PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 1996, 12:00am

DESTRUCTION has its fascination. Revenues from ruins bolster the economies of scores of countries - Egypt, Cambodia, Peru, Syria, Greece, Indonesia, Jordan, Zimbabwe, Mexico and Italy among them.

The fascination may be morbid but at least it has always had the virtue of being somewhat scholarly. We move about stone columns and carved panels, clutching guide books, contemplating the art of the ancients, making known our appreciation in tones of hushed awe.

In Beirut, there's no need to pretend. You stand in the middle of a giant swathe of cleared land, where some 350 recently demolished buildings once stood, gaze around at the blown-apart shells of once-grand hotels like the St George, Holiday Inn Phonecia and the Hilton, and you issue an expletive or three. All that is left of the famed Martyrs' Square is the bronzed statue that once graced innumerable postcards and tourism posters.

Bullet holes and mortar shell pockmarks are the motif of the city, an indelible tattoo as vivid as the markings on a Pacific tribal elder's face. You can almost take them for granted until you venture out along the Green Line and realise just what awful havoc artillery can wreak. Until 1991, the heavily fortified divide between the Christian East and Muslim West of Beirut, it is now a long and unyielding mosaic of misery.

The patterns of destruction are bizarre, almost surreal. There are buildings with entire sides missing, floors collapsed upon other floors, their very existence a gravity-defying exercise. There are patches of respite too, like Riad Solh Street, which escaped bombing for the same reason that Switzerland's neutrality was observed by Allies and Axis powers alike during World War II - it housed the banks.

This is no dark ages, middles ages, dawn of time stuff. It happened on our televisions over the past twenty years. For a brief moment in the first half of 1996, it was happening again. It's too new to be proper history, too unstable to interest the pipe-smoking professors. It's probably the most honestly exciting city on earth at the moment, with echoes of Berlin or Vienna after the trouncing of Hitler. In fact, the aura of Graham Greene's The Third Man is so cogent that it would not be a surprise to see a young Orson Welles slip out of a darkened doorway. I did find myself casting the horizon for ferris wheels from time to time.

The mood of the place has always been unique, whether or not its citizens have had to root among rubble to survive. As droll English writer and Middle East enthusiast Michael Haag has observed: 'Pre-war Beirut was enlivened by a kind of eczema, its itch for deal-making and its suppurations of money bandaged in a Frenchified veneer of strip shows, smart shops, bars and bikinis. Being in the Middle East, there was something beguiling about this. Here, both Arab and Westerners could meet and breathe easily and sell their guns, butter and bodies to one another'.

Largely, they still do. Amid the remnants of Beirut cafe life, you can take a window or sidewalk table and watch battered Mercedes sedans hurtle along the streets and swerve around the obstacles, with shifty, half-bearded drivers crouched low over the steering wheel and boots obviously crammed with all manner of contraband. Commerce of all types carries on. Rebuilding - which will begin a-proper as soon as another 350 or so war-scarred buildings meet the wrecker's ball - is a religion. Despair is heresy.

Rosie, my wry and rotund Lebanese guide, laughingly related the saga of her thrice-destroyed apartment. 'The first time it was a mortar shell, the next time it was a hand-grenade, the third time perhaps I left the gas on. But it is still there, Allah be praised!' Monty Python's immovable Black Knight, who blocked King Arthur's way as he searched for the Holy Grail, could well have been Lebanese. Lop off as many limbs as you like and the bloodied trunk will still rail at you in indignation and disbelief.

There is a seductive myopia at play. Street traders and souvenir shops actively sell tourists sets of recently-duplicated slides and freshly-printed postcards of Beautiful Beirut. Every one of them depicts the city in the 1950s or 1960s, replete with gardens, spacious plazas, crowded beaches, glittering floor shows and the jet set going about their indulgences. War, what war? In hotel rooms and foyers you will find a deluxe, glossy 80-page free colour booklet Visitor - Lebanon's Official Tourist Magazine. As bright and pacey a 'What's On' as I've seen in Buenos Aires, Munich or Sydney, it bristles with the confidence of a major metropolis, even offering a three-page feature on night life.

Visitors, official or otherwise, are proudly provided with a pink brochure extolling the city's virtues. That it is at least quarter of a century old is never actually remarked upon. The Beirut it describes is not so much one long past as one just around the corner. Modern Beirut, with its million-odd inhabitants, is the hub of air routes serving Asia, Africa and Europe, with some 100 flights daily by 41 international airlines.

A war weary 500 American firms, and large numbers of French, British, German, Italian and Japanese companies maintain offices in Beirut. Among financial institutions are 74 accredited banks, a stock exchange, free-port facilities, and an absolutely free market in the exchange of gold, silver and currency.

'In Beirut, there's a free market in ideas too, as befits a nation where many sects - among them Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Druzes, Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, Protestants and Jews - practice their creeds with mutual toleration. A free press publishes 40 daily newspapers in Arabic,' says the brochure.

Mutual toleration fell apart at the seams in 1975 when Christians and Muslim went for each other's throats. It was a no-win conflagration which ripped out the heart of a once elegant, French-tinged Mediterranean crossroads and killed over 150,000.

Beirut is now remarkably open and accommodating but for anyone who has ever held a pen, there is a certain cause for pause. This is the city where many journalists spent the best years of their lives chained to radiators in basements. You can drop by the English Pub at the Mayfair Hotel where more than one hostage had his last drink and give the matter some thought.

They don't kidnap foreigners in Beirut anymore; in fact, all sides are rather keen for you to drop by and freely spend your currency of choice and then go home and tell your friends to do the same. There is nothing remotely intimidating about the city; the greatest danger being a tumble down a bomb crater for the unwary. A capitalist ethic does seem to maintain a basic structure of law, if only to protect enterprise.

And enterprise is the only game in town. The belly dancers are back, the banks can't be far behind. Vast amounts of Arab and European money is being poured into what is certainly the planet's largest building site. The restoration, which began in earnest in 1993 when the Government declared an ambitious reconstruction plan costing more than US$12 billion (HK$92,758) over the next decade, is in the hands of the formidable Solidere corporation, a coalition of almost every forward-thinking mover and shaker in Lebanon.

Driven by the purely Lebanese determination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a visionary billionaire with connections to the Saudi royal family, nothing stands in Solidere's way. Through acts of parliament it buys what it wants, knocks over what it wants. There may be cranes over the skyline of other cities of the world but the reclamation of Beirut qualifies as the arch ants' nest. What will rise from the ashes, Hariri insists, will be nothing less than the 'financial, cultural and commercial centre of the Middle East'.

It needs to be said, however, that an unfortunate fate seems to await those who seek to salvage this troubled town, whose first date of historical significance seems to be 551 AD, when it was tipped into the sea by earthquakes and tidal waves.

There was the sad case of one Fakhr al Din al-Maani II, a local emir during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. In 1635, he declared Lebanese independence and encouraged progressive and artistic influences from Florence, Venice and Paris to improve the lot of his people. Largely indifferent to their possession before this, the Turks came thundering down and dragged him off to Constantinople - now Istanbul - where he was summarily strangled. Stagnation, more clearly to their liking, followed the removal of this poor progressive.

Solidere doesn't seem to be bothered by this omen. It erects large billboards and produces thick, lavish booklets and investment prospectus' showing myriad artists' impressions of the new Shangri-La, the 'ancient city of the future'. Fortunately, somewhere along the way, the city fathers whose fairly recent predecessors once allowed almost everything charming about the city to be desecrated in the name of profit, have developed an impressive environmental ethic.

History and heritage has suddenly become very important. Archaeologists from all over the world are being given full access to sites once blocked by buildings. In tandem with the digging of new foundations and car parks are excavations which are bringing to the surface treasures from right back to the Bronze Age. Even when the new Beirut is in place, there will still be open archeological areas near Martyrs' Square showing off Roman baths and Maronite cathedrals. War may be hell - particularly 16 confusing years of it - but it can do wonders for improved urban planning.

At the moment, Beirut exists in a state of functional urban chaos. There is a real frontier feeling, complete with carpetbaggers. Residents and visitors alike have to make do with what is open, what is working, what is available. Moving about is not always easy. There is no public transport. There are cars but few Lebanese hold a licence or have ever sat for a driving test. When the bombs were falling, some social niceties got lost in the dive for the shelters.

But wherever you choose to poke about, there seems to be no serious impediment to your curiosity. The Lebanese and Syrian soldiers are generally accommodating. I discovered this down by the cornice where, on the side of a relatively untouched building, was a giant painted logo announcing the imminent arrival of the Hard Rock Cafe Beirut (not as absurd as it may first appear, a lot of major chains are coming in, including Inter-Continental Hotels). Beneath it were three military tanks under a sheet of clear plastic and a sleepy guard with a dangling rifle who returned a tentative wave. A colossal collage. Cameras duly blazed.

A week later, at home, I saw that logo in close-up on a news broadcast. As it went to a long-shot, I recognised those same tanks, sans covering, furiously pounding away at Israeli aircraft which caused a spot of chaos for a day. What I had merely thought was a great photo opportunity turned out to be the front line of Beirut defence. If you want to go out and stroke the bare face of the world and return unscathed, you can't get much closer to the real thing than that.

How to get there: Emirates flies Hong Kong-Dubai-Beirut Monday to Saturdays. Economy round-trip fare costs $8,620. Call Wallem Travel for information on 2876-8220