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Last month in Beirut I was caught up in a physical attack on Christopher Hitchens, the Anglo-American journalist, by pro-Syrian thugs. It was my first visit to the Lebanese capital - as the guest of the New Opinion Group, an anti-Syrian NGO. The violence came as a surprise, partly because we were walking down one of the city's smartest streets, but mostly because one of the most striking things about the city is the way it looks and feels so calmly Western European, so civilised and so very much recovered from the civil war of 1975-90.

Yes, you can see many buildings pockmarked with bullet holes or scarred by shrapnel and yes, the Holiday Inn's shattered hulk still stands forlornly above the Corniche. But there are new skyscrapers along the beach and the central area is all but completely rebuilt. The streets, even in the relatively poor southern suburbs, are much cleaner than London's. You do see soldiers and Lebanese army troop carriers at key roundabouts but the overall atmosphere is dominated by commerce, by nightlife, by construction and by civilians, who clearly spend much of their disposable income following the latest fashions.

It was mid-afternoon when the attack happened. Hitchens, Michael Totten (Middle East blogger and Standpoint contributor) and I left our West Beirut hotel to walk off our lunch and do some shopping. We had spent a sunlit morning with the rest of an international and localmedia delegation at an exhilarating political rally in Martyrs' Square and were due to meet a leading politician from the anti-Syrian ruling coalition for drinks that evening.

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