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Special Reports Last Updated: Aug 8th, 2007 - 01:52:49

LIVE from Lebanon: The Beirut of the problem
By Trish Schuh
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 8, 2007, 01:50

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BEIRUT -- Early one peaceful Sunday morning, a Lebanese colleague from the Christian side of the Green Line offered to skip church and give me an Assassins' Tour of Beirut. "Would you like to trace steps from the Civil War?" she asked. "That would be great," I said. "Why not?" I love a dose of napalm in the morning, as they say . . .

We start with drive-by sightings of car bomb locales from the last few weeks and work back through the years. It takes several hours. By noon we'd only just begun to scratch the 1980s when the car's AC broke. The heat was crippling, so we decided to stop for a drink. Where?

Famous during the civil war for its resident parrot that mimicked the sound of incoming shells, the Commodore Hotel has since been taken over by corporate suits and 'rehabbed' from a cozy, seedy, worn out dive to a cross between a hospital ward and the African wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "I vote we skip that."

The Mayflower, on the other hand, still packs some nostalgic umph. Its Duke of Wellington bar remains quaint, but is quieter now. During the war it was a hangout of foreign correspondents and reputed to be the place where "many a hostage had his last drink." Rumor also had it that some of the pub's own bartenders were moonlighting on the side as the kidnappers. I order a martini which arrived very watered down and not at all the chloroform cocktail I'd hoped for, based on The Mayflower's past reputation.

If past is present, The Tour also provided a glimpse of the future, and what could ignite the next civil war in Beirut: the ongoing assassination of the economy. The entire city seems to be throwing a fire sale. The main shopping district in West Beirut, Hamra, is filled block after block with stores displaying life size "50%-70%-80% off" signs to seduce customers. Yet the streets and souks are empty. None of the summer European tourists or rich Gulf princesses in full abayas have returned due to the political/security situation.

Dozens of other establishments have already expired. At the popular Berkeley Hotel I try to snag a rare room reservation, but there are none available next week. "Full till when?" I ask. "No, empty," the desk clerk informs me. "Tomorrow we shut down for good. We're moving all operations to the Gulf."

Solidere, the luxury downtown area rebuilt by assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, is now almost completely boarded up. The protest encampment filling adjacent Martyrs' is being blamed for the all trouble. Demonstrators from the Christian Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah are reviving an economic no man's land at ground zero on the Civil War's Green Line. The tent city, and the Hezbollah MPs' withdrawal from parliament have paralyzed national institutions. This disaster, combined with frequent car bombings and explosions, has created a comprehensive effect approximating economic sanctions against Lebanon.

But the Lebanese never give up. "You cannot keep the Lebanese down," a Lebanese woman brags. "We made it through 30 years of war. We are survivors."

And hardcore partiers. Nothing can intimidate the Lebanese out of a good time. During last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah, many bars and beaches stayed open. A few even extended hours. One disco club in Gemmayzeh simply ramped up the bass if the bombing got too loud. If a shell lands beside you? Drink your shots from shrapnel!

On the other side of Hezbollah's tent city, I search for Club 1975, a "must" on the party scene. Named for the year the civil war began, this pub's waiters wore combat helmets and fake sandbags were strewn about as cushions. Mortar shells alternated with booze bottles at the bar, and old grenade launchers fastened to Day-Glo piping could be rented to smoke nargila. The owner of the Crocodile Club tells me it was a casualty of the war. "But we're bringing it back again soon and even better. Maybe next month."

Lately the crowds favor rooftop venues out of reach of frequent street-level bombings. Places like Sky Bar, Bubbles and White overlook the Mediterranean and Martyrs' Square, drawing hundreds who dance, drink and rave. At midnight, lights flash and thumping music booms, defying the tent city below. It doesn't end until dawn when the muezzin chants the morning call to prayer.

Trish Schuh has worked with ABCnews, Al-Arabiya, Asia Times, Tehran Times, Syria Times and Iran News Daily. She has studied Arabic in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, and recently observed the presidential elections in Iran.

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