Barrage Reopens Wounds of a Fractured Beirut

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 17, 2006; A01

BEIRUT, July 17 -- Physician Salem Ali sprawled in a chair at Sahel General Hospital, where he had spent the last four days. His house? He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. It was near the Iranian Embassy, he said as explanation.

"I have no idea whether it's still standing or whether it's destroyed," he said.

A television near him Sunday echoed with the staccato images of the Israeli attacks, chronicling in real time the successive explosions rattling his hospital in the southern neighborhoods of Beirut, which serve as Hezbollah's stronghold.

On the radio next to him was a song by Majda Al-Roumi, "O Beirut, the Lady of the World." "Rise from under the rubble, like a flower of almond in April," she sang. Her voice then soared: "Rise, O Beirut!"

In the crucible of Israel's attacks this month on the Lebanese capital, the city that rises will probably never be the same as the one that stood before. These days, in poignant ways, many different Beiruts are emerging, its famous diversity proving its greatest curse. There is the city of Ali's neighborhood in Dahiya, home to a Shiite Muslim ideology that merges militant politics with deepest faith. There are others in a capital where streets serve as borders: a Sunni Muslim community that presided over Beirut's reconstruction from a 15-year civil war, now watching its destruction, and a Christian neighborhood that talks of the city's very survival.

From bomb-scarred Dahiya in the south to unscathed Ashrafiyeh in the east, there is a sense that the very calculus of the city is changing, the sectarian forces that have always defined it beginning to overwhelm it. Now more than ever, politics are conflating with identity, and to many, Beirut's most difficult questions may be asked only when the Israeli bombs stop falling.

"We've gone through worse times, and life returned," Ali said, as the song played. "It will be a beautiful city again."

Said Patrick Ferran, at the city's other end: "Sometimes you have to destroy a house if you want to rebuild it."

Devotion to Hezbollah

In Dahiya, the yellow banners of Hezbollah carry a martial image: a fist grasping an AK-47 assault rifle emblazoned in green. Under a sky shadowed by plumes of smoke from bombing, portraits on lampposts commemorate slain Hezbollah fighters: Talal Zein, Nasrallah Daher, Fadi Azz el-Din. Across one building is the face of Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader. "Always loyal," the slogan reads underneath.

Along a nearby street is Ali's hospital and, a little farther down, the bomb shelter where he and 50 other people watched a speech in which Nasrallah extolled Hezbollah's attack Friday on an Israeli ship off the coast of Lebanon. Gathered around the television, the crowd erupted in cheers. "God is greatest," some shouted. Children cried out, "Victory to the resistance!"

"It makes you feel proud," said Ali, a Shiite Muslim originally from Taibe, along the Israeli border.

There are myriad reasons for Hezbollah's support among Shiite Muslims, Lebanon's largest community. Once rural, illiterate and dominated by a small elite of feudal landlords and reactionary clergy, the community was transformed during the 1975-90 civil war. In many ways, Hezbollah, which emerged during the 1982 Israeli invasion, embodied that metamorphosis. It provided schools, hospitals, pharmacies and dental clinics, spending millions of dollars a year -- made possible by Iran. It transformed the community's numbers into a voice that today represents the deciding factor in Lebanese politics.

But to Ali, Hezbollah represents a deeper meaning. He spoke of dignity, pride and strength for a community once collectively known as mahrumeen , or the deprived.

Ali asked: Who expelled the Israelis from southern Lebanon in 2000?

"Resistance was the only way to get our occupied land back. Even with all the United Nations resolutions, they could not make the Israelis pull back from Lebanon," he said. "The resistance was the only way to force them back."

The Israeli raids have battered Dahiya. Outside the hospital, ambulances have left tire tracks in the broken glass. A little after noon, a sonorous call to prayer echoed through now-deserted streets strewn with the detritus of bombing. In the hospital, the staff watched al-Jazeera and Hezbollah's channel, al-Manar, virtually round-the-clock.

"A culture of resistance," Ali called it.

"We believe Lebanon will be victorious in the end. That's what we believe," he said.

Ali calls himself apolitical; he neither belongs to Hezbollah nor works for any of its branches. But he said no one else, "not the Lebanese government, not the United Nations, not any other Arab country" secured what he calls his liberty.

"They liberated our land," he said. "That's priceless. Liberty is priceless."

A Nation Divided

On the streets out of Dahiya, the Shiite iconography gradually fades. The road hugs the former Green Line, what once divided Beirut into a largely Muslim west and a Christian east. Some of the buildings chiseled by the war remain. In the neighborhoods of Sunni Muslims, traditionally the elite of Beirut, other banners emerge. "The Truth," one reads in black -- a demand by supporters of Rafiq Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister and Sunni who single-handedly inspired Beirut's reconstruction. His assassination in 2005 was blamed on Syria, but the culprits have yet to be charged.

Around the corner, in the neighborhood of Zukak Blatt, is the house of Assem Salam, the 80-year-old scion of a traditionally prominent Sunni family.

"It's sad for Beirut, it's sad for all Lebanon," he said, sitting on the patio of his 176-year-old house, a fan lazily churning. "The situation reflects the whole fragile constitution of the country itself. The saddest part is its fragmentation."

Politics in Lebanon, a country of 18 religious sects, is a tenuous arrangement. The Christian minority is protected by equal representation in parliament. The president, though weak, is a Maronite Catholic. The prime minister is Sunni. The parliament speaker, almost as powerful, is Shiite. In a region where minorities have often suffered, it ensures representation. But that representation means decisions must come through consensus among Shiites, Sunnis and different factions of Christians. Reaching a consensus on Hezbollah's weapons has proved the most elusive task of a government still trying to define itself in the wake of Syria's troop withdrawal last year after a 29-year military presence.

"The Syrians left, and Lebanon has been left to manage its own destiny, and now the conflict has come to the surface," he said.

Salam is an architect, and his vision defined many of Beirut's prewar landmarks. The city's brilliance is its diversity, but he believes that diversity has been subsumed in segregation: Christian and Muslim ghettos. He doesn't want to live in either.

They are divided by perspective, too, he said, and as always, it revolves around Israel, Lebanon's powerful neighbor.

"It's a conflict between two cultures -- a culture of resistance and a culture of accommodation," he said. On this day, as Beirut endured a fifth day of Israeli airstrikes, he saw no way to bridge them.

"You're not going to kill all the Shiites in Hezbollah, are you?" he asked. Salam recalled the dramatic departure that began on Aug. 21, 1982, of thousands of Palestinian fighters from Beirut after the Israeli invasion and siege of the capital. "Can you send Hezbollah out? They're Lebanese citizens, and they're going to be more bitter than ever before."

Bombs reverberated in the distance. "It could be thunder," he said, looking at an overcast sky. "But in July?" He recalled the Israeli strike on a lighthouse the day before. "That was ridiculous," he said, "nothing more than humiliation."

The fighting aside, he said, he had decided to stay in the city.

"But for the first time, I'm really worried," he said.

"You want my frank opinion?" he asked, puffing a cigar. "I think it's the end of Lebanon."

Lost Vision of Revival

Across the Green Line, beyond the still-sleek, picturesque rebuilt downtown, is Gemayze, a neighborhood becoming a symbol of a cosmopolitan Beirut with its arcade of bars, restaurants and galleries. At Bar Louie, a sign read, "Closed tonight because of some technical problems." Overhead was a portrait of Gebran Tueni, a journalist, lawmaker and Syrian opponent who was assassinated last year. His speech during protests last spring that helped force Syria's withdrawal sounded hollow on this day: "We swear by God almighty, Muslims and Christians, to remain united, till eternity, in defense of great Lebanon."

In one of the few cafes open, 25-year-old Ferran took a break from trying to install a television.

"Why stay at home?" asked Ferran, who manages the cafe, Godot. "If we make money, it's better than spending money. We have alcohol here, we have our food here and we just got our TV."

Beirut, facing the Mediterranean, prides itself on its mercantile prowess and, until a few days ago, Ferran was excited about the future. Finally, what he called his generation of war was beginning to reap the rewards of peace. Godot is packed most nights, and he was preparing to spend $30,000 to open a bar down the street. No longer, echoing a sentiment expressed by many Beirutis who lament the loss of a generation-long vision of Beirut's revival. He said he will lose his $5,000 deposit and move to Oman with the woman he soon will marry. He hopes to find a job there.

"I think I should leave all this for a little while," he said.

Ferran, a Greek Catholic, is understated. He said, in some ways, he admires Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader.

"But as civilians, we don't want to stand anymore for big causes that we're not involved in. We just want stability. We want prosperity."

"Even if there's a war," he added, "I would not go. I will not fight for a cause in the end."

On the stereo played Nina Simone, then Buffalo Springfield's antiwar anthem "For What It's Worth." The menu was in French, and cold Heineken was on tap. Four rows of liquor stood before a mirror that reflected the bar's wood paneling.

For a moment, he was optimistic: Maybe the war would end the issue of Hezbollah's arms.

Then he turned grimmer: "They will not give up. They will destroy Israel, or they will be destroyed."

Empowered Minorities

In Sassin Square in the neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh, an engraving of Bashir Gemayel, a right-wing Christian militia leader elected president, then assassinated in 1982, looked out at sporadic traffic. Overhead was a banner for Samir Geagea, a civil war leader again in politics. To the right was a poster for Michel Aoun, a former general who is probably the most popular Christian leader.

At Afandem Restaurant sat three Christian youths, agitated and angry.

"If I'm supposed to respect Nasrallah, he should respect me. If he respects us, I respect him," said Fadi Geagea, a 21-year-old student, smoking a cigarette. "To be honest, he's not respecting us."

In the wake of World War I, as the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, France sought to aid its traditional allies in Lebanon, the Maronite Christians. To make viable their homeland in Mount Lebanon, a rugged region of terraced hillsides, they redrew the borders to encompass the Sunni-dominated port cities of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli, the fertile Bekaa Valley and the Shiite regions of the south. Identity was always a question: Was Lebanon a Christian homeland, a part of the Sunni Arab world or something in between?

Fadi Geagea and his friends say they know what it is now becoming: a Shiite fiefdom of Hezbollah. And to stop Hezbollah, to take away its weapons, to diminish its influence, they were willing to see Israel attack their country.

"If we don't have weapons, then no one should have weapons. If Hezbollah keeps its weapons, then why shouldn't we have them?" asked 21-year-old Joseph Muhanna. His friends nodded.

"They need to either surrender their weapons or have their heads cracked," said 18-year-old George Khouri.

They argued about various Christian leaders. One slapped the other, more in play than anger. They differed on whether Nasrallah should be killed. But they agreed about Lebanon's identity and what the future would hold.

"Islam is controlling us, and we've known that for a long time," said Khouri, wearing a cross crafted as an emblem of a Christian party. "Lebanon is a Christian country. We're steadfast, and one day we'll be in charge of Lebanon again."

"God will be good to us ahead," Muhanna said.

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