While Beirut burns, skiing and style survive

THROUGH 12 years of civil war, Michel Edde has refused to tape the arched windows on the side of his home that offer a panoramic view of west Beirut. On three occasions, incoming shells pulverized the glass to lethal shards that knifed through furniture in the living room and bedrooms. Each time, Mr. Edde, a devout Maronite Christian, thanked God that no one was hurt. Then he replaced the panes and furniture and carried on. Tape would have prevented most of the destruction, he acknowledges, but he never considered applying it.

``I will not tape them,'' he says disdainfully. ``It looks ugly.''

Refusing to tape the windows is a curious act of faith for Edde, whose mansion has the misfortune of rising from a wooded hillside only a stone's throw from the Lebanese Defense Ministry. The ministry has often been targeted by warring Lebanese militias, Syrian and Palestinian forces. Edde's stubborn determination to act as though life is normal is typical of those wealthy Christians who have chosen to stay in Lebanon despite the horrors the war has inflicted on them, their families, and their friends.

``The front is everywhere. It is in your home. It is snipers and car bombs and kidnappings.'' Does he despair of its ever ending? ``It is God's will,'' says Edde, a man who says he would like someday to be president. ``It is not our problem.''

The Maronites and other Christians who live on the east side of this divided capital cope by viewing the present and the future with a strange mixture of fatalism and optimism.

``We decided to stay in this country, so we decided not to wait for the situation to settle down and to make the best of life,'' says Raphael Debbane, the wealthy owner of an agricultural products company.

Mr. Debbane spoke in the living room of his chalet, which he built less than a year ago in Faqra, a private ski resort an hour's drive north of Beirut. The chalet is worth several hundred thousand dollars and is impeccably decorated. Debbane, his wife, and three daughters now spend most of their weekends at Faqra, where, this year, the skiing is good.

``Faqra, cross fingers, is far away from the trouble,'' says Debbane, a thoughtful man who speaks softly. ``You can come here and really forget about it all on a weekend.'' He shakes his head when asked about the wisdom of making so large an investment in a nation that has all but formally disintegrated.

The mountain, he says, is the traditional Maronite stronghold and will never be invaded. Besides, he tried moving his family out of Lebanon three times as the war dragged on. They lived a year each in London; Athens; and Cannes, France.

``In each place, we lived in a very nice situation,'' Debbane says. ``But there is nowhere like here. We felt like refugees everywhere else. We have so many problems here, but our aim is to stay. So we solve the problems day to day.''

Debbane and several other Christians interviewed said that the bombs and gunmen that are a part of life in east Beirut disturb them less than their growing conviction that Lebanon will never again function as a united, democratic state the way it did before civil war erupted in 1975.

Years of war have fractured the country along ``confessional'' lines and deepened hostility between communities, to the point, perhaps, of no return. (Under confessionalism, the distribution of government posts on the basis of religion, Maronites have had a dominant role.)

``My kids feel that Muslim kids are different,'' says Nadim, a Greek Orthodox Christian who owns a chalet near Debbane's. ``They think that the Muslims are the enemies. My wife and I grew up with Muslims; we have Muslim friends. But these kids have never seen a Muslim.

``Ten years ago, if you talked to any Lebanese and said there was a plan to cantonize Lebanon, he would say you are crazy,'' he adds. ``Now it is in the heart and in the blood of everyone. There is no way we're going to see a mixed community living together in one place again.''

I spoke to Debbane and his neighbors on a Saturday. That night we drove to the ski slopes, where teen-agers were barreling downhill in the season's first night ski party. We could see the lights of west Beirut beneath us. Advance parties of Syrian troops were massing to enter the shattered mostly Muslim half of the city, where people were still burying the dead after a week of street battles between militias. But west Beirut might as well have been on the other side of the planet.

``You see,'' Debbane said as he motioned to the skiers shrieking with delight on the slope. ``People want to be able to enjoy life, to know there is more to life than bombs and killing.''

The need to enjoy life is evident throughout east Beirut and the surrounding suburbs. Before the civil war, east Beirut was little more than a bedroom community of Christians. Cut off for years from what was once the business and entertainment center in west Beirut, the Christians have built arcades, restaurants, nightclubs, and cinemas in east Beirut and farther up the coast. There are jazz clubs with first-rate musicians.

Although the Lebanese pound fell from roughly 19 pounds to the dollar in February 1986 to 118 last month, the consumer society survives in east Beirut.

Boutiques burst with fashions from Paris and Italy. Gourmet shops offer Danish blue cheese, the finest Russian caviar, and delicate p^at'es from Paris. The restaurants remain by far the finest in the Mideast and are still jammed with businessmen and elegantly dressed women.

The Lebanese who frequent these spots have largely been protected from the ravages of inflation because their wealth is in foreign currency, often invested outside the country.

In Beit Mary, a Christian village in the hills, lunchtime diners at the La Mer Mijou restaurant literally could watch the fighting that rocked west Beirut earlier last month as they ate. Conversation buzzed in ``franese'' - the fluid combination of French, Arabic, and English - as puffs of smoke rose from the city below and shells boomed in the background.

East Beirut's seeming normality is only relative to the utter chaos that gripped west Beirut until the Syrians marched in Feb. 22. Scratch the surface here on the east side and you find poverty, violence, and a society ruled by the increasingly powerful Lebanese Forces militia.

The sense of danger present just beneath the surface is evident in as mundane an occurrence as a traffic jam. Traffic snarls occur every day and can often back cars up for blocks. A traffic jam in Beirut, where practically everyone is armed, can be fraught with danger.

``Every time I am in a traffic jam or there is some small accident, I am afraid,'' says Issa Goraieb, a newspaper editor. ``You ... sit quietly because you know that at any moment someone can lose his temper and start shooting.''

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Christians (no one knows exactly how many) have given up and emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, or Africa. It is a drain of talent and capital that even hard-line Christians such as Dany Chamoun - the sort of Christian who would rather fight to the last man than yield Christian prerogatives to Muslims - acknowledge as a threat to establishing an autonomous Christian enclave.

``We have lost two generations here,'' says Mr. Chamoun, president of the National Liberal Party founded by his father, veteran politician Camille Chamoun. ``There's my father's generation and my own. Then below us is a big generation gap. There are 15- to 16-year-olds here. But in the 18-to-50-year-old group, there has been massive emigration. Entire villages have emigrated.''

Chamoun's own family is an example. His father is still revered as a Christian leader. He is a fixture on the political and social scene. His eldest daughter, Tracy, however, now lives and works in London.

The pound's collapse in the past year has created real financial hardship for masses of people for the first time since the civil war began. The average worker earns 4,000 a month - roughly $40. It is not nearly enough to live on.

``Of course the situation is getting worse,'' says Michel-Henri, a young commercial filmmaker. ``We are getting divided into the very poor and the very rich, and the middle class is getting squeezed out. The poor, you can see them everywhere now, for the first time.''

Kfar Shima, a poor neighborhood, lies within a few hundred yards of the ``green line,'' dividing east and west Beirut. I talked with Christian refugees who fled to east Beirut when the Druze drove Christians from the Shouf Mountains during the 1984 battles initiated by the Lebanese Forces militia.

``When my husband finds work, he earns 4,000 a month,'' said Amal Abdu Hadad, a mother of four. ``But the money lasts maybe 14 days. Then I have nothing to buy food for my children. Sometimes, we dig roots from the fields.'' Mrs. Abdu Hadad, her husband, children, and mother have lived in an abandoned school since fleeing their village three years ago.

The Lebanese Forces, the Christian militia that gained prominence under Bashir Gemayel (slain brother of the current President), brought Abdu Hadad's family to the school. The refugees have jury-rigged electricity but have no hot water. Often, Druze fighters snipe at the neighborhood. Sometimes shells explode nearby. The building is pocked with bullet holes.

Nine families - 32 people - from several Shouf villages live in the school, Abdu Hadad said. They have no money for better housing elsewhere. ``The Druze took everything,'' she says. ``We have nothing.'' Is she angry with the Druze?

``No,'' chorus Abdu Hadad and the other women who have joined the conversation. They are not angry with the Druze, they say. They are angry with the Lebanese Forces for ever coming to the Shouf and battling with the Druze.

``We lived in our villages for hundreds of years with the Druze,'' says Almazah Bitar. ``I had a house with four stories, a garden with grapes .... It is all gone. I left at midnight in my nightgown.''

In conversations with Christians, poor and rich, several themes recur: Their lives are not their own; the civil war is being waged by forces they don't understand and cannot control; there is nothing to be done but to continue surviving and believe that one day it will all be different.

``Sure, it is a crazy situation,'' Brother Felix, an instructor at the St. LaSalle private boys' school says. ``But we are crazy too now.'' Brother Felix, born in Malta, has lived in Lebanon 40 years. He never considered leaving, he says.

``We have taken 12 direct hits during the war, the last time was in 1985. But a shell landed 20 meters from here the day before yesterday,'' he says. ``We have grown accustomed to it.'' St. LaSalle teaches 2,500 middle-class youngsters between the ages of 9 and 13.

``It is very important to the youth that we ... keep the school open,'' he says. ``It is important to instill in them the inspiration, to give them the will to struggle. You can't build a nation without a people.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to While Beirut burns, skiing and style survive
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today