LAND OF THE EMPTY PALACES

THE BROADER PICTURE
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The Independent Culture
WHO WOULD build a million-pound home in a war zone? In the far south of Lebanon, many people are doing just that. Right next to the territory which Israel has occupied since 1982 and within a few seconds' range of the Zionist state's jets and helicopters, huge mansions are being erected in the heart of the Shi'a Muslim community, in a landscape which, until recently, had scarcely changed since biblical times.

It is only 18 months since hundreds of thousands of villagers were fleeing in terror from Israeli air attacks, but the south Lebanese are remarkably free from self-pity. Talk of a lasting Middle-East settlement may strike them as premature, but many are none the less curiously optimistic. This optimism has been finding expression recently in the construction of dozens of extraordinarily lavish houses, some close by the ruins of dwellings which were bombed or blown up by Israel only a few years ago. These new homes belong mainly to expatriate businessmen who have made fortunes abroad.

In the Bible, this was the land of milk and honey, "a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters"; but for at least 100 years poor Shi'a boys have found it a land with no prospects whatever. Thousands have had to emigrate to West Africa, the Gulf, Australia and North and South America. Wherever these people have gone, however, most have yearned to build a grand house on their ancestral land back home - some out of sentimentality, others to show that they have "made it big" in their adopted country. And some have turned their dreams into concrete reality.

A few of these mansions and palaces stand alone on remote hill-tops, looking like Graeco-Roman temples or fairy-tale castles. Occasionally, it seems, an architect must have built an isolated luxury home for himself, a flight of outraged imagination defying the small-minded conventional clients he's spent his career working for.

Elsewhere, three or four brothers may have divided a family estate according to Islam's precise inheritance laws and then built contrasting individual houses next door to each other. The land would have cost them nothing, but levelling the rocky, remote terrain, installing roads and sewage and then building these palatial piles would have cost millions of dollars. Many of the resulting structures look bizarre, their sometimes lurid materials clashing with the local stone traditionally used for housing and for terracing the vineyards and olive groves which cling to steep hills all around. No one attempts to build in a style compatible with the Ottoman architecture still surviving in parts of towns such as Tebnine.

By building huge homes to such high specifications, the owners are putting a lot of money and skilled work into communities which have been starved of both for decades. But why aren't the owners and their families shown in these pictures? Why aren't theyseen enjoying the swimming- pools, barbecues and cool mountain nights which are such a relief from the sweltering summer heat of Lebanon's coastal cities? When we visited, no one was home. Even the folk with wholly finished houses were away, presumably hard at work in the lands where they have made their fortunes.We found only caretakers and servants. Most said that they didn't expect to see their employers for months.

Some might dismiss these palaces and villas as reflecting the bad taste of nouveaux-riches entrepreneurs, but they are no worse than the latest extravaganzas to rise in the millionaires' row of north London, Bishop's Avenue. The tragedy - to western eyes- lies in where they are being erected, for they will ruin the romantic orientalist image of a scarcely populated Levant, epitomised in David Roberts's paintings of 1839.

All this construction work is going on in what is still a war-zone. If peace really does come, south Lebanon will boom from the impact of emigrant money flooding home. And what nearly 50 years of war have failed to do, peace will bring in no time: the ruin of an area of outstanding natural beauty. !

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