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LEBANON: If Hamra Street could talk

May 20, 2008 |  7:24 am

Hamra1

American University of Beirut student Rama Baaj didn't go to class for a week during the recent fighting that swept Hamra Street, the most cosmopolitan district of Lebanon and the subject of a Los Angeles Times article yesterday.

But like other residents of Hamra, Baaj learned some extracurricular lessons about the real world. The fighting came to an end after the government appeared to cave in to the Shiite militia Hezbollah's demands and rescinded two provocative Cabinet decisions that sparked the conflict.

"When you take a kid to a supermarket and he asks for chocolate and you say, 'no' and he starts screaming and you give in and give the kid chocolate, you've reinforced the screaming," said the 22-year-old psychology major. "If you're gonna give it to him, give it to him in the first place and you reinforce polite asking and talking."

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Current and former residents of Hamra Street responded warmly to the article about the one place in Lebanon where sectarian, religious and political differences never mattered much. 

One Ventura reader wrote to say that the article brought back memories from his time as an exchange student at the American University of Beirut from 1968 to 1969. Like Baaj, he describes an experience as chaotic as it was educational:

Israeli jets regularly flew over Beirut and during the winter [and]  bombed the international airport. Despite all this disruption, which pales in comparison to what followed, Hamra Street was just as you described it — cosmopolitan, forward thinking, and surging with energy into the early morning hours of each day.

Tino Stramotas, a former Hamra denizen who is now a Los Angeles-area resident, wrote that the spirit of Hamra Strreet lives on, even abroad:

We were a bunch of Hamra teenagers back in the 1960s and 1970s who did not let guns and separation erase the wonderful memories. We had a reunion of sorts in Vancouver back in 2000 and one at my home in Palos Verdes, Calif., in 2001. Every now and then I put on my "Hamra Street Gang" T-shirt and remember the good old days.

Another reader e-mailed with an important correction to the article: The name of the Armenian-founded college on Hamra Street is Haigazian, not Hagopian, which is in east Beirut.

And a reader from Pennsylvania writes to note the plight of one group missing from Hamra Street: Lebanese Jews, whose numbers in Lebanon have fallen from 20,000 in 1948 to fewer than 100 today.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos: Top, women relax and shop on Hamra Street (Ramzi Haidar  AFP/Getty Images); People read newspapers on Hamra Street (Associated Press/Ahmad Omar).

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the frictions between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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