No matter how bad it is, each day that passes is precious to residents of west Beirut because they fear that tomorrow may not have as much to offer.
"After each day is over, I am thankful, and I wonder whether I will see another one like it," Qassem Hammoud, a newspaper vendor, said with the resignation and seemingly irrational attachment of those who are still part of life in predominantly Moslem west Beirut.
To anyone who has known it, Beirut -- especially its western part -- is a wilted, abandoned city. No longer is it the traditional resilience of the Lebanese that helps them endure their environment here, but the fact that there are few, if any, alternatives in a country at war.
Those who remain here derive strength from landmarks they have chosen in their daily lives as signs of continuity, even if stubbornly imagined; a neighborhood flower shop, for example, that always has an extra rose or a "gardenia for the pretty lady," the same pot-holed route home, a juice vendor along the seafront corniche, a face associated with the past, or even a broken window.
George Ayyoub, a Christian university professor, recalls how he used to dread walking down Hamra Street, the main thoroughfare in the shopping district of Ras Beirut, a west Beirut neighborhood favored among foreigners, "because there were so many people I had to greet on the way." But times have changed. "Now, I have to strain my eyes to spot a familiar face, and when I do, even if it is someone I don't know personally, I feel reassured."
Beirut has been taken over by strangers who feel more at home than its original residents. Shiite Moslem refugees, driven north by Israeli invasions and attacks have made Beirut their own village, settling in with the once-distant world of shiny shopping displays and cafe intellectuals.
Living in bombed-out apartment buildings, hooked up illegally to power lines, deprived of proper medical care and sanitation, these families have tried to reweave their social fabric into a city that was inaccessible to them in the past.
It is still a place many of them cannot afford. Foul-smelling piles of uncollected garbage attract scavengers looking for bits of food, paper or shredded clothing. Walking the corniche, a palm-lined promenade and avenue overlooking the Mediterranean, is the closest many can get to the nearby restuarants and beachclubs.
On Sundays, droves of the less-fortunate Beirut residents haul children, old aunts, deck chairs and water pipes to set up their own makeshift cafes by the sea. Nuts, dried fruit, cotton candy and garlands of jasmine are sold on pushcarts. Backgammon games keep the men busy, while women rest in the shade.
This is only a scene for peaceful days; when fighting breaks out, even militiamen clear off the corniche.
Most foreigners have been evacuated from west Beirut; a handful of embassies are still open, staffed by a skeleton crew of Lebanese -- except for some Eastern European diplomatic missions that have kept their own people. The flight of Christians, Armenians and even middle-class Moslems has drained Beirut of its usual bustle and dynamism.
Daily survival is not merely a matter of dodging bullets, outwitting kidnapers or making it safely back to your house. Once-comfortable families can barely make ends meet.
The income of workers in the services sector, once Lebanon's most productive, has been slashed by two-thirds -- if they still have a job -- while the prices of basic commodities have quadrupled.
A receptionist at the Commodore Hotel, whose monthly take-home salary in 1982 was 8,000 to 10,000 Lebanese pounds -- then the equivalent of $1,800 to $2,200 -- now earns no more than 2,400 to 3,000 pounds, which, in the slumping currency, is worth only $70 to $85.
In its heyday, the hotel prospered as a nest for foreign correspondents who flocked to it like birds before the coming of a storm. Today, its only occupants are a Korean businessman and two Lebanese whose houses were damaged in recent fighting. The management has had to lay off 60 of the staff of 120 and is thinking of putting the rest on half-pay.
"I have not been able to afford meat or milk," complained Hassan, the receptionist, still immaculately dressed. In a country where 80 percent of all consumer goods are imported, the local currency has tumbled to its lowest exchange rate ever, losing 50 percent against the U.S. dollar in less than one year.
A cup of Turkish coffee, a symbol of Lebanese hospitality and a bond of intimacy between neighbors and friends, is now a rare delicacy. The price of a kilogram of coffee has quadrupled.
Despite the hardships on the local population, Beirut is still ridiculously cheap for foreigners stout-hearted enough to take the risk. One can still buy the latest Japanese designer clothes, French champagnes and cheeses, smoked salmon, lobster, and foie gras d'oie truffe. Cigars are a steal with Davidoffs at $25 a box.
The buying patterns of the Lebanese have changed, however, as well as their sources of entertainment.
Patrick Smith, owner of Smith's Grocery on West Beirut's Sadat Street, said he has lost 75 percent of his clientele. "I still have the same selection, I go out of my way because I want to maintain a certain standard. But the proportions have now shifted drastically from luxury items to basic and staple foods. This is what people here are buying most," said Smith, born to an Armenian mother and a British father.
"I have a store in London, Al Wadi Al Akhdar, in Marble Arch. But I still want to keep this place. I spend a week a month in the U.K. and I can't wait to get back each time. Here you have problems and there you have other problems. They are just different ones."
The problems Smith has had to deal with here are of a security nature. His store has been blown up at least four times since 1975. Shoplifting and excesses by militiamen have pushed the owner to hire six gunmen to guard his grocery.
"Monthly they cost me 2,800 Lebanese pounds apiece, in addition to cigarettes, coffee, extras and liabilities to third parties -- people they get into fights with," Smith said shrugging. "They are a necessary evil and I am determined to keep this shop."
"My work, my family, my workers, my wife and children are here," Smith said. "I also enjoy my boat. I am not bored here. It is a very full life. By the time I get to the store, solve the latest security or personnel problem, get around power cuts, fuel shortages and fit a bit of water-skiing into a war situation -- I am exhausted at the end of the day and I don't need to go out."
Ramez Abu Haidar, 32, who runs the Astra Insurance Co. said he never goes out at night or to restaurants. "I have learned to live with a divided city and a restricted universe."
The universe of Lebanese confined to the limited orbit of work and home in West Beirut has recently centered on the World Cup soccer games in Mexico. As shells, mortars and rockets crashed a mile away in Tariq Jedideh in the latest fighting among Moslems last week, Lebanese viewers were glued to their television sets, cheering and booing with each goal and foul of their chosen team. Militiamen on duty at the corniche by the sea hooked small television sets to the batteries of their cars, forgetting the immediacy of war around them and joining the rest of the world for a good game of soccer.
Mundane worries going beyond factional fighting and the agonizing choice of emigration have also focused on imported goods that could have been affected by radiation from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Butchers in Christian east Beirut have closed down and housewives are sticking to fish and chicken.
In the western, Moslem half of the capital, where Islamic butchers have turned almost every street corner into a smelly slaughterhouse, ritually skinning and dissecting locally grown beef and lamb on the pavement, meat is not much of a problem. The more cautious consumers here, however, fearful that the lamb coming from Turkey could be affected, are also concentrating on menus of vegetables and poultry.
A gasoline crisis, brought on by the central bank's refusal to make funds available to the Finance Ministry in order to curb government spending and costly subsidies, has virtually paralyzed west Beirut, where the price of gas has shot up from a subsidized price of about 45 cents to $2 a gallon on the black market. In the more orderly eastern half of Beirut, the price has been fixed at about 60 cents a gallon.
The economic situation is foremost on people's minds. A West German banker, Willi Rellecke, one of the most loyal of west Beirut's residents, commented that after 11 years of war funded by other regional powers, the Lebanese were "now beginning to pay for the war out of their own pocket."
Economic conditions have driven many beyond despair.
Four acquaintances -- an Armenian jeweler, a money changer, and two businessmen, a Christian and a Sunni Moslem -- have been kidnaped since last month and ransom money ranging from 6 million to 10 million pounds is being demanded for the release of each. Beirut was cut off from the rest of the world recently because gunmen cut the communications cables, to sell the metal in them.
Campaigns to rid west Beirut of Christians, Armenian artisans and shop owners seem to be working. The Beirut Express moving company is moving four Christian families a day from west to east Beirut and other families are shipping their carpets, antiques and silverware abroad to Europe, the United States and the Persian Gulf, said Jack Salameh, who works for the moving company.
One theory is that the Christian militia leadership is pressuring Christians and Armenians to leave the Moslem-controlled west in order to impoverish it and destroy its traditional role as the city's favored business center.
Another theory is that the Shiites were not pleased with the backing given by some Armenian deputies and politicians to a Christian peace plan for Lebanon. The plan was delivered to Shiite leader Nabih Berri by an Armenian legislator.
A Maronite Christian from a prominent Lebanese family has finally made the decision to quit Lebanon and work elsewhere, with this explanation:
"I am sad to leave, but I can't work here anymore. I feel I am unwanted. I know I am a target because of my family. I know I will suffer and miss Lebanon. But I still don't know what is worse, living in exile at home or in exile abroad."