Few places seem to indicate how far this country has come from civil war better than the sunny hipness of the Virgin Megastore that fills a blond-stone building in the heart of the new Beirut. Lebanon's largest mosque is being built nearby amid a cluster of lovely churches, a sign that the religious tolerance shattered by years of fighting between Christian and Muslim militias in these same streets is on the rise.
But there is a hole in the megastore's inventory that suggests the war's legacy has not entirely faded. The store's 60,000 books and magazines include Playboy, "The Photographic Kama Sutra" and an array of French paperbacks whose titles alone would make much of Middle America blush. But "The Da Vinci Code," the most popular work of American fiction during the past 18 months, is not available.
The international blockbuster was pulled from shelves last month by Lebanon's domestic security agency at the request of the Catholic Church. Church leaders claimed the murder mystery's use of controversial theories regarding the life of Jesus defamed Christianity and warned that it could ignite Lebanon's old sectarian tensions in the process.
In doing so, a country celebrated as the most progressive in the Middle East became the only one in the world to forbid the book, according to the book's agent and publishers in the region. After selling more than 17 million copies in at least 43 countries, "The Da Vinci Code" has fallen victim here to the unresolved questions over Lebanon's religious identity as well as its own commercial success.
The ban has stirred younger Lebanese, some with murky memories of the 1975-90 war, who view the decision as a bizarre remnant of that time and an absurd undertaking in the Internet age. In open letters published in Lebanon's free press, some Lebanese have argued that the time has come to stop curtailing civil rights in the region's oldest functioning democracy in the name of religious sensitivity.
But the ban has also reassured a generation with more vivid memories of a conflict that killed at least 150,000 people that the postwar constitution is working, as designed, to head off the potential for religious strife. The war emerged from the imbalance of power between Christians and Muslims, and to many older Lebanese, banning the book is a small price to pay to maintain good relations between the country's 17 religious groups and subgroups.
The outrage, however, has been confined mostly to talk shows and letters to Lebanon's many newspapers. Most Lebanese who want to read the book have done so by buying copies abroad, downloading it from the Internet or buying it on a word-of-mouth black market.
"We're not liberal, we're a mosaic," said Bassam Chebaro, a partner in the Beirut-based Arab Scientific Publishers, which has the Arabic-language publishing rights to "The Da Vinci Code." Although he is likely to lose a lot of money, Chebaro said he does not disagree with the decision to ban the book. "It is sensitive. As long as the country is okay, that's more important than a book."
Lebanon is renowned in the Middle East as a place to find the wine, food and seaside sins hard to come by elsewhere. War has given way over the past 15 years to an avid materialism, reflected in the European boutiques of downtown Beirut, and a culture that has embraced cosmetic surgery as something close to a middle-class entitlement. Its free press is a model in the region, and it is the Motown of Middle Eastern music and video production.
It is also a country of rival minorities, and the contest for political power between Muslims and Christians laid the groundwork for the war. The region's more socially conservative Arab republics and Islamic kingdoms have rarely, if ever, had to address those sectarian issues, or have chosen to quiet them with force when they arose.
Lebanon's postwar constitution allows each of its once-battling religious groups to proscribe literature, films, magazines and music deemed insulting to a particular faith. In the past, Muslim groups have been the country's most aggressive censors, prohibiting the sale of nearly anything critical of Islam and everything that discusses Israel in anything but the harshest terms.
The Christians, a powerful minority, have been far less vigilant. Only a handful of nonfiction books and movies have been forbidden over the years by the Catholic Information Center, the media arm of the church here. Until the banning of "The Da Vinci Code," most Lebanese had never heard of the center, which some Lebanese suspect is using the cause to make a name for itself.
But even the Christian censors are hard-pressed to name books they have banned in the past, and Beirut's bookstores remain filled with obscure titles contending that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, fathered a number of children, and lived a very human life -- all topics touched on in "The Da Vinci Code." Part of the problem, church officials acknowledge, is that people might actually read this book.
"There is a campaign now to defame the Christian faith and the life of Jesus, and this book is part of that," said Abdo Abu Kassm, the center's director, who argued for banning the book. "Lebanon combines many religions and groups, and maybe a non-Christian will see Christ's life presented this way and think it's accurate. But it's wrong."
Soft-spoken and serious, Kassm, 38, works in a busy commercial section of northern Beirut and allows himself one Cuban cigar a week. Only a picture of Pope John Paul II adorns the walls of his small office. Behind his desk sits an envelope containing a PBS documentary titled "From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians," sent recently by the domestic security agency for his review.
Because of its title, "The Da Vinci Code" initially sneaked by the agency, whose job is to steer new books and movies on religious themes to Christian and Muslim leaders for vetting. Several hundred copies of the book were on store shelves here -- in English and French -- and selling briskly after the book's launch in the country early last month.
The Arabic-language version hit stores a few days later, and soon afterward the security agency received a tip that the book could be offensive to Christians. The authorities sent the book to Kassm.
Chebaro, the Arabic-language publisher, estimates the book would have sold 10,000 copies in Lebanon's relatively small market. He is more concerned that he will not be allowed to export the book to the rest of the Middle East. His license to do so is pending with the security agency.
Kassm's contention is that the book is not fiction, which he said "stops when you are talking about real people and real events." Dan Brown, the author, writes in a brief foreword that, while the story is fiction, the theories about Christ it draws on have been explored by historians, anthropologists and religious scholars for years. While there is no specific passage of concern, the book's suggestion that Jesus had human desires and the contention that, in Kassm's interpretation, he "sinned" by having a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene is considered particularly offensive.
"By banning this book, this advanced country is preserving the dignity of people," Kassm said. "Is so-called advanced culture limited to undermining Christians and their beliefs? Is allowing things like homosexual marriage the definition of being advanced? In Lebanon, we are being allowed to preserve our traditions."
From the hushed elegance of his corner office at al-Nahar, the country's most influential newspaper, Gebran Tueni said the episode was something out of a past Lebanon is still struggling to overcome. Tueni, the paper's publisher, is a devout Christian. On his broad desk, with a view of Beirut's waterfront and the Mediterranean in the window behind, he keeps two small crucifixes near his in-box and unlit cigar.
"The government is causing more tension between people by doing this than 'The Da Vinci Code' ever could," he said. "This is primitive. We are intelligent enough to be able to know and understand what is written in novels."
Roger Haddad, 25, is the floor manager of the Virgin Megastore's book section. Bespectacled and harried, Haddad said he never intended to read the book, suggesting it was not quite up to the standards of a French literature major from Beirut's St. Joseph University. But he said that, in the few days it was on the shelf, 80 copies dwindled to three, a pace he said was comparable to the popularity of Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho.
Haddad picked up a book from a display table titled "The Messianic Legacy," whose back cover asks "Was there more than one Christ?"
"The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception," Nikos Kazantzakis's "The Last Temptation of Christ" and a French comic book series that has a pair of teenagers finding the body of Jesus in the Paris sewers are also on the shelves.
"I don't think this Catholic Information Center even knows about these," he said. "It is absurd in Lebanon the kind of books you can find right now and the kind of books you cannot."