Pulling on the day's first long Cuban cigar, Saeb Salam explained confidentially to a morning visitor, "You know we Arabs always like to smoke the narghile after breakfast."

Invoking the hookah in this part of the highly westernized Arab East is a bit like an American praising rosehip tea, for both are part of two different cultures' fast receding past.

But for Salam, six times a prime minister and a leading conduit in U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib's dealings with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the image matched his role as a traditional Sunni Moslem leader.

At 77, Saeb Bey, an Ottoman honorific he affects as do Lebanese politicians of other religious persuasions, is back at center stage.

Receiving Arafat several times in a day, consulting with Habib, persuading recalcitrant Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, he has been at the heart of the desperate effort to form a National Salvation Council.

His latest political eclipse began in earnest in the years just before the Lebanese civil war broke out in April 1975. The Palestinians started organizing political parties and some private militias.

Salam retreated to his marble-floored, high-ceilinged mansion in the overcrowded Mousseitbeh section of predominantly Moslem West Beirut. At one point his old Saudi connections tried to provide him with his own militia, but it was never a major factor in the civil war. Nor was he.

But he kept up his network of friends on both sides of this divided capital, driving back and forth in what may be the longest, blackest Cadillac in Lebanon, with a carnation always in the buttonhole of his impeccably tailored suits.

For Salam is a politician who understands that in the Mediterranean world, and especially in the Arab Mediterranean world, appearances can be as important as substance.

During earlier periods of comparative political inactivity, despite his considerable wealth, Salam sold off his major shareholding in Beirut-based Middle East Airlines, which he helped get going, rather than reduce his life style.

Despite his inherited patrician manners and nearly flawless English, Salam is as tough a politician as can be found here.

Salam made his mark politically in 1958, when he was the major Moslem figure in the struggle opposing Christian president Camille Chamoun's bid for a second term, first politically, then in fighting that left several thousand dead.

During the 1975-1976 civil war, he proved his courage and style when trapped in a Syrian executive jet set afire by bazooka fire just as it was preparing to fly him and two other Moslem politicians to Damascus.

"I knew something about planes from my MEA experience," he recalled. He said he managed to get the door open as the plane filled with smoke and flames, then jumped to safety on the tarmac.

Later that day well-wishers thronged the Mousseitbeh mansion, and champagne and caviar were served in profusion.

In recent months as radical Arab states stopped bankrolling his rivals of the so-called National Movement in West Beirut, he drew closer to Bashir Gemayel, the commander of the Christian Maronite militia known as the Lebanese Forces.

Salam recalls that he was named prime minister, a post traditionally reserved for the Sunnis, in 1952, 1953, 1960, 1961, 1970 and 1972. "I am not going to be prime minister a seventh time," he said today, explaining that he prefers to serve behind the scenes.