Same great view, different address

Street Life BEIRUT
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The Independent Online
WE'RE MOVING address in Beirut. After two decades, this correspondent will no longer be found on the gorgeous sea-front Avenue de Paris built by the French mandate authorities before the Second World War, with its palm trees and sea-frothing rocks. In just a few weeks, we shall find ourselves living on the Avenue du President Hafez el-Assad.

Now I should explain that the view from my balcony will not change much. The palms will still be there - including the tree into whose fronds my old friend Terry Anderson of the Associated Press used to shoot champagne corks. He lived in the apartment above me, but was dragged off to spend almost seven years in a cell as America's longest-held hostage. The rocks will be washed by the Mediterranean tide in front of my home just as they always were. And the family cat, Walter (named after the managing editor of the International Herald Tribune) will still sit beside me on the balcony at breakfast-time.

What will have happened is that the Avenue de Paris will simply disappear from the street maps, to be replaced by the name of the Syrian president whose hand-painted portrait has long gazed down from a palm tree near the local Ain Mreisse mosque - courtesy of the company of Syrian troops billeted nearby. The decision is still unofficial but the Beirut municipal council, whose political as well as business acumen has never been in doubt, has voted unanimously to honour our street with the name of the Syrian president - before his first visit to the capital next month.

By chance, I've long been fascinated by the politics of Beirut's highway nomenclature, even though I've never before had the privilege of changing my address. In the old centre of Beirut, currently being redeveloped by the company in which the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, has a 10 per cent holding, the streets still retain the names of men who changed the geography as well as the politics of Lebanon.

There is rue Gouraud, honouring the French general who became the first mandate governor in 1918, created the state of "Grand Liban" by carving it out of Syria, and then ordered the murder of the Syrian defence minister after a tragic battle at Maysaloon at which he crushed all hope of Syrian independence for more than two decades. (French Algerian troops refused to participate in the firing squad, so the French got their Senegalese soldiers to do the dirty work.)

Other French generals have had their memorials. Rue Weygand still runs north of the Lebanese parliament. But the street named after France's greatest First World War general was swiftly erased in 1941. It was one thing to impress the Lebanese natives with Marshal Petain, hero of Verdun, in 1918 - quite another to keep his name on the street signs once he had become Hitler's collaborator. When the Allies crushed Vichy forces in Lebanon a year after the French surrender at Compiegne, the name came down.

Even Petain's blood-soaked Great War victory - in which Lebanese French troops participated - is no longer officially commemorated. Until a few years ago, rue Verdun stretched down to the coast road south of my home. But now the boulevard has been blessed with the name of Rashid Karami, the Lebanese prime minister assassinated in the second half of the civil war when Christian militiamen put a bomb on his army helicopter.

There's no rule about the qualifications for street names. Prime Minister Hariri has the four-lane continuation of the Corniche sea-front already named after him with the honorary "President du Conseil" (since he is president of the council of ministers) before his title. And Mr Hariri is very much alive.

But death seems to help. Pretty Sands Street, which runs up from the prime minister's office, has been renamed Rue Rene Mouawad after the man who was blown to atoms by a massive bomb only minutes after foreign ambassadors had congratulated him on his election as president in 1988. In the southern suburbs, home to the Hizbollah guerrilla leadership, a nondescript road near the airport has also been renamed by the municipal council: this time it's Rue Hadi Nasrallah, the son of Hizbollah chairman Hassan Nasrallah, who was killed in an Israeli ambush in southern Lebanon in September last year.

And so it goes on. We already have Boulevard Camille Chamoun (ex-president and bloodthirsty civil war militia leader who called in the US Marines to safeguard Lebanon from "Communism" in 1958) and rue Pasteur - to honour Mother France's scientific genius - and rue Kennedy, to remember the days when Lebanon seemed to be little more than a satellite of the West. There's even a street called Avenue de l'Independence.

But never before have we had Avenue du President Hafez el-Assad. Perhaps it's all got something to do with the treaty of brotherhood and friendship between Beirut and Damascus - or the gratitude which Syria tells us the Lebanese feel for the "protection" which 22,000 Syrian troops have bestowed upon their Lebanese proteges. Indeed, few are the Lebanese who would dream of questioning the city council's decision.

I shall be ruminating upon all this for many months on my balcony, along with Walter the Cat. As a foreigner, far be it from me to object. Indeed, since the Lebanese often drop the "avenue" and "rue" when writing to each other, who could resist giving their address as "c/o President Hafez el-Assad, Beirut"?