War, Peace and Display

One of Beirut's fashion designers, Loulwa Abdel-Baki, spent four days last month clearing the devastated St. Georges Hotel lobby of rubble and rats, then presented her fall/winter collection there. Some 20 models paraded down a makeshift runway, while a sound system connected to a generator outside pumped in rock music so loud that many of the onlookers thought the charred and damaged ceiling might collapse on them. The designer intentionally left some of the war's rubble in place as a sign, in the words of one attending Beiruti, of "what we have lost."

According to the Associated Press, Adbel-Baki intended the show to symbolize Beirut's rebirth after 15 years of ruinous war, while a French photographer covering the event told the Los Angeles Times that, "These shots would mean nothing without the ceiling." But this extraordinary event was filled with many more symbols than the visual contrast between the ruin of civil war the appearance of what the West regards as "wasteful consumption," startling though the contrast is.

Beirut has long been a city not merely of religious, political and military conflict, but, inevitably, of open cultural contention as well. Its complex politics remains mirrored in its immensely complex style. Europe and Asia, Rome and Byzantium, Christendom and Islam and now America have not only converged here, each still contends for the city. As a result, what language to speak, what food to eat, what clothes to wear are daily decisions that, in Beirut, also become acts of cultural assertion. They all address at least one vital question with which the city has been grappling for millennia: Shall Beirut face East or West?

In such a context, Abdel-Baki's Western-style fashion show, intended as a sign of peace, is also a resumption of cultural war. Thus has Beirut's dilemma of identity, which has sometimes enriched it and other times abetted its destruction, also made it a city of striking if sometimes deadly paradox.

Rooms with a View.

European voyagers of the 19th century approaching Beirut's port wrote that they discerned the West in the old city's red tile roofs and even the smokey smell of its fires. In this century, the West would have welcomed them in the shape of the St. Georges, a six-story luxury hotel that juts into the sea adjacent to the port. "The most fashionable place in Beirut," one journalist once called it, "and the haunt of gossip columnists."

Significantly, Beirut's civil war had its first front line virtually in the St. Georges lobby. A pitched battle for the area began in 1975, the so-called "War of the Hotels," involving the St. Georges, the newer Phoenicia and the still-unfinished Holiday Inn. According to some accounts, Beirut's "Moslem front" chose the luxury battleground after an earlier series of violent encounters between Moslems and Christians. The hotel war was marked by room-to-room fighting, and especially by the astonishing exchanges of anti-tank missiles fired from one hotel to another. The war later moved elsewhere, and the St. Georges stood ruined for 15 years, long since declared structurally unsound, until Abdel-Baki and her models carted some of the rubble away.

The hotel -- and the bay on which it sits -- takes its name from the same St. George associated in the West with Britain. The famous battle with the dragon who emerged from a well is supposed to have taken place close by. Other places also claim George, but Beirut has earned him by reliving the myth repeatedly. George is said to have been a Roman soldier; millions like him have since come from afar to do sacred battle of their own in the shadow of the old well. The traditional site in Beirut (whose name may derive from a word meaning "well") is marked by a Crusader chapel, long ago turned into a mosque and called al-Khodr.

Though the St. Georges is ruined, its pool and marina have been reopened. Among the guests at the fashion show were some deeply-tanned women who had just been water-skiing. Not far away is Beirut's famous beach, with its famous bikini-wearing sunbathers. Buried somewhere in the sands beneath them is Al-Awazi, an early sage of Islam.

Voyagers approaching the port today confront neither red tile roofs nor luxury, but a vision of urban destruction, the St. Georges's shell included. Not for the first time. Even in relatively modern times, passers-by noted that the city's shore was strewn with columns and the debris of the past, evidence of the cataclysms, natural and otherwise, that have shaken Beirut, and from which it has always recovered. Indeed, many of the structures in the St. Georges's neighborhood have their foundations in earlier rubble dumped there as fill: among other things, material from the city's old Byzantine basilica, dismantled in a peaceful street-widening.

Fashion as Power.

The Los Angeles Times described Abdel-Baki's designs a "midriff-exposing, miniskirted, rhinestone-studded outfits": blatantly Western styles to be worn by women -- predominantly but not exclusively Christians -- identifying with the West. Abdel-Baki herself is a Druze Moslem.

By definition a fashion show, a Western notion, is going to feature Western styles; the purpose of Eastern styles in any event is usually modesty and not showiness. But the power of Western style in the East is a function of the West's own power and wealth. In the past, East and West met in Beirut with quite different results. For example, the city was ruled by European Crusaders for much of the 12th century, when Islam's medicine, legal thought and intellectual life were far ahead of Europe's, and the cultural influence ran the other way. When Europeans and Arabs spoke, the common tongue was almost always Arabic; in terms of clothing, even Crusader wives were known to take the veil.

A curious incident of styles openly at war took place while the balance of power was shifting in the city. In 1912, Beirut was reopening to the West with the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire, of which Lebanon was a part. Turkey and Italy engaged in a brief shooting war in that year, and Italy bombarded the port near the St. Georges, as well as much else in the city. Beirutis were infuriated, and took to the streets in support of the Ottomans. According to social historian Fouad Debbas, "They spread out all over the town, breaking shop windows and assaulting anyone wearing a hat, whom they naturally took to be Christian or European."

You Are What You Wear.

Abdel-Baki invited some 450 guests to her show; 600 showed up. In fact, a Lebanese audience for such events continued to exist throughout the war. Photographer Eli Reed recently published photos of a show in the Christian suburb of Kaslik which were taken a few years ago. Of course, a show downtown at the St. Georges is an event of a different order.

Some fashion writers have argued that in times of war and economic hardship, fashions become simpler and, in status terms, less important. But in a culture where style and identity are intertwined, fashion in time of civil war can grow in significance. Among Moslem women, chadoors and other traditional clothing, relatively rare in Beirut before the war, reportedly became much more common during the conflict. The same impulse was present among those who wore Western styles. In 1984, French writer Eric Sarner visited Lebanon and spoke with "a woman in the fashion world of Beirut" whom he identified only as "H.A." This is what she told him:

"In spite of this war, Lebanese men and women continue to want to be well-dressed, always fashionable. I think that it enables the Lebanese to survive, that it boosts their morale. We have the top-drawer designers from France and Italy, and {in spite of the war} we never stopped getting them. We always select the best of the seasonal collections that sell very well here in spite of the ups and downs of the situation.

"On the days of shelling and combat, we close and go to bomb shelters, and when there is a lull we reopen and people resume browsing and buying to forget the hardship.

"Women are very coquettish here. You know, the Lebanese are a mixture of East and West and since they travel frequently they {are knowledgable enough to} look for the best product .... We have a big selection for a wide clientele, from the classic to the youthful styles to the sporty look, so a grandfather and his son and his grandson can come and shop for clothes at the same time."

Identity As Style

Abdel-Baki's Western-style designs were sported by both Christian and Moslem models, an effort to symbolize a renewed Lebanese unity. Nonetheless, the Christians are by far the country's most Westernized group, especially the Maronites, who chant an Eastern liturgy but are part of the Roman Catholic Church. Some Maronites desire so intensely to distance themselves from the Moslems around them that they argue they are not themselves Arabs at all, but descend from the Phoenicians.

The Maronites of Beirut have long identified with the French, whom they see as protectors. (The tradition of European "protectors" in Lebanon is not limited to the French. Orthodox Christians once looked to Czarist Russia, while the British once proclaimed themsleves protectors of the Druze). The Maronite connection goes back to St. Louis, who embraced them as part of the French nation 750 years ago. They are committed Francophiles, living in a complex state of "evolved" bilingualism and bi-culturalism similar to that found in the Mahgreb. This state, notes anthropologist Raphael Patai, has left many such e'volue's with the sense that they are "marginalized," with no ultimate culture of their own by which to measure themselves. In other countries, such bi-cultural elites have tended to be pro-Western culturally but anti-Western politically; the Maronites are almost entirely pro-Western.

When Western culture swept Beirut after World War II, an extraordinary thing happened. As Fouad Ajami describes it, many of the city's younger Moslems, finding French culture already taken by the Christian elites, turned to American pop culture as "their" piece of the West: "its films, its books, the hip, easy language." The neighborhood where one went to see those films, to eat in American snack-bars, is the one surrounding the St. Georges.

Style as War.

The only sign of any military at the St. Georges show, though they are not visible because of the poor lighting, were a group of Syrian soldiers serving as guards. There is no longer any East and West of military clothing. But Beirut's war went on so long that military garb became a style in itself. Sarner reported in 1984 that "non-fighters wear military clothes made with thick khaki, with a camouglage for those who want to pretend that they belong to an elite platoon."

Those who really did belong to militias sometimes adopted highly stylized uniforms. The "Arab Knights," for example, a pro-Syrian force, wore rose-colored uniforms that earned them the knickname, the Pink Panthers. Others wanted uniforms with better cuts, says Sarner: tapered waists, more fashionable slacks. A number of designers and seamstresses apparently came to specialize in the military trade.

In 1986, the British music-and-culture magazine The Face ran a five-page spread on the Lebanese war called "Beirut Fashion! The Trappings of Terror," in which they described the various warring factions almost entirely in terms of their style. The Face probably thought it was being arch, but in Beirut you are never far from a truth.

Charles Paul Freund is an Outlook Editor.