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In the Shūf mountains above Beirut, militiamen of the Druze sect of Muslims are exchanging artillery fire with the Lebanese Army. Shells from Druze positions already had killed four U.S. Marines, prompting anger and anxiety in Washington and threatening to involve the U.S. more deeply in Lebanon's civil war. But in her plush West Beirut apartment, Druze Princess Khawla Arslan, 42, has created a welcome sort of demilitarized zone: Lebanese Army officers huddle around her dining-room table poring over maps while Druze officials confer in whispers a few feet away on her thick living-room sofa. Princess Arslan has emerged not only as a symbol of Druze unity but also as one of the few Arab women active in Mideast politics. She is lobbying for a settlement of the bloody Druze-Christian conflict that once again has inflamed Lebanon, this time with U.S. Marines in the middle.

Chain-smoking and sipping strong Turkish coffee, the princess explains the bizarre presence of "enemy troops" in her home. "You see," she says, "the Druze have no problem with the army. We see the Lebanese Army as a national army. But we have some conditions to settle before the army is deployed in our territory. So we must talk while we fight. When we've reached our goals, we'll stop."

The princess has shouldered a nearly impossible diplomatic task in a nation whose political infighting is constant and internecine. Druze and Christians have fought each other for more than a century in Lebanon. Early this month those old wounds opened again when the Israeli occupying army left behind its Christian militia allies and pulled out of the central Shūf mountains, which have been the heartland of Lebanon's Druze—now numbering 250,000—for more than 800 years. Immediately, the Christian Phalangist militia and Syrian-backed Druze soldiers led by Walid Jumblat began fighting for control of the mountains. The Lebanese Army, trying to assert government authority, traded artillery fire with the Druze. Shelling of the Beirut airport from Druze-controlled areas killed U.S. Marines charged with securing the landing strip. President Reagan quickly moved 2,000 additional Marines into position off the coast of Lebanon and authorized air strikes to defend the multinational peacekeeping force.

Princess Arslan has unique credentials for her current role in the conflict. Born into one of the two preeminent Druze families—the left-wing Jumblatis, who have become the dominant clan in recent years—she married into the other, the moderate Arslanis. This summer, while her husband of 25 years, Emir Majid Arslan, 70, a former member of parliament and cabinet minister, was hospitalized for a heart attack, she took on his duties. "She has emerged in the past few months as important," says Professor Eric Hooglund, director of the research institute of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. "She symbolizes Druze unity in Lebanon."

Unity against outsiders has been a distinguishing feature of the Druze since their origin in a Shi'ite Muslim schism in 1017. The religion preaches a doctrine of dissimulation, allowing a believer who resides among members of another sect to conform outwardly while remaining a Druze at heart. (Druze in Israel, in fact, are the only Arabs required to join the Israeli army.) The mysteries of the faith—an amalgam of Muslim teaching and Greek philosophy—remain secret even to its followers. Only some 10 percent, the 'uqqal or "wise ones," are allowed to read the sect's hand-copied manuscripts. Central to Druze belief is a profound faith in reincarnation. Last December a prominent Druze businessman from Beirut was kidnapped by Christian soldiers, blindfolded and put against the execution wall. He heard the soldiers load and lock their weapons, but they didn't fire. After his release, he was asked what he was thinking about at that moment. "Honestly," he said, "I was wondering what my new mother would be like." Druze warriors are known for their courage and fearlessness.

Princess Arslan has that spirit, though she still looks more like a politician's or wealthy businessman's wife than a rebel spokeswoman. Calling a press conference to publicize an alleged Christian massacre of Druze, she appears in a flowered silk dress, with designer eyeglass frames and a double string of pearls—then denounces "criminals whose hands are red with blood." (Christian factions countercharged that Druze militia have massacred innocent civilians.) She is forcefully articulate in her espousal of the Druze cause: "We are fighting to preserve the land the Druze have lived on for centuries and to preserve their dignity." At the same time, though, she is careful to leave open the door of compromise: "We realize that our demands cannot be met immediately but we want guarantees that they will be met when circumstances allow." And she still professes optimism that the Druze homeland can once again be integrated into the central Lebanese government. "The question now," she says, "is not if the Lebanese Army will deploy in the Shūf, it is when and how."

Still, despite her best efforts, the artillery duels continue, and the thunder of exploding shells shakes the windows of her apartment. Worse, she learns that some of the shells she hears in the distance are falling on her palace, less than five miles away, where her youngest son, Talel, 18, is living. She reaches frantically for the telephone, dials the Lebanese Army's operation room and screams demands that the bombardment cease. But the army can supply no guarantees, and as she replaces the receiver in its cradle, tears spill out of her dark brown eyes. For all her influence and all her contacts—and she has the clout to call President Amin Gemayel—she cannot silence the guns. "You know," she says, pressing her hands to her tired, puffy eyes, "I'm afraid for this country. I'm very, very afraid."

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Davis Suro.