Rostropovich brings the wife and a taste for the good life to the heart of Lebanon

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My seat on the Middle East Airlines 747 flying to Beirut was 1K, but Mstislav Rostropovich had put his "wife" in it - a six-foot white plastic case containing the cello he would play in Baalbek, the casket neatly strapped in with a red safety belt. "I call it my wife because a violin is feminine in the Russian language," the great man announced. "So you can sit on the other side of me."

Offered a Beirut newspaper, the world's greatest cellist brandished a bundle of Russian papers. "I don't think you have these on board," he told the stewardess. And thus he avoided news of Israel's 47th air raid on Lebanon this year, further ceasefire violations in the south of the country, the Israeli shelling of Habbouch and the Lebanese government's determination to prevent any further civil disobedience of the variety created by Shia Muslim clerics this month in Baalbek - the very city in which he, Rostropovich, would be playing Dvorak's Cello Concerto in A Major.

"Baalbek is so beautiful," he enthused. "It is the heart of beauty in the Middle East - I want to embrace these people with my music. I will try so hard for them. Their President is a Christian, their Prime Minister is a Muslim. Music is for everyone." Rostropovich, it seemed, had adopted Lebanon's view of itself, a corner of paradise in which war, however unwisely, can be forgotten, in which religious co-existence - whose break- down cost 100,000 lives in Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war - can be held up as the cornerstone of the nation.

I had gloomily prepared myself for a diet of Perrier all the way to Beirut - musicians being parsimonious creatures - but Rostropovich knocked back a Black Label after take-off and launched eagerly into Lebanon's finest Ksara 1994 red wine over lunch. I had forgotten he was a Russian. When the stewardess handed him the first class menu, he gave it to me. "Do you know why I'm choosing langouste a la russe?" he asked. "No? Because in all the 47 years I lived in Russia before my exile, I never tasted langouste a la russe until I reached the West." And he wolfed down the lobster like a starving man.

He had no worries about returning to Lebanon 30 years after his last performance at the Baalbek Festival. "There is peace," he said matter- of-factly. No wonder the Lebanese love this man; he reflects their dreams. Only two weeks ago, I had been sitting in the Beit Eddin palace in the Chouf mountains, watching the greatest dancers of the Bolshoi ballet perform Tchaikovsky and Khach-aturian beneath a pageant of stars. Just 20 miles away, the Israelis were shelling the Hizbollah.

Down the aisle of the 747 strode its pilot, Captain Ramzi Najjar. Would Rostropovich like to autograph his programme of that Baalbek performance 30 years ago? From the pages in front of the short, plump 70-year old musician stared a man from the past, slim and thin-faced, smiling into the camera, the columns of the Roman Temple of Jupiter behind, in his hand the very same cello that now sat beside him in seat 1K.

"When I came the last time, I had to travel from Belgrade to Rome on Yugoslav Airlines, to Athens on Alitalia and then to Beirut on MEA and when I landed it was only an hour before the concert was due to start in Baalbek," he said. "I knew it took two hours by road to Baalbek. But they had a helicopter waiting for me and they flew me right in among the Roman temples. The crowds were clapping and then they were all covered in a storm of dust and dirt from the rotor-blades and I stepped off the helicopter like someone from another planet. That was the night the first men landed on the moon."

The inspiration for the festival came in 1922, when Henri Gouraud, the one-armed French general who tore Lebanon out of the body of Syria and created a new and dangerous nation for the Christians, stood amid the Roman temples one moonlit night and quoted Racine. By the time Rostropovich was planning his first visit, Ella Fitzgerald had sung at Baalbek. Jean Cocteau was there and Sviatoslav Richter, Herbert von Karajan and Joan Baez and the Egyptian singer beloved of President Nasser, Oum Kalsoum.

Rostropovich was nursing two passports in his jacket pocket for Lebanon's immigration men: a Swiss visitor's passport and a Monaco service passport, both of which require visas for the rest of Europe. "I was told by friends in the West that I could have a British passport or an American or French one," he told me. "But I didn't want to legitimise my exile from Russia."

Continuity was what he was after, and the Lebanese would understand him. In Baalbek last night, along with the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, he was playing the Dvorak concerto again, just as he did 30 years ago.

A few hours earlier and only 200 miles further south, the Jerusalem bombs had killed at least 12 innocent men and women. "When the cannons speak, the music stops," Rostropovich had told me on our flight to Beirut. And those cannons, I couldn't help thinking, may be speaking again very soon.

Andersen Air Force Base, Guam (AP) - The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said yesterday she is allowing a 10-year-old ban on US travel to Lebanon to expire after receiving assurances from the government it would cooperate "across the board" to fight terrorism.

A representative of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who issued the assurances to Ms Albright on Tuesday, was travelling to Washington to discuss details of a closer working relationship between the two governments, she said.