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Beirut: City of Regrets.

Beirut: City of Regrets. Eli Reed, Fouad Ajami. Norton, $19.95. Lebanon, a French consul wrote in 1913, is a land without patriotism, in which each official is read"to set his country on fire to light his cigarette'" In the essay accompanying this collection of photographs, Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born professor, shows Beirut as a patchwork of competing dreams, doomed to tear apart. For centuries, the one-time Phoenician port was a refuge for religious dissidents and ethnic exiles from across the region: the Druze, Shi'a Muslims, Maronite Christians, Armenians, and finally, Palestinians. Most of them had nowhere else to run. For a time prosperity provided a common thread. Almost alone among Arab cities, Beirut enjoyed a free press and easy commerce with the libertine West. But when ambitions clashed-abetted by the West and Middle Eastern states-a fight to the death was the only available option.

This is a book of the Beirut that the West has come to know since 1975: a free-fire zone where alliances shift by the hour and where killing is so stylish that teenagers wear their AK-47s like Calvin Klein jeans. The pictures, taken by the American photojournalist Eli Reed during a period of heavy fighting in 1983, also show how life goes on amidst the slaughter. We see a beauty queen, Miss Lebanon, at home with her mother, or a family picnicking by the Mediterranean, just a few feet from the rusted hull of a half-sunk ship. The text, written by a Shi'a Muslim who now teaches at Johns Hopkins, shows how Beirut became the theater in which blood feuds were played out: between Iran and Iraq, between Palestinians and both Israel and Syfia. In Ajarni's narrative, America appears as the last in a long line of innocents who thought that some sanity could be restored. The result, of course, was the death of 241 American servicemen, and dozens of individual tragedies. Malcom Kerr, for one. As president of the American University of Beirut, he returns to his native city to continue the work his missionary parents had begun and is murdered on his way to work in 1984: "He was born in the same hospital where he was pronounced dead."

Taken together with the photos, Ajami's essay paints a vivid portrait of a place where the center cannot hold. If it does little to change our image of Beirut, this book does add depth and pathos to a story without clear villains or heroes. It also conjures a bit of the magic that kept men like Kerr returning to resurrect the dream of a Muslim/Christian citystate by the sea. Beirut was a place where yo "could ski in the mountains in the morning and swim in the afternoons," a city that "lived by its wits" and enjoyed a freedom and prosperity bred of silk, trade, and cultural diversity.

Ironically this depressing volume appears just as some good news for Beirut may finally have broken. Iran's retreat from its war with Iraq bodes ill for the revolutionary fundamentalism that the Ayatollah Khomeini brought to the region in 1979. It appears likely that Iran-backed fighters in Beirut may be forced to strike a conciliatory note as well. If nothing else, this is a welcome development for those Westerners, captivated like so many others by Beirut, who have been paying for their attraction to the city by being shuttled for months or years, in blindfolds, from one safehouse to another.

Tony Horwitz
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Author:Horwitz, Tony
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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