Image: St. George's hotel in Beirut, Lebanon
Hussein Malla  /  AP
Lebanon's militancy must seem far away for swimmers relaxing at St. George's hotel in Beirut.
updated 5/29/2008 6:02:56 AM ET 2008-05-29T10:02:56

Lebanon's twin worlds of war and the good life intersect at the St. George's Yacht Club, where sunbathers loll beside the pool of a hotel that was blasted during the 1975-90 civil war and again in a bombing that killed a former premier three years ago.

Even some of the clientele seem willing to embrace both the militant and hedonistic paths of a country that emerged from its latest crisis with a deal giving Hezbollah, the Iran-inspired group that fought Israel in 2006, a powerful say over decisions by the weak, Western-backed government.

"They have an organization that is honest, ready to die for their country, ready to die for their belief," says Sam Zein, who lives in Hezbollah-dominated south Beirut but doesn't fit the image of a typical follower of the hard-line Islamic group. Deeply tanned, the former Mercedes mechanic wears a gold chain and talks of an early romantic encounter as a spiritual experience.

The extremes of the Middle East — the Western-style consumerism exemplified by Dubai's skyscrapers and the cult of holy war that flourishes in Iraq and the Gaza Strip — collide head-on in Lebanon.

Symbols of the two visions are easy to find.

Opulence
Beirut's new central district, conceived by Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister assassinated in 2005, was built as a symbol of post-civil war renewal. Where ruins once stood, designer stores and luxury homes occupy sandstone and limestone buildings with carved facades and balconies. A Porsche dealership is on the waterfront.

Not far from this opulence, Hezbollah keeps thousands of rockets in Shiite Muslim areas stretching from the northern Bekaa valley to the south near archenemy Israel. Its fighters seized parts of Beirut from pro-government gunmen earlier this month, forcing the government to grant veto power to Hezbollah and its allies.

Duality is the essence of Lebanon. Yes, it is a breeding ground for Islamic militants and proxy battleground for regional conflict, but it is also a sun-splashed destination for tourists and tycoons. Its European flavor, a legacy of French colonial administration, and the bullet-pocked shells of old buildings add to the flair.

'Contradiction is everywhere'
Some Lebanese embrace, at least jokingly, their splintered society.

"Contradiction is everywhere in the world," said Paul Aryss, head of Lebanon's association of restaurant owners. "If there's something homogenous, you get bored."

Aryss said Lebanon's approach lies in the philosophy of "you do it your way and we do it our way," and Hezbollah appears to agree at times. Lebanon has 18 sects, including Muslims, Christians and Druse, and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has said he has no plans to try to impose Islamic law on such a diverse country.

A woman in a bikini beside the yacht club's pool wondered about Hezbollah's plans.

"We are living in different worlds," said the woman, who did not want to be identified because her husband works in the delicate arena of politics. "As long as we can do whatever we want and don't have restrictions, it's OK. We respect them, but we don't want them to change the country into a new Iran. There are a lot of question marks for the future."

The respect, however grudging, comes from Hezbollah's military record against Israel, which withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 under militant attack and could not crush the group in 2006. Washington says Hezbollah is a terrorist group, but many Lebanese call it the "resistance" in an echo of the glorified French saboteurs who harassed the Nazis during World War II.

'Cultured'
A Hezbollah souvenir shop sells Oriental perfume bottles, wallets with the trademark image of a Kalashnikov rifle in a clenched fist, a cigarette lighter with a button that projects an image of Nasrallah.

In the plush central district, art gallery owner Aida Cherfan prepared for the opening of an exhibition by a Lebanese artist whose paintings show curvaceous women reclining on sofas, chairs and a horse. They cost up to $40,000.

"When people are cultured, when there is a minimum of education, we find out that we all think the same," said Cherfan. Her clients, she said, come from "all over" Beirut.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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