Letter From Beirut

A City Struggles To Maintain a Bit of Its Charm

An employee readies bar stools at the Godot Café, one of the establishments trying to open for business despite Israeli bombing. Many close much earlier than they once did.
An employee readies bar stools at the Godot Café, one of the establishments trying to open for business despite Israeli bombing. Many close much earlier than they once did. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 26, 2006

BEIRUT, July 25 The baby carrots at Beirut's tony Duo Café restaurant were a little spongy. But the sauce normande was right on the beam and the loup de mer tasted reasonably briny against an astringent rosé from Chateau Kefraya.

On the 14th day of a bloody war -- yet another -- Beirut struggled Tuesday to live up to its old reputation as a Middle Eastern haven for cosmopolitan life and intercommunal harmony. As fighting raged in the south and refugees flooded northward, it was an act increasingly difficult to sustain, sleight of hand by an aging magician who is no longer sure of his tricks.

The latest round of fighting, matching Israel against Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim movement, has already put cracks in a facade carefully reassembled since the last war ended in 1990. The rebuilt traditional buildings of downtown Beirut, with their trendy bars, fashion shops and high-rolling banks, have turned off the lights and locked the doors. Most of Beirut has taken to pulling down the shutters after a late lunch, frightened indoors by Israeli bombs that regularly blast Hezbollah neighborhoods on the southern edge of the city.

"We used to be open until 3 a.m., and in the summer sometimes until 5 a.m., but now there's nobody," said Maroun Khadrah, manager of Le Petit Café, across Maarad Street from Duo. He spoke shortly before powerful explosions from four more bombs cracked across town, shaking streets and buildings. "We close at 7 p.m. now," he said, gesturing toward a largely empty street. "Look around, everything's closed up."

The proud new expressway connecting downtown Beirut with the new international airport has been largely abandoned because it runs through the southern suburbs where Hezbollah has its headquarters and most of its supporters. Bombs have reduced block after block there to rubble. The airport has been bombed as well, and closed for the duration. A few lonely cars race frantically along the road, heading south toward the war zone, with the drivers hoping their vehicles are not in an Israeli pilot's cross hairs.

The new burst of war has also badly damaged the idea that Lebanon had recovered its national unity after 15 years of civil war. Hezbollah started the conflict July 12 without reference to the national government. In two weeks of fighting, the national army has stood by. As a result, the country's Shiites have sharpened their differences from the rest of the population, leaving 30 to 40 percent of the country imbued with an increasingly different idea of what its personality should be.

Sunni Muslim relief workers in the south Lebanon war zone said they have been insulted and even assaulted by Shiite refugees outraged that the rest of Lebanon is not helping in the battle. Reading the signs, some Lebanese warned of a danger to the reunified nation if the conflict drags on and United States and Israel proceed with their plan to try to disarm the Hezbollah movement across the country.

"The Israeli plan . . . is in fact that we become divided, leading to the disappearance of the state of Lebanon," Ghassan Tueni, the owner of an-Nahar newspaper and a widely respected Lebanese sage, wrote in a front-page editorial.

Michel, the waiter serving sea perch at Duo, was still outfitted in black tie as if on a Paris boulevard. Pouring the wine and serving the fish with a flourish, he appeared uninterested in such political intricacies, but desperate to hear that Lebanon would remain what it always wanted to be. "What do you think? How long will it go on?" Michel asked a foreign customer. "In the future, do you think it can be all right again?"

Visitors, including some who have been in the country for only a few days, report they have been asked that question over and over. Taxi drivers want to know. Hotel clerks inquire. Technicians look away from their cranky Internet equipment and seek the advice of strangers.

"Everybody always asks me that," said Cassandra Nelson, a communications officer for Mercy Corps, an international aid group, who had just arrived to help refugees. "My God, what do I know?"

Apologetically, Michel asked if fruit salad was okay for dessert, since Duo's more elaborate creations were not available in these trying times. "The Paris of the Middle East," people traditionally said of Beirut, and Michel did his best to make it seem true.

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