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Out of Lebanon: Ballads of a city's war are left unsung

BEIRUT - They're building a new highway beneath Corniche Mazraa, just as they're planning, one day, to dig a tunnel beneath the mountains above Beirut to speed the journey to Damascus.

These days a stranger might lose his way in the city. The ruins of the American embassy - suicide-bombed in October 1983 - have finally been bulldozed to make way for a high-rise apartment block. The razing of the old Beirut front line sends so much dust into the air that it hangs over the sweltering city, a faint, sinister nimbus of the towering cumulus of rubble that rose during its battles of 1975, 1982, 1985 and 1986.

But can you erase a war by changing the landscape of the old battlefields, by forcing a new geography to accomplish what politics failed to achieve? When Lebanon's favorite diva, Feyrouz, sang to 40,000 of her people last weekend in Martyr's Square, it seemed an almost conscious effort to wash the last grime of the war from the Lebanese. The press certainly thought so. 'If Feyrouz can return, so can Beirut,' chorused Al-Diyar, the east Beirut daily that has gradually metamorphosed into a champion of Rafiq Hariri's increasingly powerful government.

Well, Feyrouz did return, the 60-year-old mega-star at last persuaded to sing in public in her native Lebanon for the first time in two decades; throughout the war, she refused to perform at home for fear that Christians, or Muslims or Palestinians would try to adopt her for their cause.

And in the heart of the old front line the milky voice floated into the darkness. The cheapest seats cost pounds 6; scarved women and children sat at the back, ministers at the front with bejewelled ladies.

It was a strange, mystical evening, mesmerising yet remote, glorious yet disturbing. We sat where so many had died, listening to that magnificent voice, staring at the tiny, white, rather elderly angel who sang but did not speak to us, and who sang only those songs which did not mention the one thing we were all thinking about: the war.

She sang I Love You, Lebanon and the crowds responded with a groan of emotion. Yet she did not sing Al Quds (Jerusalem), with which Yasser Arafat's new radio station opened its first transmission this year; the Lebanese could not be reminded of the Palestinians, least of all on the anniversary - exactly 12 years to the night - of the one event no Lebanese wishes to remember: the Sabra and Chatila massacre. And she did not sing To Beirut, because the Lebanese - supposedly - did not want to be reminded of the war. And so the words which stirred so many despairing and grieving men and women were never uttered.

'To Beirut - peace to Beirut with all my heart,' goes the wonderful song we never heard last weekend. 'And kisses - to the sea and clouds/ To the rock of a city that looks like an old sailor's face;/ From the soul of her people, she makes wine,/ From their sweat, she makes bread and jasmine./ So how did it come to taste of smoke and fire?'

The Lebanese are still waiting for the answer, but Feyrouz did not choose to ask that question when her people sat before her. It was like Vera Lynn without Blue Birds over the White Cliffs of Dover; like Marlene Dietrich without Lili Marlene. So a lot of people walked home with hearts which Feyrouz had only half opened.

Back they went to homes with only four hours electricity a day, with those terrible questions still unanswered. The Lebanese government is still trying to re-settle the war's displaced thousands, still searching for homes for the 350,000 Palestinians whom Arafat's peace has doomed to stay in Lebanon. In November, the trial of one of the war's most ruthless militiamen, Samir Geagea - charged with involvement in a church explosion this year - begins. Lawyers are still attempting to resolve the legal status of Lebanon's 17,000 'missing', kidnapped and slaughtered over 15 years, leaving families without inheritance. So much of Lebanon's current struggle goes back to the civil war.

Yet it is a war whose origins remain largely unchallenged, whose hatreds must be forgotten rather than understood, whose music must be left unsung, whose memories must be concreted over by the new city to be built where Feyrouz performed - and did not perform - her best-loved songs.

(Photographs omitted)