Darkness Is Mood At Beirut Lighthouse

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 28, 2006; A18

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.

"Why the lighthouse?" Shibley asked. "It was more the horror and awe of it all. We live there."

* * *

During a drive north from Beirut, along winding roads framed by purple dandelions and Queen Anne's lace, black smoke rose in funnels from behind, in Beirut's scorched southern suburbs. Yet the Mediterranean still sparkled, a quivering carpet of silver moons.

On Voice of Free Lebanon radio, which once catered to Lebanon's Christians, listeners called in with appeals for solidarity and assistance.

"There is no alternative to this country, which we rebuilt with our hard work and prayers so our children can stand on their feet," said an irate Amal Ballout. "Now my boys are thinking of leaving. Every time we rebuild the foundation, someone comes along to knock us right back into the past. We need laws to protect us regardless of religion, to shield us from everyone -- Iran, Israel, the Americans helping them, and Syria."

* * *

In Byblos, a scenic port city farther north that was scheduled to host a summer music festival, the sea breeze was soft and the light bright. Last spring, enthusiastic Lebanese had gathered in three public schools to vote for their first free government since Syrian troops departed the country. Now, the halls were filled with refugees and gloom.

Jaafar Suleiman Sadek, 82, one of 160 refugees housed in the Hajj Secondary School, sat speechless on a stool, both hands resting on a cane. He lost everything he had in the village of Chehabiyyeh. Neighbors had brought him out three days ago.

Fatmeh Zein plucked furiously at a bundle of coriander as she prepared a meal for her four children. The family, including her husband, Jihad Badawi, 46, bedridden with lung cancer and a brain tumor, was at home when Israel began shelling the southern port city of Tyre. Her husband died in the attack.

"We buried him 15 days ago and fled," she said.

She recalled fleeing her home in 1978, the first time Israel invaded to secure a buffer zone, and then again in 1982, when it fought to drive armed Palestinian guerrilla factions out of southern Lebanon. Israeli troops pulled out six years ago.

Another woman, 35, sheathed in black, appeared at the steps of the Hajj Secondary School, a white and cream-colored building tucked among jasmine bushes, cactuses and pomegranate trees.

"I came with five children: Mohammed, Bakr, Tuqa -- " she said, her voice trailing off. "Ali, my 17-year-old, is still there, with the mujaheddin. They sent for him one day before the fighting. He left without telling me anything. My husband wants me to be patient, to think of him as no different than other men at the front. Yet I look at teenagers around me and I remember him. My heart is burning."

"I stayed in Jwayya for six days under the bombs, hiding below the staircase, in the corridor, until shell fragments landed in our house," she said, declining to give her name.

At the Byblos Co-ed Middle School, Ibrahim Nawas, 65, a retired teacher and a Canadian citizen, held out his swollen, scarred hands.

"They were moaning under the debris. I had to help dig them out," he said of his neighbors in Aitaroun. Nine members of the family were killed, Nawas said.

Mazen Muselmani, a clothes wholesaler, said he did not want to abandon his shop and home in the southern suburbs of Beirut where he was born and raised, but he finally had to leave. His brothers and their families have been dispersed.

"I don't know who is dead or alive," he said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company