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All Eyes on Beirut

Many of Lebanon's treasures were looted during the war, but not those of the newly renovated National Museum. Maurice Chehab, director of antiquities at the time, hid roomfuls of artifacts behind false walls and poured concrete over his prized statuary. When peace came, they were dug out: the crypt of the sarcophagi is almost shocking, 27 anthropoid figures laid out in a row, as if in a morgue. They might have been wheeled in yesterday.

Clearly, there are more satisfying Beiruts to ferret out than "the next Hong Kong." Climb the hill to the mansions of the Rue Sursock and find the sumptuous city of Beirut's "notables." Stroll the Corniche from the St. Georges Yacht Club and breathe the salty glamour of the prewar resort. Pace the lush grounds of the American University of Beirut and encounter Lady Cochrane's "garden of the Middle East." And then there is Hamra, just over the hill. As chic in its day as the Faubourg St.-Honoré, it is now a slightly tawdry mix of nineties postmodern and sixties retro.

Here at 63 Rue Abdel Aziz, Saleh Barakat runs perhaps the most interesting of Beirut's increasingly numerous contemporary art galleries. With peace restored, he says, the freedom and money of Beirut have once again made it "the ultimate place to exhibit in the Arab world." To illustrate this, Barakat pulls canvas after canvas from his storeroom, stark works from Syria and Iraq.

By contrast, much of modern Lebanese art is thinly derivative. The people love their landscapes, though, and with reason. "In Syria, nature has more or less one color," says Barakat, "the yellow of the desert. In Lebanon, the mountains can be white with snow. Then there is the green of the conifers and another green below that, and then the blue of the Mediterranean. We are overwhelmed by color." This reminds me of something wine maker Serge Hochar told me: "The joie de vivre you find here is due to the microclimate of the country. The feeling of being in Lebanon is exceptional. You can't be precise about it."

The zest of the Beirutis is certainly part of that feeling. Beirut reputedly has the world's highest per capita consumption of both cigars and silicone; even the lowliest cabbie will drive nothing but a BMW or a Mercedes, however ancient. These are show-offs on a world scale, but also extrovert, welcoming, and with almost superhuman stamina for a party.

They partied through the war and they have been partying seriously since it ended. Now, as gilded young exiles flood back, the city's nightlife has come alive again. The area around Sodeco-- on the old Green Line between eastern and western Beirut, it was the scene of some of the most bitter fighting-- is littered with bars and restaurants: Zinc and Babylone are among the best. Beirut's answer to Terence Conran, Beshara Nammour, owns several-- including the beautiful Lebanese spot Al Mijana.

Around the corner on Rue Monot, Pacífico serves Tex-Mex and Creole food under big, old fans. Camille Chahwan, its young co-owner, spent much of the war in Europe. "People feel that Beirut is coming back now," he explains. "You go away for three or four months and you feel the change. It's really happening fast."

The Beirutis are rebuilding not just a city, but a life. It will not be easy. As the peace process clunks along, there is an awareness here that everything they raise up might yet be ground into the dust once again.

"Beirut is a vessel through which others pass," Saleh Barakat tells me as I leave his gallery in Hamra. The Beirutis have outlasted the Romans and the Ottomans and countless others. And they will doubtless still be here when whoever comes next goes tramping off into the distance. In the end, living is what Beirutis do best.


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