The Commodore was home

OTHERS, who'd been stationed there in the halcyon 1950s, told me they used to enjoy the St. George. They talked of breezes wafting in off the Mediterranean, sun-lapped verandas, lovely old souks, and the showy, Las Vegas-style nightlife just minutes away. That seemed wonderful to me. But it was legend by the time I got there.

The St. George was destroyed. My home was the Commodore. It was up the hill from the St. George; much dowdier; secreted among the low-rise buildings of Beirut's crowded Hamra Street. It was less of a prize, less strategic a location for the armies, gangs, and freebooters who roamed west Beirut when I was there in the early '80s.

But the Commodore was home - a somewhat quiet place to sleep and get an OK meal. It wasn't a hotel you checked into and out of antiseptically, as you might in London, New York, or San Francisco. You had to know the staff, the regulars, the oddities. You knew that somehow, when everything else fell apart, Fuad Salah kept the Commodore running.

My first night at the Commodore, during a relatively quiet summer, a colleague was worried he might be kidnapped. He slept in the closet of his room. That seemed funny at the time.

Two years later, having been in and out of the Commodore many times, I heard sonic booms and watched leaflets float down outside my window. These announced that the city was going to be stormed by the Israeli Army the next day. I spent a sleepless night listening to the artillery booming south of the city and considering just when I might roll off the bed and crawl into the closet.

There were many, many times like that. But not every day was the eve of the end of the world. There were lulls, time for jaunts through the gorgeous hills surrounding Beirut, trips to see a dance troupe or window-shopping in the Hamra Street boutiques. There were even mornings of jogging on the Corniche, the seafront road.

Always, it was back home to the Commodore, where Fuad kept things orderly, food available, telexes humming.

The family table was the horseshoe-shaped bar in the lobby of the hotel. Around it, all manner of correspondent, spy, ne'er-do-well, and information-peddler appeared and disappeared. One could schmooze with other hacks, sidle up to a key figure in the PLO, or organize a trip to some of the forlorn French restaurants flickering like dying campfires in the wasted city.

It was at the Commodore that I met Abed. He was one of the taxi drivers so necessary to deal with in order to reconnoiter the streets, camps, and faraway regions of that beautiful, ruined nation.

Abed was cool and kind; he didn't get excited at a checkpoint or under fire. He was like an old uncle, my ambassador to the strange world of Lebanon, driving his big Pontiac through the crowded streets.

One Saturday, during one of the inexplicable lulls in the madness, Abed agreed to drive my wife and me out of Beirut, across the mountains, and into the Bekaa Valley. Our destination was Baalbek - a fantastic ancient temple complex smack in the middle of Lebanon. Until the mid-70s, Baalbek had been the scene of a yearly pageant, and Lebanese would get misty-eyed when they talked of driving out of Beirut and watching the dancing and singing in pagan temples bathed with colored lights.

On our way up the Lebanon Mountains toward Baalbek, Abed stopped at a forlorn coffee and souvenir shop. We poked around and finally bought some trinkets and sipped a soda. As we drove away, Abed told us:

``The man say-ed to me, `Oh, I am very happy. The American tourists are coming back, inshallah.' He wantis this very much.''

So did we. But, O Lebanon ... you are such an enchanting country, so benign in climate, so exotic in landscape - but so fractured and self-devouring with your wretched refugee camps, hundred-year-old grudges, explosions in the night.

With Abed, we wound our way down the Lebanon Mountains and into the Bekaa, traveling the route caravans had followed for centuries. Just south of the temples we let a shopkeeper talk us into buying several ``certified'' artifacts from her dusty shelves. An ancient perfume vase was one. We knew that the vase had to be a fake - but it seemed appropriate to own a piece of possibly genuine, possibly faux Lebanon.

After wandering around deserted temples, we drove to a little park, through which a clear mountain stream gurgled. Abed opened his trunk and produced little Lebanese pizzas covered with pine nuts; his wife had made these for us the night before.

At such times, I think, one cannot help but hear heartbreaking echoes of Lebanon's Khalil Gibran in the brook, the swooshing cedars, the smiles of the Lebanese - ``as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space. Through the hands of such as these, God speaks, and from behind their eyes he smiles upon the earth.''

But too seldom. Too seldom.

Two years later, the violence welled up into war. A year after that, in a burst of false hope, I even heard the Commodore pianist playing ``I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy'' to a contingent of US Marine officers. But the violence never left Lebanon.

Now, four years later, even those days seem halcyon.

We accidently broke the perfume vase a year ago. Baalbek, where Abed so calmly drove us, is where many of the American hostages have been held by their captors. And, finally, in another spasm of civil war, the Commodore itself was shattered and looted in February. Abed no longer waits at the corner with his big white Pontiac, ready to drive journalists around his country.

Being a journalist, I could sit here and tell you reasons behind all the awfulness, all the kidnapping, all the fighting. But that would be what the head says about Lebanon. What the heart says is different. It prays that one day that souvenir dealer will have his wish, that the land of milk and honey will reopen to innocent tourists, and the myrtle will breathe its fragrance for those who love peace, not war.

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