BEIRUT — Gabriel Bousamra stared sadly at the long wooden box. Inside, lying on a bed of sawdust, was an immense Champagne bottle, a jeroboam, fatally cracked. It was the sole casualty of war for Beirut's quartermaster of the good life.
Through six months of shelling, Bousamra had marshaled sea and land forces to keep the shelves and restaurant of La Cigale, the family establishment, filled with the luxuries that moneyed Beirutis treasure.
"We don't know how this happened," Bousamra said, patting the broken bottle, its golden contents having leaked away. "It's such a loss."
But it was the only one. Stacked around in La Cigale's storeroom was proof of Bousamra's prowess at running fine foods through the Syrian naval blockade of the Christian port of Juniyah, just north of Beirut. Crates of French wines reached to the ceiling. British meat sauces and Russian and Iranian caviar lined the walls.
"This is our command post," the handsome, soft-spoken Lebanese purveyor pointed out, entering his office. On one wall was the Telex machine he uses to place his orders abroad, running on power from two large generators he shipped through the blockade when shelling knocked out the city electrical supply. His fuel costs are $300 a day.
"We'd place the orders for delivery in Larnaca (Cyprus), and we off-loaded the goods there onto smaller ships that ran into Juniyah under darkness," Bousamra explained.
Like the Christian generals who battled the blockade to bring guns and ammunition ashore during the recently ceased shelling, the restaurateur ran a precise military operation to bring in the bacon and the cheese.
"I am a commando operating my business," he said. "Whatever I wanted, I got."
There was always a ship captain willing, at a price, to take the risk.
"We got in 70 cases of French Champagne," Bousamra said, "two container-loads of French cheeses and fresh cream and one freezer container of American turkeys, ducklings and cuts of beef, from Baltimore."
The price, he confided, averaged about $25,000 per container.
La Cigale, Beirutis say, was the only establishment that remained open throughout the shelling.
"We never closed. This is the will of survival," Bousamra confirmed. "We never raised our prices. Anything else would have been morally wrong, and, of course, we have our reputation to consider."
Now staffed by 80 employees, La Cigale has been in business for 40 years. Heading the operation with Bousamra are his father, the founder, and two brothers. The Bousamra family also owns a luxury-foods shop in West Beirut, named Candy, but it was closed during the shelling.
Sheltered by sandbags, the entry of La Cigale opens onto a market with the Southern California flavor of a Jurgensen's. On one side, glass counters hold cakes and pastries fresh from the kitchen. Well-dressed Christian matrons and their Sri Lankan maids sample the possibilities, or place orders for the catering service. The wedding season came late this year, with the September cease-fire.
On the other side of the room stands the meat counter, lined with Parma hams, American T-bone steaks, French pates and German sausage. The center section offers large pillars of fresh fruit, imported mangoes and custard apples at $2.50 a pound and locally grown strawberries, persimmons and dates. Pistachio nuts from Aleppo, Syria, sell by the bag. The restaurant at the rear serves an excellent Caesar salad, imported steaks and the flavorful Lebanese mezze for starters-- tabbouleh, hummus, baba ghannouj, pita bread and green olives.
For dessert? Voila! The maitre d', a trim man in a white suit, rolls up a cart and prepares a crepes Suzette. The bar is fully stocked.
Is this a bit too much for a country at war? Ordinary Beirutis may cringe at La Cigale's prices--a dinner with wine runs about $20--but none, at least no Christian in East Beirut, would deny his countrymen the luxuries of life.
La Cigale goes far beyond eating and shopping. It is an atmosphere, the air that Francophile Christians choose to breathe.
"During the shelling, many people came in and told us not to close," Bousamra said. "They didn't want to feel depressed. 'Give us the things of life,' they said. They wanted to enjoy it before dying."
And he pointed here and there on the store's shelves to ordinary items, "basic products the same price as elsewhere."
Through it all, the shelling and the gambling that his cargoes would come through, he never gave a thought to shutting down, Bousamra insisted.
"I could go to the States," he said. "I've been many places in the world. But we feel deeply rooted to this country. There is no country like Lebanon."