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Lebanon: Paradise Lost

The result in once placid, leafy places like Brummana and Beit Mery is garishly dreadful. (Dhour and Sofar are still largely barren and unrebuilt.) The old hotels have simply disappeared. The once quiet and largely pedestrian streets have become horn-blaring single-lane nightmares with cars at a standstill for long periods at a stretch. Village grocers and butchers who lived off the summer trade from beneath white canvas awnings have given way to a mishmash of shops with multicultural signs that scream at you: Henny Penny, Cheyenne Western Store, Nokia, Pretty Woman, Edelweiss Tapis-Antiquités, Speedy-Foto, Super Superette, Better Clothing, Bonny Shoes & Socks. And dozens upon dozens of restaurants and fast-food stalls, each of them completely and surprisingly appetizing. (One mustn't forget that Beirut's branch of McDonald's has valet parking and is no ordinary hamburger joint.)

The sedate old Printania Palace Hotel in Brummana, damaged during the war, still stands but is now obscured by a fancy modern hotel with the same name, clearly designed with the Hyatt and Inter-Continental trade in mind. At the other end of town, the Park Hotel—in its day a smaller, more refined, and exclusive hotel that rivaled its Sofar and Dhour counterparts while lacking their monumental presence—has also disappeared, as has most of the little hill overlooking the valley on which it perched. An enormous multilevel condo project has come into being, 10 times too big for the site, grotesquely misnamed the Grand Hills Village. Made of mountain stone and not quite ready for its prospective tenants as I drove by in early July, it seemed to have been dragged out of a Bela Lugosi—meets—Wyatt Earp movie, with perhaps equally confusing results. The Grand Hotel Beit Mery has been replaced by a tastefully modern hotel, the Bustan.

The Grand Hotel in Sofar still stands—somber, bombed out, ragged, and yet a quietly dignified, even majestic, ruin. The terraces and gardens on its northern and southern sides are a riot of bramble and charred building fragments. In a distant corner of the northern garden is a large shack; inside the hotel, nestled beneath the dark arches that were still standing on one side, I found several half-gutted cars, basically chassis without tires or interiors. It was impossible to tell whether they were being repaired or had been put there pending further deconstruction. As a pair of open-faced young men approached me from a corner of the untended garden, I tried to disarm them. "I used to come here many years ago. Do you live here?" I asked, nodding toward the shack. They were immediately friendly, even welcoming. Their father had been the customer service manager but as the hotel was damaged and the owners had no money to pay employees, the old man had been given the right to live on the property and shelter his family from the ongoing war. He had since died, however, and as there seemed no prospect of the tourist industry reviving, his sons had gone into the car repair business. What had been a temporary abode had become a permanent one, though at a vast social remove from its original purpose.

LAST SUMMER I MANAGED TO TRAVERSE THE EASTERN Mediterranean littoral from Tripoli and Beirut in the north to Port Said and Alexandria in the south. Gone was the graceful arc of pleasant ports, citrus groves, fishing villages, small beachfront resorts. In its place was an almost continuous wall of concrete. Polluted water was everywhere, and commercialized seafront properties, all of them (and regardless of whether in Israel or an Arab country) the result of unrestricted development that seemed to be battling for a foothold at the water's edge and beyond. In each country the reasons for the new ugliness were different. Yet this wave of crowded and decidedly aggressive construction had effectively throttled what had once been a welcoming environment, relatively small in scale, that E. M. Forster had contrasted favorably with the overwhelming vastness of India. All that had changed.

In Lebanon, the summer mountain peaks that seemed like a last outpost of rest and natural pleasure were erased during the civil war—itself a symptom of the tenuousness and fragility of the social fabric that had once given Lebanon its unique blend of individuality and collective anarchy—leaving behind nothing very lasting or attractive. In its scramble to reemerge as a regional financial and cultural center, Lebanon has become a frantic new place, beset with overcrowding and a floundering economy, in addition to the region's political volatility. Relatively unencumbered by puritanical laws, it remains the Arab world's most exciting country but, except for its immensely energetic citizens, its mountains are minus a summer vocation.


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