Beirut Diary

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The Independent Online
The Beirut government has been trying to clear away the martyrs. Technicolor billboards of Hizbollah's suicide bombers have cluttered Ouzai and the airport road for more than a decade, but Rafiq Hariri's cabinet has decided that illustrations of young men blowing up Israeli tanks in southern Lebanon are sending the wrong message to tourists and would-be foreign investors. So amid much muttering from Hizbollah - its leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, archly suggested that the government had better follow its clean-up campaign by improving the phones and electricity supply - the posters have come down. A number can be seen stacked outside Hizbollah's mosque in Ouzai; goodbye, therefore, to Hassan Burro and his comrades, with their blood turning into tulips and their heads, quite literally, in the clouds.

But, propped majestically above the main road into Beirut from southern Lebanon, there remain the 20ft warrior of the 1860 war against the Christian Maronites and his modern-day, Kalashnikov-wielding equivalent, hero of a hundred battles (and quite a lot of throat-cutting), both statues guarded by three sinister field guns. Beirutis dutifully ignore the symbolism. They don't even talk about "east Beirut" or "west Beirut" any more - when I asked for new computer disks for the Independent in a Muslim-owned shop the other day I was told I could find them "in another part of town" - which meant, of course, that they could be found in a Christian-owned store.

A rather more serious clean-up has been going on in the restaurant trade. With Croesus-like generosity, Beirutis love to dine out, but new government inspections have listed a raft of fine cafes allegedly serving up food past its sell-by date. They include the splendid sea-front Spaggeteria, beloved of all wartime correspondents, not least because of the shrapnel- cracked mirrors it used to boast - and, "in another part of town", the one-time watering-hole of General Ariel Sharon, overseer of Israel's 1982- 85 military debacle in Lebanon.

So it was good to eat Lebanon's traditional Sultan Ibrahim fish yesterday in the pristine confines of Nasr's, high above the Pigeon Rocks; not least because, after only two fish, I espied the dapper figure of Brigadier General Ghazi Kenaan, the all-powerful head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, sitting down with a covey of colonels at the next table. Now there's a restaurant that definitely won't dare give its customers food poisoning.

But even at home, it's difficult to keep food fresh when the power still comes only 12 hours a day. The Irish Electricity Supply Board is helping out in the power stations and a group of bullet-nosed Frenchmen are wiring up my local street for 220-volt electricity - much bowing and Gallic scraping was necessary to stop them running a fist-sized cable under my balcony. Two months after they first announced the switchover, however, I'm still on 110 volts. Then there's my local phone line, which emits an incendiary crackle whenever the Independent's foreign desk calls; it gets worse throughout the day and dies completely at around deadline time. The trouble, it seems, is caused by nests - not the ornithological kind but the electrical variety. Across the city, thousands of utility poles are infested with hundreds of wires, all of them strung up by home-owners stealing power off the mains. On one pole, I counted 168 wires this week, half of them phone links, the others leaching electricity.

At least things are going a little faster in the old civil war ruins down-town. Teams of archaeologists have unearthed a treasure trove of Roman columns, statues, glassware, roads marked by chariot wheels, the whole classical shebang from ancient Berytus, along with a mosaic inscription which advises that "jealousy is the worst of all evils, the only good about it is that it eats up the eyes and heart of the jealous".

Builders, meanwhile, are getting a little jealous of the archaeologists' patch and want to start erecting the new Beirut. Just after the classical chaps went home last week, one construction company showed its lack of patience by sending a bulldozer down to the old Decumanus Maximus Roman road. There it quietly ploughed up 60 square metres of Byzantine mosaic pavement, turning to dust in 10 minutes what had lasted for almost 2,000 years. The public prosecutor, as they say, has been informed.

What the Beirut tabloids would tell their readers if tabloids existed in Lebanon: that five lady members of Beirut's "velvet society" - the richer, shop-owning classes - have been questioned by the police about drug-running; that Beirut's Roumieh prison, with space for 1,000 inmates, now contains 2,100, most of whom will be released because the police hold anyone questioned about drug offences until the completion of their investigation - even though nine out of 10 are said to be innocent; that the Americans are again fingering Lebanon - without proof - as the source of the new US dollar "Supernote" forgery.

Fresh from gaining an extra three years for his presidency after some extremely odd changes to Article 49 of the Lebanese constitution, Elias Hrawi was busy receiving guests at the presidential palace at Baabda when a Shia lady arrived to congratulate him on his continuation in office. Wishing to remind Mr Hrawi that, as a Muslim lady, it was not her practice to shake hands with a man, she touched her right hand lightly to her chest, a traditional female greeting in Lebanon.

Not to be outdone, the 68-year-old president, who under the constitution must be a Christian Maronite, placed a white handkerchief firmly over his right hand so that it was not possible for his flesh to be touched. Then he held out the decorously mouchoired presidential hand - which the somewhat stunned Muslim lady dutifully shook. Both were clearly blissfully unaware that this Gilbertian scene had been watched on live television across Lebanon by tens of thousands of viewers.