Outsiders considered it a good sign last month that the hard-eyed mountain townswomen finally wore black to the annual mass and communion commemorating the killing five years ago of the heir to the Maronite Catholic fiefdom here.
The women's decision to wear the dress of mourning seemed to indicate, according to the mountain custom, the feeling that the death of the slain heir, his wife, their 3-year-old daughter and 31 others had been avenged, offering the promise of a cooling of the feud between the reigning Franjieh family here and the family of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.
Suleiman Franjieh, one of Lebanon's long-reigning warlords, rules over a swath of the green mountains in this area of northern Lebanon. The flags of his private militia hang from poles and lampposts throughout the area.
Although Franjiehland is in Syrian-held territory, his militia mans checkpoints and collects taxes here, and his men beam the orthodox wisdom over the Franjieh radio station--the only one in northern Lebanon.
Franjieh held President Gemayel's brother Bashir responsible for the death of his son Tony in one of Lebanon's celebrated political feuds. When Bashir Gemayel was assassinated in Beirut last September, Franjieh exulted, regretting only that he had not been responsible for the murder.
There is a thick western veneer to this mountainous area--little food stores with good cheese and fine wines, boutiques selling the latest in Parisian fashion. But it is also here where loyalty to clan is strongest, where there are the kind of unforgotten feuds that have long thwarted efforts to build a nation from what the French carved out as Lebanon.
Although family members insist that Tony Franjieh, his wife and daughter were buried after they were slain in 1978, local legend holds that the bodies were not interred until last September--after Bashir's death brought a feeling that vengeance had been taken.
Franjieh's, and Zagharta's, war with the Gemayels takes on special significance following the failure of U.S. efforts to secure withdrawal of Syrian, Palestine Liberation Organization and Israeli soldiers from Lebanon.
This is not only because the existence of the Franjieh fiefdom is a barrier to unity but also because the Syrians are making a serious effort to get Franjieh and other anti-Gemayel politicians to form a breakaway provisional government in Syrian-controlled northern and eastern Lebanon.
The Franjieh-Gemayel feud is one piece of the patchwork fabric of this torn country where western sophistication in dress, culture, trading and finance is blended with an archaic tribalism. The warring is usually along sectarian lines but not always, as in this feud, which pits Catholic against Catholic, the Franjiehs and the clans of Zagharta in the north against the Gemayels to the south of them.
Franjieh, 72, was president of Lebanon in the mid-1970s, when the country drifted into civil war. After leaving office, his influence over Maronite Catholics diminished, eclipsed by the growing power of the Gemayels' Christian-based Phalangist Party, especially Bashir's Lebanese Forces militia.
But there is a tradition here, social scientists say, that a leader is never finished until he is dead. Now, a decade after his decline, Suleiman Franjieh finds himself in a pivotal position again.
He is being courted by President Gemayel as one key to the besieged Lebanese government's aspirations for resurrecting the equilibrium of contending forces that Lebanon has achieved intermittently between outbreaks of civil conflict.
Franjieh has obliged the Syrians by publicly denouncing the agreement with Israel, but so far he has refused to go any further.
He is on the fence, receiving envoys from both governments at his large sandstone manor here.
Asked in an interview recently how far he and other Lebanese dissidents will take their opposition to the Lebanese-Israeli agreement, Franjieh's response was: "God only knows."
On the anniversary of the killings, all shops and restaurants here shut down as the town poured into the local church for the mass conducted by the Maronite patriarchal vicar and guarded from attack by rifle-toting soldiers in Franjieh's militia.
Plastered on the windows of stores and on utility poles throughout the town were posters of Tony Franjieh, his wife and their curly-haired daughter. The memory of their deaths seemed to be a binding force for the tough denizens of the White Mountains here--six miles southeast of the northern Lebanon coastal city of Tripoli--where employment is found either in the cement factory or in the lucrative smuggling operations at the port.
After the services, the townspeople went to the Franjieh home, as is the custom, to offer their condolences. Five years after the killings there were still misty eyes, even among the militiamen. Suleiman Franjieh bore a visage of dark grief as he accepted the respects of the hundreds who dropped by, including both the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic bishops of Tripoli and two representatives of Syrian President Hafez Assad.
The next two evenings Franjieh's militia exchanged heavy artillery fire with Bashir Gemayel's Lebanese Forces militia from positions two miles apart but separated by Syrian forces--refuting the hopes of those who had seen a peaceful sign in the black dresses.
But in Beirut, there was still the strong belief that Franjieh would not make a deal with the Syrians. Although there were doubts, the feeling was that his political aspirations for himself and for his second son Robert were in Lebanon, not Damascus, and that being viewed as a collaborator for the Syrians in this period would hurt them in the future.
"The more independent you are as a Christian, the more future you have in the Christian community," an adviser to Gemayel said.
Ghassan Salami, a political scientist at St. Joseph's University in Beirut, explained the dynamics differently.
"Every leader's aim is his own survival, not the advancement of policies or programs," he said. "Opportunistic politics is not the exception but the rule because you have to survive.
"The locals always play a double game--one internally, one externally," he said. "When they are in a good position internally, they cut their relations with external powers."
But some sources close to Franjieh say the Syrians are putting strong pressure on him this time to go along with them, to take steps to make a break with Lebanon. The reports are that the Syrians have asked Franjieh and the two other leaders of the dissent against the peace accords, Moslem Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and Tripoli Sunni Moslem leader Rashid Karami, to establish a provisional government in Syrian-controlled northern and eastern Lebanon, each of them responsible for one of three regions.
The militias in the area would be unified under the control of Syrian officers, according to the reports about the plan.
"This is something that should not be dismissed lightly," said the Gemayel adviser. "I think that if the withdrawals of Syrian and Israeli troops are delayed that may be one thing that the Syrians will use to step up the pressure."
According to family members, Suleiman Franjieh is feeling pressure from the Syrians, with whom he has had amicable relations since 1957, when he fled to Syria after a shoot-out at a church here. He and his followers allegedly killed more than 20 parishioners before going to Syria.
In the past five years, with the weakening of his own forces in the face of the buildup of Bashir Gemayel's Lebanese Forces, the Syrians in between them have afforded Franjieh protection.
"He doesn't want to go so far, and the Syrians want him to go far," said a family member. "The Syrians say, 'We helped you; we gave you everything you needed for five years: now help us.' "
Gemayel advisers say Franjieh has warmed to the president, drawing a distinction between him, his slain brother and Gemayel's father Pierre, head of the dominant Phalangist Party and one of Franjieh's longstanding sworn enemies. But when a reporter asked how he viewed the Gemayel presidency, Franjieh said the only thing he could see that the president had done was to negotiate the agreement with Israel, which Franjieh roundly deplored.
The concerns of the Franjieh clan about the Lebanese Forces militia go beyond the long-running feud with the Gemayel family. Fear of harm is so strong that the mountain people here avoid traveling down the coastal highway to Beirut because they do not want to be stopped at Lebanese Forces checkpoints. To get to the capital, they travel to Damascus, take a plane to Cyprus and from there fly into Beirut.