut today, signs of the recent war are few.

So far, clean up, paint up, fix up, and private rebuilding have been the rule. Major reconstruction still awaits the faith of Arab and foreign governments that the Lebanese government can rule.

The presence of US, Italian, and French multinational troops, all planning Christmas celebrations, offers a morale boost. The Italians, wearing long red stocking caps with blue pompoms, add a colorful note to the Christmas scene.

But while those fortunate enough to share in Christmas cheer - and there are many - know what Santa is bringing for Noel, few west Beirutis or Lebanese are certain of what the new year holds.

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