Joseph and S. G. Nahas come from old Zahle, the city that brought thousands of travelers up from Beirut to enjoy the mountain breezes and cedars, the city once called the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.
The old Zahle may be gone now. For the last six months the city on the eastern slopes of the Lebanon mountains has been surrounded and bombarded by Syrian forces, sometimes with hundreds of rockets and mortar shells a day. Reporters cannot get in. A black-and-white film has been smuggled out of the city, showing grainy pictures of demolished buildings and injured children.
For the more than l1 million Lebanese in the United States, particularly the many energetic and affluent former residents of Zahle like the Nahas brothers, the situation is intolerable.
"We are a hard-working people, and we do help each other as much as we can," said S.G. Nahas, a former diplomat who holds a hereditary title of baron granted to his grandfather by the Germans in World War I. For the last several months, Lebanese Americans have been trying to stimulate interest here in a war most Americans have almost ignored.
Americans of all origins -- Irish, German, African, Chinese -- have had to endure stories of suffering and idiocy back in their old countries, but this is relatively new to the proud people from Zahle. The 200,000 people of Zahle, a city on a hill, had stayed relatively aloof from Lebanon's recent civil wars and done a good business in tourism and agriculture until the fighting caught up with them late last year.
Unlike Greek Americans or Jewish Americans able to wield considerable influence in Washington, Arab Americans like the Lebanese have been relatively weak. They have particular difficulty in a situation like this where Christian and Moslem Lebanese are fighting among themselves and with other Arabs like the Syrians and Palestinians.
The Lebanese are among the most successful of U.S. immigrants, with a substantial number of lawyers, doctors and businessmen in this country. "We paid our taxes, we worked hard. You never hear us complain," said Gus Abboud, sitting in his carry-out restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. "We did not have the need to express our opinion, but now we do."
Los Angeles and New York are considered the two great American Lebanese communities. ("Notice we put Americans first ," said Abboud.) Baron Nahas, who has lived here for 17 years and is now a local oil company executive, estimates that 60 percent of the 250,000 Arabs in town are Lebanese. Many of them, he says, are angry.
"The United States has ignored Lebanon, even though it is a friendly country," he said. A U.S.-trained engineer from Zahle, declining to let his name be used because of his links to militant Christian forces there, said with bitterness: "After six years of fighting, the Lebanese are still Christian and pro-American. This happens nowhere else ."
Now they are organizing, bombarding Washington with letters and telegrams that they hope will bring support for efforts to negotiate a ceasefire. They say much of the organizing effort is going on in other parts of the West, for there are 5 million Lebanese living outside of Lebanon and only 3 million in the country.
Although many Lebanese Americans are affluent -- Joseph Nahas has a license plate ZAHLE 1 on his Mercedes-Benz -- they say fund raising will not help much until after the siege of Zahle is relieved.
"The Lebanese people don't want any financial support," said Emile Aoun, an advertising executive here. "All they want is American public opinion on their side." Baron Nahas and Robert Basil, a leader of the Lebanese American community in Washington, have helped produce a resolution in the U.S. Senate calling for a cease-fire. The resolution is sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), among others.
Most of the Lebanese here are Christians, but they say they have nothing against the Moslems who make up about half of Lebanon's population. They blame the Syrians for surrounding Zahle to neutralize an important center of anti-Marxism in Lebanon. News reports from Lebanon, however, say the Syrian action may have been stimulated by increased military activity near the city by Christian Phalangists.
More than 300 people have been killed and 2,00 have been injured in Zahle in the last few months.