On its end-of-year cover the Beirut weekly Monday Morning features nine red candles against a black background. They could be holiday lights but they aren't. Over them is the stark legend - The Ninth Year.
The reference is to the nine years of crisis since Lebanon's civil war started in 1975. It is testimony to the uncertainty most Lebanese feel about their future - despite the start of Israeli-Lebanese-American talks over Israeli troop withdrawals and future relations with Israel.
Despite this uncertainty, individuals are rushing to repair their damaged homes and businesses. There is a shortage of skilled building workers. Throughout the city, apartment buildings have sprouted gray spots as shell and bomb holes are filled in with cement. This is all the more impressive since no such thing as catastrophe insurance exists here.
The Murr Tower, an incomplete highrise from which snipers picked off motorists on the city's main overpass, is now under construction. The popular seaside Summerland resort which was smashed during the Israeli invasion is almost back to new. And renovations are due to start on several long-destroyed hotels.
But beneath the surface, doubts remain. ''No major reconstruction of Beirut will begin until the political situation is clear,'' says a Lebanese economist.
Among Maronite Christians, the sect of the Lebanese president, there is a joke going the rounds that his real name is Muhammad Amin Gemayel. The Muslim first name has been added to indicate displeasure at the consideration he is giving to the views of the Arab world and of leaders of Lebanon's Muslim majority.
Recently some Muslim pundits have added another name which underlines the squeeze on the president. They call him Muhammad Cohen Amin Gemayel, reflecting their worries that he may give in to Israeli and rightist Christian pressures over future relations with the Jewish state.
A social sciences professor at American University of Beirut had just returned from a condolence call on Maronite Christian friends in the mountain town of Aley. Their son had been shot point-blank in their living room by neighboring Druze sect members seeking revenge for an unrelated killing by Christians of a Druze man. The professor, like most thoughtful Lebanese, was despairing over the ongoing wave of sectarian violence, especially between Druze and Maronites in the Shouf mountains. ''The real issues generated by our civil war still haven't been addressed,'' he complained, ''the issues of Christian-Muslim detente, of how a pluralistic society should function.''
But he, like a wide cross section of Lebanese interviewed, was convinced that Israel was stirring up sectarian troubles in Lebanon, and offering rival factions weapons. A Shiite Muslim complained that two clans in his village had been warned to accept Israeli guns as protection for each against the other.
Leaders from a Sunni village in the Shouf traveled to Muslim leader Saeb Salam to ask whether to accept a reported Israeli offer of guns to protect them against the Israelis' erstwhile Christian Maronite allies. Regardless of how true or how widespread such offers are, belief in them - as an Israeli instrument of divide and rule - is coloring ordinary Lebanese attitudes toward Israel.
De factom normalization of the Israeli-Lebanese border is proceeding rapidly with a strong boost from Israel. Tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, eggplants, potatoes, oranges, lemons, melons, chickens, jewelry, washing machines, electronic goods, clothes, and other products cross the border duty free. Only Israel officially considers the border open, and thus no customs posts have been set up on the Lebanese side.
In Beirut, the Jerusalem Post appears in at least two bookstalls in Muslim west Beirut, and a Christian Lebanese travel agent - one among many - boasts he has already driven 20 times to Tel Aviv.
But one-sided governmental normalization makes Lebanese officials increasingly nervous. ''I have no control over who enters my country from Israel. We are occupied,'' says a senior official not hostile to Israel. The government worries about unrest among southern Lebanese farmers whose produce is undercut; about a Saudi Arabian restriction on Lebanese imports because they might come from Israel.
''I was going to Jerusalem for New Year's,'' says one Lebanese matron, ''but I thought it isn't right until relations are really normalized.''
''Everyone else in the world deals with Israel, why not us?'' says a Maronite taxi driver. ''If Israel stays, they will make trouble between the Christians and the Druze and all over Lebanon.''
There are dizzying contrasts in stark Beirut between ravages and riches, between memories of war and celebrations of pseudo-peace. Beirut restaurants are jammed. Holidaymakers in decolletage and jewels alight from new Mercedes to mirror-lined nightclubs serving lobster, foie grasm , and tournedos within sight of bombed-out buildings and within walking distance of ruined Palestinian refugees camps.