Whooping It Up In Beirut, even Christians celebrated the atrocity.

BY ELISABETTA BURBA Saturday, September 22, 2001 12:01 a.m. EDT

BEIRUT--Where were you on Sept. 11, when terrorists changed the world? I
was at the National Museum here, enjoying the wonders of the ancient
Phoenicians with my husband. This tour of past splendor only magnified
shock I received later when I heard the news and saw the reactions all
around me. Walking downtown, I realized that the offspring of this great
civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking
about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of
the Paris of Middle East: professionals wearing double-breasted suits,
charming blond ladies, pretty teenagers in tailored jeans.

Trying to find our bearings, my husband and I went into an American-style
cafe in the Hamra district, near Rue Verdun, rated as one of the most
expensive shopping streets in the world. Here the cognitive dissonance
immediate, and direct. The caf´┐Ż's sophisticated clientele was
laughing, cheering and making jokes, as waiters served hamburgers and
Pepsi. Nobody looked shocked, or moved. They were excited, very excited.

An hour later, at a little market near the U.S. Embassy, on the outskirts
of Beirut, a thrilled shop assistant showed us, using his hands, how the
plane had crashed into the twin towers. He, too, was laughing.

Once back at the house where we were staying, we started scanning the
international channels. Soon came reports of Palestinians celebrating.
BBC reporter in Jerusalem said it was only a tiny minority. Astonished,
asked some moderate Arabs if that was the case. "Nonsense," said one,
speaking for many. "Ninety percent of the Arab world believes that
Americans got what they deserved."

An exaggeration? Rather an understatement. A couple of days later, we
headed north to Tripoli, near the Syrian border. On the way, we read that
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who donated blood in front of the
cameras, was rejecting any suggestion that his people were rejoicing over
the terrorist attack. "It was less than 10 children in Jerusalem," he

In the bustling souk of Tripoli we started looking for the Great Mosque,
1294 building with a distinctive Lombard-style tower. But in that
labyrinth, nobody spoke anything but Arabic, which we don't speak.
in a dark shop, we found an old gentleman who knew French. His round
cap showed that he was a devout Muslim. Leaning on his stick, he managed
get on the street and with most exquisite manners gave us directions.
Common decency survives all.

Once at the mosque I donned a black chador, but our Lonely Planet guide
attracted the attention of a hard-looking bearded guy all the same. "Are
you Americans?" he asked in a menacing tone. Our quick denial made him
relax. He gave us the green light to go in. But very soon afterward we
again approached, by a fat young man. He turned out to be one of the
350,000 Palestinians who live in Lebanon, unwelcome by most of the
population and subject to severe hardships. Hearing we were Italians,
he recited like a prayer names of Italian soccer players. We were
at first that he wanted to talk about sports, but he soon moved on to
politics and the "events."

"My people have been crushed under the heel of American imperialism,
took away our land, massacred our beloved and denied our right to life.
have you seen what happened in New York City? God Almighty has drawn his
sword against our enemies. God is great--Allah u Akbar," he said.

I heard these appeals to religion so often that I needed some theological
help. "How can God do evil?" I later asked an Arab friend, a businessman
with an international background. "According to what I learnt in my
catechism, God lets evil happen. He doesn't do it," I said, and he
answered: "The Koran has the same teaching, but blood calls for blood."

What about compassion? I asked, pointing out that Jesus had turned the
other cheek. Isn't Allah also always called the Merciful? "He is, but
a people has been begging for a piece of land for 52 years and it has
experienced only bloodshed, what can you expect?" But the victims of the
World Trade Center were civilians, I insisted. "In the new intifada, 500
Palestinians have been killed. America didn't give a damn, so why should
Muslims care now about those who died in the twin towers? It's hard, but
that's the way they see it."

I couldn't help it. I kept remembering how a day earlier, in Germany,
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had talked about clash of civilizations.

On Thursday night, in the Christian northern part of Beirut, we heard
loud noises. "Probably they are celebrating the attacks," someone told us
when we asked.

You mean the Maronite Christians are also celebrating? I asked.

"Yes, they also feel betrayed by the Americans."

On Friday, the national day of remembrance for the victims in Europe and
the U.S., I was relieved to see that the Christian church in the Sahet
Aukar district was packed with people holding a candlelight vigil. Less
comforting was the thick barrier of soldiers and checkpoints that
the church.

Heliopolis, in the Bekaa Valley, was the Sun City of the ancients.
it is called Baalbek. Near its lavish temples stands the stronghold of
Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite Party of God. Along the clean alleys
that lead to the Hezbolla's stronghold there are hand-made posters of
bearded young men. "They are martyrs," explained a well-dressed,
Arab man who had just gotten out of his Mercedes. "They fought until
victory: the withdrawal of Israeli occupants. So they became a model for
the all Arab world."

Weren't they terrorists? we asked.

"Terrorists? What about the Israelis who kill women and babies?"

In the seven days we spent in Lebanon, we saw one young Arab woman with
teary eyes. "The stories of the victims touched me," she said, and I
to regain my trust in humanity. Then she added: "But in a way I am also
glad, because for once the Americans are experiencing what we in the
East go through every single day."

Back in Italy, I received a phone call from my friend Gilberto Bazoli, a
journalist in Cremona. He told me he witnessed the same reactions among
Muslims in the local mosque of that small Lombard city. "They were all on
Osama bin Laden's side," he said. "One of them told me that they were not
even worthy to kiss his toes."

Ms. Burba is an Italian journalist.