To look at the svelte, bikini-clad bodies tanning next to the sparkling pool of the new Summerland Beach Hotel complex in West Beirut is to imagine, for a moment, that the good old days, of pre-civil war Lebanon are back again.
White-coated waiters pad among the deck chairs, small children splash happily in a wading pool and young men kick a soccer ball in the sand of the hotel's tiny Mediterranean beach. For the most part, the conversation of the affluent, who pay $1,000 a year to belong to Summerland's Club 500, is as light as the atmosphere.
But as in all of the similar, opulent beach oases that have sprung up along the Beirut coast since the 1975-76 civil war split their city in two, life by the poolside is nothing more than a studied exercise in escapism.
Bathers at Summerland have only to raise their eyes by 15 degrees to be reminded of the strife-ridden society the desperately want to flee. For on a slight hill overlooking the tiered hotel balconies squats a Syrian Army anti-aircraft emplacement whose crews, when they are not shooting at passing heron imigrations, stare down in wide-eyed wonderment at all those seminude bodies writhing in the sun.
Despite the light banter over lemonades, there are few who are not grimly aware that it was only a few hundred yards down the road, toward the Raouche district, that armed gunmen chased down Riyad Taha, president of the Lebanese publishers association, and machine-gunned him and his driver to death in broad daylight two days ago.
There is not even respite from the ugliness in the streets in death. Today, as Taha's funeral procession wound its way toward his native village of Hermel, in the mountains above the Beqaa Valley about 100 miles northeast of Beirut, new clashes broke out among the mourners.
At least six persons were killed, countless others wounded and other mourners, including Selim Hoss -- who recently resigned as Lebanon's prime minister -- were forced to seek refuge for most of the day in the basement of a nearby hotel.
Security police later reported that the shooting had been between members of the Shite Moslem militia and a group from the pro-Iraqi Palestinian militia, none of which did much to claify just who actually killed Taha, a generally apolitical moderate with no known enemies.
All that the new outbreak of shooting proved was the sad fact that now, almost four years since the civil-war, life in Lebanon, to use 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes' phrase, remains every bit as nasty, brutish and short.
What worries most residents of this unique and traumatized country is that far from settling down to find some peaceful way out of their differences, Lebanon's warlords have been bent only on rearming, reorganizing and preparing for a future round of fighting.
The fact that a certain prosperity has returned to the city is attributed by bankers not merely to the traditional industriousness of the Lebanese businessman, but also to the giant inflow of funds to build up Lebanon's militias. Indeed, the inflow of war capital is estimated to run as high as $1 million a day.
Aside from creating a new class of nouveau riche -- and tripling the number of registered cars in Beirut since the civil war -- this has meant that the Lebanese, always one of the world's most heavily armed people, today are armed as never before.
It is now estimated that there are probably three times as many weapons in Lebanon as there were at the time of the civil war. The sophistication and caliber of the weaponry have escalated as well. Not only are the various militias outfitted with small arms and automatic weapons, but many now have tanks, heavy artillery and even some ground-to-ground missiles.
With the central government still unable to deploy its small reorganized Army along the main lines that separate armed rival groups, and the Syrians who once separated them having withdrawn, a large part of their forces away from Beirut, the Lebanese capital remains a city teetering on the brink of anarchy.
The slightest affront to or argument between members of different parties, religions or families is sufficient to start a violent armed clash lasting hours.
Only a couple of weeks ago, a dispute between two local leaders of rival Nasserest groups in the Ain Mrayseh section of Beirut, just blocks from the U.S. Embassy, suddenly escalated into an all-night barrage of rocket fire and mortars, at one point so intense that it was estimated that 2,000 shells were fired in an hour. In the past, such a dispute would have probably resulted in a localized pistol exchange. Instead, eight persons died, scores were wounded, and homes were destroyed.
Not only do leftist militias fight against leftist militias; but Shiites fight against Palestinians, and Christians battle Christians, as Pierre Gemayel's Phalangists did with great barbarity recently in attacking followers of former president Camille Chamoun in their enclaves north of Beirut.
Individual acts of violence, assassinations such as Riyad Taha's also are more the rule of life in Beirut these days than the exception. There has been a campaign to intimidate the press, not just local but foreign as well, which has led to the killing of several other prominent journalists, as well as the wounding of the head of the Reuter news agency's bureau chief. An Iraqi Embassy attached was wounded recently, and a couple of Iranian students were killed.
In all, officials here estimate that about 1,000 persons have been killed on each side of the Christian-Moslem divide since the civil war in various internecine rivalries, and the end clearly is not in sight.
Through all this, the Lebanese seem determined to go about their lives as best they can. Business since the civil war has been on a steady increase although inflation has followed closely. Financial sources say that the Lebanese treasury is now holding some $5 billion in gold, keeping the Lebanese pound as solid a currency as almost any in the world.
Despite the troubles and the insecurity of life, 17 new banks, including 2 American ones, have opened offices in Lebanon. All, like the Summerland complex, the dozens of new hotels restaurants, night clubs and casinos, have opened recently for those innured enough against the violence to dare venture forth after dark.
Even the traditional horse races at the Palais de la Paix, astride the Christian and Moslem demarcation line in Beirut, are again packed every weekend, with bettors from both sides of the lines.
But if the violence here has become something everyone lives with, the increasingly high cost of living is not. In a checkout line at the new supermarket on Rue Verdun this week, one well-dressed matron was outraged at the cost of fruit.
"What, seven pounds [2.20] for peaches?" she sniffed. "The only thing that is cheap in Lebanon now is life."