LONDON — While the lights go out and buildings collapse in one great European city — the Serbian capital, Belgrade — some 1,500 km to the east, in another once war-ravaged metropolis, a glittering reconstruction obliterates the recent past.
This is modern Beirut, the heart of Lebanon, which only a decade ago was a smoking ruin. Once in history it was part of the same empire (Byzantine and later Ottoman) as Serbia, despite the distance between them. But today, as the Serbian nation goes down, the Lebanese are struggling to rise up from a hideous civil war.
The shell-holed tower blocks are being bulldozed, the burned hotels refurbished or replaced, and in the center of the city, where violent factional fighting in the 1980s flattened hectares of markets, shops, offices and docks, a vast new project of careful restoration and spacious amenities, internationally financed, is nearing completion. Even a few enthusiastic tourists, led by the intrepid Japanese, are back.
The Lebanese civil war, which raged from the mid-’70s up to 1989, was a nightmare for Beirut’s inhabitants. But for the archaeologists and town planners it was a golden opportunity. As the rubble was cleared away, ancient Roman, Greek, Phoenician and even earlier cities beneath were revealed that had been hidden by centuries of development.
Thus the Beirut now emerging could well prove to be a better and more pleasant city, more respectful of its venerable history going back over five millennia, than the glitzy Beirut of pre-civil war days.
Already it is hard to believe, among all the cafes, restaurants and bustling boulevards, that only a few years ago mortar bombs and bullets were spattering the streets. The famous Green Line, the strip of utterly destroyed no man’s land between the mainly Muslim western sector of the city and the Christian east, is fast disappearing as new blocks rise alongside the sagging, pock-marked, old ones.
The impression today is of a mixture of the restored Berlin in which the Germans are replacing the wall, and Hong Kong in its heyday — except that Beirut seems even more of an urban wonder, with tower blocks stretching along the seashore and up to the crest of the graceful Mount Lebanon foothills for kilometers in every direction.
There is just one major unanswered question overshadowing this amazing reassertion of human energy and entrepreneurial spirit over political hatreds and physical destruction: Will the peace last? And will all the rich tourists, the bankers, investors and Persian Gulf oil tycoons who once made Beirut the financial hub of the whole Middle East, ever return?
The answer, as with so many issues in the Middle-East political labyrinth, goes back to the unending Arab-Israeli enmity and the deep passions it arouses on every side and in every sect and country in the region.
For decades, Lebanon has been the battleground on which surrounding powers settled their scores, either directly or by proxy. At this moment, a war rages in southern Lebanon between pro-Palestinian Islamic groups, including the Iranian- (and partly Syrian-) backed Hezbollah, plus unofficial elements of the Palestinian Liberation forces, and the Israelis trying to safeguard their northern border.
It was understandable but clumsy intervention by Israel in Lebanese politics in the first place, in an attempt to make Lebanon a “safe” next-door neighbor, which upset the delicate internal balance in the country between the dominant Christian factions and the variegated Muslim groups and set the civil war in motion.
That brought Syria, Lebanon’s other, larger, neighbor into the picture. The lineup then became, on one side, the Israeli-favored Christian elements and their more extreme wing, the Phalangists, and on the other side the Syrian-encouraged Islamic groups, from the hardest-line Shiites to the Sunnis to the mountain-based Druze sect, who had their own quarrels to settle with the Maronite Christians.
At some stage the Americans, too, tried well-meaning but short-lived intervention, only to find their soldiers drawn in on one side and then they became the target of appalling retaliatory bombing.
In 1984 the Palestinian forces (under their leader Yasser Arafat) were reluctantly shipped out of Lebanon, and the Israelis agreed to stand back somewhat as well. But by that time the damage was done and factionalism went mad inside this small country (3.5 million people).
Christians slaughtered the remaining Palestinians and then turned on each other. Muslim factions battled it out in their respective quarters of the city. Alliances switched kaleidoscopically and ancient scores were settled. Only the heavy presence of the Syrian Army checked the total destruction of the Lebanese nation.
In due course the killing slowed and passions began to be exhausted. Peace of a kind returned to Beirut, but with strong dependence on a continuing Syrian military presence, which remains to this day.
From here on, a happy future for this vast and ancient city of enterprise, and the small mountain state around it, hangs on a series of “ifs”:
If more moderate counsels could prevail in Israel (perhaps with the defeat, say, of the hardline Benjamin Netanyahu in the forthcoming Israeli elections); if Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization can show a little more patience in pressing for their own Palestinian state; if the Palestinians and their supporting factions could then leave Lebanon in peace; if the Israelis could then withdraw as well; if the Syrians could also stand back somewhat and do their own direct deal with Israel over the disputed Golan Heights running along the common Syrian-Israel border — if all these things were to happen, then Lebanon could perhaps cease to be the cockpit of the region and continue mending its internal differences. A kind of political unity could re-emerge on which a new prosperity for Beirut could be securely founded.
Sadly, most Middle East experts and analysts regard none of these events as very likely. But experts can be wrong. Few of them would have predicted 10 years ago that Beirut could rise again from the rubble even to its present levels.
Perhaps this time Beirut can be left alone for long enough to heal itself and find a new niche in today’s global trading and financial system. At least compared with Belgrade and Pristina, with their nightly bombings and their ethnic cleansing, the inhabitants of Lebanon, and of battered Beirut, can count themselves lucky.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.