Near the center of the battered city of Beirut, along a five-furlong oval surrounded by a stone wall and high-rises blackened by the guns of war, the scene comes alive every Sunday—the Arabian horses pounding hard around the dirt course, their goggled riders screaming and flashing their whips, and the bettors smoking water pipes in the clubhouse or lining the outside fence and lustily cheering them home.
Of all the tracks and race meets in the world—from Hong Kong to Belmont Park, from Epsom to Longchamp—none offers a venue as unlikely as Beirut. In fact, in no other gambling hall on Earth does the real world meet the sporting life to more jarring effect than it does on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The walls of the grandstand are pocked with bullet holes from a 15-year civil war, fought between the country's Christians and a coalition of its Muslims and the PLO, that began in 1975 and included a 1982 invasion by Israel aimed at driving out the Palestinian guerrillas. The paddock resembles the grounds of a military prison. Everywhere are grim-faced soldiers, dressed in battle fatigues, toting M-16 rifles.
The Palais des Paix, or Palace of Peace, was cut out of a pine forest in 1915, and over the next 60 years it served as a sanctuary and sandbox for the region's royalty. The Shah of Iran played there, as did the ruling families of Saudia Arabia and Jordan. All that ended when civil war broke out. The track happened to straddle the north-south Green Line that divides the city into the Muslim (West Beirut) and Christian (East Beirut) sectors, so it lay smack in the middle of the hottest cross fire. Snipers dueled from the windows and rooftops of the nearby buildings. The track was shut down, reopened and shut down again several times. In December 1979, two months after the end of a hundred days of fighting, the track opened its gates and a 12-1 shot named Simsam, Arabic for "sword," won the $10,000 Christmas Prize with a gunshot wound on his left hind leg.
Nothing left it more unalterably scarred than the war that followed the Israeli invasion in June 1982. That month, after peering through binoculars at guerrilla positions hidden behind the 100-year-old forest, Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon ordered the trees destroyed. A barrage of shells and firebombs torched the woods, exposing the track and turning it into a war zone in which dozens of horses perished. With the course caught in the shelling, track officials pleaded with the U.S. special envoy, Philip Habib, to do something to save the 350 horses trapped inside. At Habib's request, Sharon and the PLO's Yasser Arafat agreed to a five-hour cease-fire on July 8. That day grooms wearing white armbands swept into the track and led the horses out to waiting trucks that whisked them to farms in eastern Lebanon.
Nothing in Beirut has had more lives than the track. It reopened in September 1984, after Israel's withdrawal, but closed five months later, after a Muslim militia commander—in a rage over the track's refusal to pay him protection money—took to the balcony of a high-rise and opened fire over the grandstand. The gates stayed closed until the civil war ended in 1990. Since then the track has remained open. Every Sunday the Muslims mingle with the Christians in a sport in which the only question that divides them is this: Who do ya like? It beats war.