- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

BEIRUT — It’s 3 a.m. at the Cristal nightclub and the dance floor is packed with bodies shaking to the house beat.

Scantily clad young men and women jump onto seats, tables and even the bar. The idea is to be visible. “Cristal is the place to be on Saturday,” said Lena Lahham, a Beirut-based television producer.

East Beirut’s Ashrafieh district is quickly regaining its reputation as the playground of the Middle East. Party people didn’t stop enjoying the night life during the 34-day war that ended last month, but much of the revelry was confined to nightclub districts in the mountains that ring much of the city.

After the cease-fire was declared in mid-August, it didn’t take long for the accustomed revelry to return to central Beirut.

This summer was expected to be the best tourist season since the early 1970s, when Beirut burnished its reputation as “the Paris of the Middle East.”

The Europeans and petrodollar-rich Arab jet set abandoned the city after 1975 as the Lebanese civil war reduced much of Beirut to bullet-scarred rubble.

“What I noticed right away about Gemmayzeh and Ashrafieh was that they felt like ghost towns,” said Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, an arts editor who returned to Beirut in early August and as war raged. “Nothing was open and anyone who was in the street was walking around as if in a daze,” he said of central Beirut’s main entertainment districts.

With the tourist season torpedoed, analysts estimate that Lebanon lost about $3 billion in hospitality-related revenue and another $2 billion in lost foreign direct investment. All in all, the country is almost $10 billion out of pocket in real and expected revenues.

Many of Lebanon’s well-off decamped to Europe or to neighboring Arab countries during the war. Those who stayed sought refuge in villages and resorts in the mountains behind Beirut.

The hospitality industry continued catering to them, even in their self-imposed exile. The fashionable nightclub Element relocated to Faqra, an exclusive ski resort, while clothes emporium Aishti opened what it called a “guerrilla emporium” in Brumana, another mountain village popular with wealthy Lebanese.

“The people who really wanted to party during the war did so in the mountains, which is historically where the party scene moves to,” Mr. Wilson-Goldie said.

“Friends said it was like being in ‘The Twilight Zone,’ completely oblivious, tinged with politics and the feeling that south Lebanon should burn and Israel could just have it.”

At Cristal, cocktails cost an average of $12 — way beyond the reach of the average Lebanese.

But inside the club, dozens of bottles of Moet et Chandon were being consumed. The management delivered each batch of up to four bottles inside large ice buckets with sparklers attached, and the disc jockey stopped his set to announce the name of the purchaser.

Some Lebanese found it insensitive that some countrymen were partying hedonistically while hundreds of thousands of others were made homeless by the sustained Israeli bombardments.

With the conflict mostly targeting Lebanon’s poorer Shi’ite neighborhoods, the partying by well-off Christian and Sunni Lebanese was seen as inflammatory.

“How can they go out and party, drink and enjoy themselves when this country and their compatriots have been through so much?” asked Ziad Salloum, a young Beiruti taking a walk in the Hamra commercial district.

At Whites, a rooftop nightclub in central Beirut’s rebuilt downtown, white-clad waiters bop to the beat alongside the few partygoers stretched out on white sofas and chairs. Industrial-size fans stir the humid atmosphere and water is sprayed to cool the dancers.

“There’s a secret to Lebanon that no one knows,” said Miss Lahham, who returned to Beirut on the second day of the cease-fire after spending a worried month in Damascus watching developments on television.

“Monte Carlo is glitzier, Greece is more beautiful, Bora Bora more exotic, Italy may have a better cuisine,” she said. “But there’s something about this place since ancient times that keeps on bringing people back here — however bad things get.”

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