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Changing Lifestyles : Learning to Love a Peace Dividend : Normal living now seems abnormal to Beirutis who have grown accustomed to 16 years of civil warfare.

April 30, 1991|MARILYN RASCHKA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIRUT — Three months after being ridded of the city's formerly ever-present militias, residents of Lebanon's capital are finding that peace is a mixed bag.

The return to full-length workdays is a shock to a population used to "forced vacations" when street fighting or spates of shelling shut down the city.

"Five days of school in a row every week is wearing us out," commented school administrator Mona Khoury. This school year is the first in nearly a generation in which attacks, bombs and chaos haven't played havoc with the ABC's of education.

Daily life at the city's hospitals has become relatively mundane. "Exhibit A" at the bedside of a friend in the hospital used to be a nasty piece of shrapnel and an accompanying harrowing tale. Now, the best anyone has to offer is a kidney stone.

At the American University Hospital, the city's biggest and best medical facility, where war casualties sometimes numbered many thousands in a month between 1975 and 1990, there are now only one or two such emergencies a day. Most result from people stepping on unexploded mines. Meanwhile, sports injuries are on the increase as people return to basketball, soccer and skiing in greater numbers.

The continuing economic crisis also contributes victims as the poor resort to scavenging among Beirut's ruins. Several young men were badly injured recently when a dilapidated building collapsed as they tried to strip it of iron balcony rails.

Whatever the injuries, today's survival rate is much higher than in war. The demand for cemetery plots has fallen, and clothing shops report a sharp drop in the sales of black-colored items worn at funerals by bereaved relatives.

Most Lebanese are testing out the waters of peace very slowly. Old habits such as staying home at night during 15 years of chaos are hard to break.

Movies are poorly attended. Those who do go are routinely asked by their less adventuresome friends, "Aren't you afraid of bombs?" For a period of time in the mid-'80s, movie theaters were favorite bombing targets as violence on the screen was transformed into everyday reality.

Militiamen used to make up the bulk of movie audiences. But with them gone, comedies such as "Pretty Woman" and "The Freshman" play to small but enthusiastic audiences of couples or groups of young people.

One young bearded man caused some tension among foreign moviegoers the other day when he left his seat and made for the exit. His return, with a bag of popcorn, caused relieved laughing at a real-life sitcom, Beirut-style.

But water and electricity are not laughing matters. Along with telephones, these state-provided services are still a long way from being dependable.

It was a major improvement recently when the government doubled from three to six the number of hours per day that the city's electricity is turned on. This six-hour service costs $15 per month. Many people also buy 16 hours per day of supplementary, private-generator service for an additional $50 monthly, raising their total cost for electricity nearly to the level of the country's $75 monthly minimum wage.

Those who have working phones suffer from frequent "dead-phone syndrome." The standard solution is to give baksheesh to the government worker who cut the line--his way of supplementing his $75 monthly salary.

Much more up to date is the private phone business with lines connected through Cyprus. A call to the United States costs $5 per minute, and there's a three-minute minimum. But this is the only alternative to government international lines, which rarely work.

The chief barometer of the long-awaited return to prosperity is the recent strength of the national currency, the lira. It is now holding its own against foreign currencies after falling in value starting in 1984 from five to more than 1,000 to the dollar.

Meanwhile, prices seem to have no basis in reality. Everyone spends more than they make but can't explain how they do it.

Good hairstylists charge $15 to $20 for a cut. Doctors charge $30 for an office visit. A plumber who charges $30 an hour justified the amount by saying, "But that's what plumbers in America make."

The hottest news in the press is the rash of crime that has hit Beirut. Last week, well-organized thieves blocked a stretch of street and cleaned out a row of 10 jewelry shops. If you ask how it could happen under the noses of Syrian troops at checkpoints dotting the city, cynical Lebanese simply give you a knowing look.

What to do with about 50,000 paramilitary types is on everyone's mind. The government has suggested taking 20,000 into the Lebanese army and other security forces. This program, including rehabilitation, will cost an estimated $24 million. Salaries will match the $100 a month typical of militia pay.

Other ex-militiamen are to get government jobs. In fact, a recent editorial in the Diyar Arabic daily quipped that having a militia background may be the only way to get a government job in the future.

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