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All Eyes on Beirut

When you fly down the eastern Mediterranean coast on a clear night, there is nothing to suggest that this place has suffered more, or more recently, than anywhere else on the shores of this most battle-scarred of seas. As the plane tracks the soft line of the surf, the resort town of Jounié, streets aglitter with bars and clubs, makes way for the bright ribbon of highway and then, suddenly, the hill of Achrafieh rising out of Beirut to greet us.

The lights hold the heady allure that they do in every other great Mediterranean city, a complex brew of the familiar and the strange, of cosmopolitan ease and the promise of new worlds just over the horizon. And then suddenly the lights are gone and we drop into blackness.

This black hole is where Beirut's Central District used to be, before a 15-year war quite literally shot its insides out. When I first came to the city after hostilities officially ended in 1991, there was little to suggest it could again become what it was said to have been: a verdant neutral zone where East and West mingled in the pursuit of pleasure and profit. The churches and mosques were still standing; so, too, were the grand hotels along the seafront and the splendid palace from which the Ottomans administered this corner of their empire. But each of these had had its innards scooped out, its faÁade ravaged as if by a pox, its doorways bearded with weeds.

Lebanon's was a particularly nasty war. British reporter Robert Fisk, its best and most constant chronicler, wrote that it prefigured Bosnia in its sectarian viciousness and ethnic cleansings, and in the often shameful involvement of the West, as myriad factions fought to exhaustion. Where it seems to differ from Bosnia is in the peace. The Lebanese may be unable to forget those 15 years, but they seem prepared to lay them aside, to pledge themselves to some kind of life beyond that time.

What is happening today in Beirut is the best evidence of this. The task of rebuilding the 445-acre Central District went to a private company, Solidère. Solidère's first designs for the new Beirut smacked more of Orlando than the Orient, a reflection, it was widely remarked, of the less-than-subtle touch of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a portly billionaire who made his fortune building big for the Saudis.

Much has changed since then. Lady Yvonne Cochrane, a Beiruti who led the attack against the philistines from her splendid old mansion high above the city, concedes that "the whole idea of Solidère was anathema. But they are the only ones preserving buildings in Beirut, and the restoration work is of very high quality."

So it is. After years of work, the green netting draped demurely over 265 buildings is coming down. The edifices beneath are emerging from their makeover like debutantes for the new season, dressed elegantly in the luminous cream-colored sandstone of the Middle East.

Past the bulldozers and construction crews, it becomes clear that this part of the city will be on a human scale, studded with parks, promenades, and marinas, and open to the sea and the mountains at every turn. It will also be open to its own past. Startling remnants of Canaanite Beirut, including a monumental entrance and steps, and the port and ramparts of the Phoenician city Berytus-- whose recent uncovering is one of the war's few gifts-- will be left open to the air. If these ruins are presented with the same verve as the newly landscaped Roman Baths, they will be sights worth seeing.

Beyond the traditional center, the story is less cheery. The streets are a snarling stew of cars. The building boom that took off unlicensed during the war has continued legally in peacetime, spurred by the belief that thousands of exiles would return en masse and that Beirut would swiftly become the region's Hong Kong. The hills above the city, once lush, are now carpeted in concrete.

But tens of thousands are still homeless, and luxury apartments sit empty all over the city. The government is borrowing heavily, at high interest rates, to pay for the city's reconstruction. And with the momentum toward Middle East peace slowing since Netanyahu came to power in Israel, the inflow of capital for job-creating investment is still a drip rather than a flood. The economy is stagnating.

The long-term prospects are worrying, too. Syria has 35,000 troops in Lebanon-- though, in Beirut, they are all but invisible these days-- and controls much of the country. Israel also holds a swath of the south, despite talk of a pullout, and there is an ominous feeling among many Beirutis that the Israelis will not permit Beirut to reemerge as the region's financial center, that they will find reason to invade yet again. For the moment, though, the peace holds, and life goes on much as it does in any other city along this sunlit coast.

In response to the return of normalcy, the tourists are coming back, almost half a million of them in the first 10 months of last year. They are Arabs and Europeans mostly, but there are fond hopes that Americans will start coming again too, now that the U.S. State Department has lifted not only its ban but the subsequent advisory on travel to Lebanon.

Beirut, hastily climbing into its party dress, is just about ready for them. Old hotels are being gussied up, and new ones are rising from barren land: a Marriott and an Inter-Continental are here already, a Four Seasons is on its way. Even the battered snipers' nest that was the Phoenicia is being refurbished.


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