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Lebanon: Paradise Lost

The hotels themselves were large establishments, some with as many as 75 rooms, several dining rooms, a banquet hall, gaming and billiard rooms, and, because of the mountain setting, immense terraces with colorful umbrellas, metal tables, and wicker chairs interspersed with languorously extended deck chairs. Size was everywhere used to impress, if not awe, the visitor. In the Kassouf, for example, an enormously long and steep staircase swept up from the driveway into the front terrace and reception area: it was like something out of Hollywood's Technicolor version of The Three Musketeers. Sofar's Grand Hotel had two majestic staircases just inside the entrance; they appeared to dare you (if you weren't a guest) to mount them. On the occasion of a big event like a wedding reception, a floor show—usually made up of a celebrated magician, medium, and singer—or a banquet, the huge hulk of the Beit Mery Grand Hotel would be thrown open almost recklessly, one felt, its great terraces, eating areas, salons exposed to public view as if to say, Isn't all this so much grander, so unlike anything you've seen anywhere before?

The remarkable thing about all the grand hotels was that they were only passably comfortable and not at all luxurious. Compared with today's notion of comfort—telephones, electronic equipment, super-abundant bathrooms, fancy furniture, thick towels, room service—the Lebanese summer palaces were actually austere. Water was always a problem, so bathrooms were both scarce and quite minimal. You couldn't take a bath, so half the rooms were equipped only with a basin and a toilet, perhaps a shower, plus all the necessities for a sponge bath. Menus varied from a Lebanese dish such as stuffed zucchini and grape leaves one night to an international (and rather tough) roast lamb with potatoes the next. Hotel furniture was of the rudimentary summer category: pine cabinets and tables, steel-frame beds, wicker chairs, and large brown or burgundy wool or velvet sofas and armchairs. Overhead lights, direct and brutally bright, were everywhere. Soft, indirect lighting was unknown. And that was about it, so far as décor and atmosphere were concerned. It was the appearance, location, and reputation of the hotels that gave them their status, not what was in them.

Faster cars allied with rapid, easy plane travel and the idea of a quick weekend was what first began to erode the grand hotels' haughty glamour. Air-conditioning completed the process. If you didn't need to be in one of them for a minimum of six weeks—they were terribly hard to get to, and that was an essential aspect of their hauteur—and if you could go to Cyprus, then later Greece, Italy, Turkey, in a few hours and if, most important of all, distance and social status were no longer the domain of a few people, there weren't many customers left to spend an unexciting period of time at sleepy places like Sofar or Dhour. Why leave the city at all if the heat could be held at bay by refrigerated air, or forgotten in a more and more varied array of fashionable beaches and yachts?I doubt that with the advent of television, for instance, the sedate, cloistered world of perennial regulars could have survived. The region's numerous political upheavals also slowly drained the old hotels of their relaxed and cosmopolitan clientele.

A MORE CRUEL FATE THAN TELEVISION AND AIR-CONDITIONING overtook Lebanon's mountain resorts in 1975—civil war. In Beirut, for instance, the ponderously big seafront hotels like the Phoenicia and Holiday Inn, built during the 1960's and 70's oil boom, were ideal locations for artillery posts set up by the strenuously competing factions, and choice targets as well, none sadder than the legendary St. Georges Hotel, Beirut's most distinguished hostelry (now being rebuilt). By the end of the seventies and the early eighties, after seven to nine years of furious shelling that engulfed first the city, then the mountains, the Kassouf was knocked out, as well as the Grand Hotel Sofar; and then the big palaces of Aley, Bhamdoun, Beit Mery, and Brummana were either gutted or made uninhabitable. The summer mountains became refuges for city people fleeing the Israeli invasion of 1982 as well as the 1985 war of the Palestinian refugee camps and General Awn's random bombing of the city a few years later, or they became outposts of one or another military force.

Dhour today is still a Syrian army redoubt, most of its bombed-out houses still unrepaired and unpeopled, the great old Kassouf a sprawling shambles of what it once was, the noble front staircase crumbling and useless, a pathetic reminder of great days all but forgotten under the indifferent sun. The big hotels and houses of Aley, Bhamdoun, Souk el Gharb were demolished in the fighting, their cavernously empty interiors turned into barracks or arms depots. So far as I can tell no faction refrained from this pointless vandalism. To the fighters themselves a place like the Grand Hotel Kassouf could have meant nothing except temporary protection or a target; to the warlords these summer castles were convenient stopping places for the armed forces who, like so many minor employees, were paid to do a messy job. Certainly none of these people had any memory of what once had been.

The Lebanese civil war ended officially a decade ago. Under the premiership of Rafik Hariri, a Croesus-like Lebanese contractor who made his endless supply of money in Saudi Arabia and ran the country between 1992 and 1998, rebuilding began—but it was a rebuilding unlike any other. Central Beirut, completely ravaged during the war, was redesigned as a spanking oversized postmodern commercial headquarters for the region, startlingly unlike the beehive of small buildings and narrow casbah streets that had stood there for centuries. A few luxury apartments were built and a souk or two restored, though not before a public outcry about the threat to the mainly Roman and Phoenician archaeological remains forced a change in the original plans. There was much regret expressed about the passing of old Beirut with surprisingly little said about the disappeared mountain resorts, which have been left in ruins like the old Kassouf, or—much more disturbing—buried under a heap of new, unplanned, unzoned, unrestricted housing and commercial areas that have completely defaced, indeed massacred, the physical setting for which Lebanon had once been famous. Lebanon's wealthy have retreated to new gated summer colonies like Faqra in the north or to overseas pleasure palaces in Super Cannes and Marbella, leaving the exhausted middle class in frantic search of a foothold outside Beirut.

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