Christmas in west Beirut: deck the halls with Ayatollah

There are only a few shopping days left until Christmas, but business in west Beirut's once-chic Hamra district couldn't be worse. Shoppers on boutique-lined

Hamra Street can buy everything from Yves Saint Laurent perfume to hand-tooled Italian belts. But some of the more active merchants seem to be the street vendors selling cassette tapes of Ayatollah Khomeini's speeches and holsters for every model of handgun.

Last year, florist Adil Fayad sold 300 plump fir trees imported from the Netherlands. This year, says Mr. Fayad, a Shiite Muslim, he imported only 50 trees, and he's having trouble selling those at an asking price of about $19.

Mistletoe, brought up from the Christian town of Marjayoun in Israeli-occupied south Lebanon, and poinsettias are displayed outside Fayad's shop.

The handful of florists willing to display such traditional symbols of Christmas in predominantly Muslim west Beirut this year have given the area's commercial district almost its only touch of the Christmas spirit.

''You should have seen it even last year,'' says a Shiite taxi driver wistfully. ''The decorations were all over Hamra. It was like Paris, even better than Paris.''

A few merchants - most of them Shiites who feel safer in west Beirut than do the Christians who still live and work there - have put wreaths or small Santas in their display windows.

But most would agree with the manager of the ABC department store, where Christmas decorations are tucked away on the top floor.

''Business is very bad this year, and we are not calling attention to Christmas,'' says the manager, who declined to give his name. ''There are bombs and bad feelings here this year. The people do not want to shop.''

Upstairs at ABC, a few customers finger the Christmas tree bulbs and study the nativity scenes.

''This year we feel the war much more,'' sighs Vera Ounjian, an Armenian. ''The political situation is getting worse and worse. I have been here in west Beirut through 10 years of fighting, and this Christmas just feels worse than the others.''

This is the first Christmas west Beirut has celebrated since Shiite militias took control of the area last February. In the past year, Shiite fundamentalists have consolidated their control over this section of the battered capital.

The most common decorations throughout west Beirut are the banners, insignias , and slogans of Amal, the Shiite militia, or posters of Shiite martyrs - men, sometimes little more than boys, who have died in guerrilla attacks on the Israelis in south Lebanon.

The Christians feel intimidated by the militancy of the Shiites, says Patrick Ogden-Smith, owner of Smith's market.

Smith's, which specializes in imported products, is the delight of the foreign community and wealthy Beirutis. But the supermarket has been bombed twice, in 1975 and last year, and today Mr. Smith takes precautions. The shopper looking for traditional Christmas products has to search the aisles carefully.

''We used to do much more for Christmas, but now our mix of clients has changed,'' says Smith with more than a shade of irony. ''We imported yams and special smoked hams from Denmark in past years. But there is no more Christmas spirit in this part of town.''

This year there are no Christmas carols piped over Smith's stereo system as in past years and no Santa standing outside the store to greet children as he had the last few days before Christmas for years.

''There was always a sense of freedom of religion in west Beirut,'' says Smith, who is himself Christian. ''You don't know now if the intimidation is from the extremists themselves or people who are doing it and blaming it on extremists.''

A Christian woman who declined to give her name says her family decided not to buy a Christmas tree this year.

''I wouldn't be caught dead carrying a tree home,'' she says. ''The only one on this side of town willing to risk buying one are Shiites who celebrate Christmas because their children want them to.''

Smith the storeowner says his family still plans a traditional Christmas dinner. Relatives will cross from mostly Christian east Beirut on Christmas day to join him.

''It's bad this year, but it could have been a lot worse,'' he says. ''At least it is not like it was in February and March, when there was so much fighting. . . .''

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