Darkness Is Mood At Beirut Lighthouse

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 28, 2006

BEIRUT, July 27 -- Just as the sun was setting two weeks ago, with Israeli warplanes buzzing low over Beirut and explosions echoing nearby, fourth-generation lighthouse keeper Victor Shibley received orders from his superiors to shut off the projectors.

"As soon as I turned off the lights, the first one hit, then the second," Shibley, 55, said of the blasts that gutted the top floors of the gleaming new Manara lighthouse, a black and white tower that rises above the city's seafront district. "No one will stay alive, I told myself."

It was 6:45 p.m. July 15, and Shibley was at the lighthouse with his two sons, Raymond, 27, an apprentice expected to eventually succeed his father, and Joseph, the elder, as well as eight other employees on a lower floor.

The Israeli helicopter gunships were targeting any site that housed military radar installations after Hezbollah fighters shelled an Israeli gunboat. Victor Shibley's wife, Jeannette, was at home during the attack and said she "just assumed the worst had happened to my three men."

No one at the lighthouse was hurt during the airstrike. Shibley, the keeper, said the lamp, made of security glass, had been smashed, and his son displayed photos he had taken of two holes left in the walls by the Israeli strike.

"You cannot let fear take a hold of you," Raymond Shibley said.

His father's response was more sober. "We have witnessed and seen so much calamity," he said. "We did not sleep that night. I was afraid they would come back to hit the old stone lighthouse, which we keep as a standby in case the new one fails."

The new lighthouse is Shibley's pride and joy, an electronic marvel. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had labored over gas-fired lamps since Ottoman times to guide ships at sea. His uncles, George and Zaki, had manned lighthouses in Jaffa, now part of Israel, while it was under British mandate, and in the Syrian port of Latakia before French troops left the region.

The old tower, which is attached to the Shibley home, sits about half a mile uphill in what is now a residential area nestled behind the Goethe Institute, the German cultural center, and an alley shaded by oleanders and pink bougainvillea bushes. It was shelled in August 1982, when the Israeli army invaded and imposed a sea blockade on Beirut.

One day in 1992, Shibley mischievously turned on his damaged stone lighthouse, startling motorists in midday traffic. His intent was to focus government attention on repairing the vital installation, like the rest of the country. He succeeded.

The French government offered a grant of $100 million, and the British-Danish Gisman consortium undertook the project in 1993. It took 10 years to complete, with additional funding from Rabii Umeish, a local entrepreneur.

Now both lighthouses are closed.

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