- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

BEIRUT — Bombs had begun falling in the capital one evening last week, and Dolly Tomhe wanted to close up and go home.

But two customers had just come into her clothing shop, determined to browse. They tried on tight jeans, stretchy camouflage-patterned blouses and accessories. They paid for their purchases in cash.

“I wanted to go home. I was afraid,” said Mrs. Tomhe, the manager of Zipper Boutique. “But we Lebanese girls take care of ourselves, even in war. We’ve had 30 years’ experience.”

Such is the resilience of modern Beirut — a place where landmarks and apartments damaged in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war stand pockmarked by ordnance while gleaming new office towers rise along a distant skyline.

A cease-fire has taken effect one month into a war that no one here wanted or expected, and Beirut residents are trying to get on with their lives. But that won’t be easy.

Recent physical damage is slight in the city once known as “the Paris of the Orient,” but the emotional fragility is another story.

Everyone who can, it seems, has fled to the real Paris, to Dearborn, Mich., or to the cool and tranquil mountains north of Beirut. In their place are tens of thousands of families from southern towns who are sheltering in schools, parking lots and even parks.

It is as though Beirut has lost its balance.

Those who remain are working shorter hours. A city world-famous for its night life is unsure what to do with so much leisure time: Stringent gas rationing makes driving impossible, while rolling blackouts mean darkness and heat. People don’t want to stray too far from home.

“There is nothing to do but watch television. I cannot turn it off,” said Lena Morjeh, mother of three and a part-time bookkeeper, buying groceries on Mar Elias Street in a predominantly Shi’ite neighborhood.

“But I can’t keep looking at the planes bombing [the southern suburb of] Dahiya, the children dying, the people without homes. I cannot watch TV anymore.”

This was not supposed to be the summer of shortages and grief.

Before Hezbollah militants started the war by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers on July 12, the Lebanese economy had been projected to grow by a healthy 6 percent this year, and tourism was destined to break records. Most two- and three-star hotels here were nearly full.

A month later, Beirut’s fine beaches are covered with a thick scum as oil leaks from a bombed power plant just south of the downtown area.

Minot Street’s restaurants and clubs are shuttered, as are the trendy shops selling luxury brands in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiya, in mixed Hamra and in the decidedly secular central business district.

Those who remain still seek small pleasures — pita sandwiches and ice cream on a steamy Mediterranean night. Men sit in cool alleys smoking from water pipes and talking politics. Friends, no matter where they are spending the war, are just a cell phone or text message away.

But there is a weariness, a profound sense of loss among people who thought the war was behind them.

To Finance Minister Jihad Azour, the real price is not the financial cost of rebuilding, but the shattered confidence in Beirut’s future. “The cost is not what we have to spend, but what we’ve lost,” he said.

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