It is one of the world's most troubled cities outside of Iraq but it was once a haven of peace, luxury and plenty in a world at war. For those who visited Beirut then, what it has become makes what it was then but a poignant memory.
In the fall of 1942 there were no shattered buildings, no assassinations, no angry mobs. Lebanese and Syrians, Moslems and Christians, and Jews, too, lived in harmony, or so it appeared to a casual visitor. When Kent Leader, the co-pilot of our B-24 crew (less than two months later he was to die in the crash landing at sea of our bomber) and I took a taxi tour of Beirut, we were driven through the Christian, Moslem and Jewish quarters. Not only did the neighborhoods look alike, but also the inhabitants. And, as far as we could see, they all mingled freely and in harmony throughout the city.
The hotel we stayed in overlooking the Mediterranean , the proud St. Georges, is a long-gone ruin, as is no doubt the other once-stately buildings along the Corniche, the broad thoroughfare separated from the gleaming beach by a graceful balustrade.
Though English was widely spoken, French was the language of Beirut and, it seemed abundantly, its soul. French restaurants, French shops, French élan. .For all we knew, innocents that we were, we could have been in a hotel in Paris. We had no idea what the extra fixture in the bathroom was and, assuming it was a footbath, washed the sand off our feet in it after an afternoon on the St. Georges' beach.
In Palestine, where we were stationed, that there was a war on was always and everywhere evident. British and Americans in uniform wherever you looked, total nightly blackouts, shortage of everything good to eat except fruit, a pervasive alertness, particularly during the time when Gen. Rommel ("The Desert Fox") was poised to attack Alexandria in Egypt. But in Beirut all was gaiety and good times. Despite the presence of uniformed French and British and exotic-looking Indian troops it was like a resort at the height of the season.
After the passage of so many years, I have no precise recollections of Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East, but one image does persist in the midst of the glamour. An Arab in a bloody shirt walking a downtown street with the skinned body of a sheep slung over his shoulder.
I do have a description of the glamorous Beirut in an unpublished short story I wrote soon after the war and which I later used in the novel Rider On the Wind:
"Broad avenues lined with trees, narrow streets scarcely more than alleys, paved with cobbles or rectangular blocks. Teeming bazaars, swanky stores with French names and French goods, open-front local shops. Signs in English, French and Arabic. Arab porters with burlap bags hanging down their backs to pad burdens of ice blocks, crates of chickens, lamb carcasses all white and bloody, threaded their way among automobiles, bicycles, donkey carts, barrows, horse-drawn carriages. On narrow Rue Georges Picot, a country Arab driving a flock of sheep blocked the way, ignoring the drivers' honking horns and shouted French and Arabic."
"The men wore European-cut suits, military uniforms, flowing robes, tarbooshes, Homburgs and straw hats, the women fashionable dresses and silk stockings or Arab garb, faces painted or modestly veiled."
Nowadays when the streets of Beirut swarm, it is with raging, shouting mobs. Instead of open-front shops it is open-front apartment houses, their facades collapsed into the streets. The city of gaiety and accommodation has become a city of fear and hate. And I wonder, was it always there, that potential for brutal divisiveness, even in 1942, when all I saw was its smiling face, its luxury and excitement? Was the true picture of Beirut the sleek women in their French dresses and silk stockings or the ragged Arab with the corpse of a skinned sheep flung over his bloody shoulder?