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When all else fails, the Lebanese just go for a ride on the Ferris wheel

THE giant, cherry-red Ferris wheel on the Mediterranean beachfront has become a political thermometer in Beirut. Families in high-rise apartment buildings often look down to see if the bright-colored lights on the wheel's rim are flashing, a symbol of tranquility in the current dubious peace.

The entertainment park, made famous internationally by pictures showing clouds from artillery fire or bombs mushrooming against the silhouette of the Ferris wheel, also reflects the escapist life style in Lebanon these days.

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In a nation where no one - least of all the government - seems to have much control over anything, the focus of life is to have as much fun as possible, as one businessman qualified, ''before the next round.'' Even militiamen and Lebanese Army soldiers can be seen hanging out at the park because, as one said, it is a good place ''to forget.''

For the Lebanese, life is now in limbo, centered on ''the long wait,'' either for political resolution or renewed fighting.

''Politics in Lebanon either make a snail look like a race horse, or else they move with the speed of a rocket. Usually it is the positive moves that take forever,'' editorialized Beirut's English-language ''Daily Star.''

Meanwhile, nothing is quite as it should be.

For more than a year Beirut has been without regular electricity, which in turn affects telephone lines and pumps that feed water into the high residential towers. The rationing has been anywhere from six to 18 hours per day, altering the entire pattern of business, meals, even sleep since some allocations come between midnight and 6 a.m.

With the reopening of the airport in July after a five-month closure, mail has finally resumed. An American living in the Lebanese capital last week received a Valentine card and 1983 tax forms due to be paid last April. A Swedish journalist received two Christmas cards.

Schools have resumed, but the education system is in chaos. Teachers complain that they have been forced to pass the increasingly young militia members, some barely in their teens, for fear of reprisals if they were failed.

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Even the revered American University of Beirut, long considered the one neutral spot for all sects, has become the center of dispute between Christians and Muslims for the first time. For a variety of reasons, including finances, the Board of Trustees closed the east Beirut extension program. All students now attend classes on the main campus in west Beirut.

But since the Muslim takeover of west Beirut last February, Christians students with ties to the Christian Phalange Party have been reluctant to cross the ''green line'' that divides the Christian and Muslim sectors of the capital.

And the removal of physical barricades when the Lebanese Army assumed control of all Beirut this summer did not break down psychological barriers.

Thus, American University has become predominantly Muslim, according to American personnel, deeply affecting both the reputation and tradition of the school. It is also a site of potential violence. At a protest rally in the east, a Christian militiaman threatened: ''If we are not allowed to continue, (American University) in the west will not either.''

In a city that once served as a listening post for the entire Middle East, it is now difficult for diplomats to find out what is going on even within the capital's own boundaries.

Diplomats are generally eager to receive journalists these days, usually plying them with questions rather than providing answers. Several embassies are barren, the cost of information not worth the danger.

The Saudis closed down their embassy just a few days after reopening in August, when their mission was attacked by Islamic extremists. Most embassies of Persian Gulf states followed suit.

After the September bombing of the United States Embassy's east Beirut annex, the Americans - who were considered the saviors of Lebanon just a year ago - have whittled down their staff to a bare minimum; trips to west Beirut are now forbidden.

Most European missions have added protection, including cordons around an entire block or screens in the front to protect against rocket-propelled grenades. Shatter-proof linings for windows, to reduce the implosions of a bomb, are now standard.

Security has fallen into a eerie void, despite the theoretical establishment of government control in Beirut again. While it is doubtful that a briefcase will be stolen, there are serious dangers that a person, often indiscriminately, will be snatched. Three Americans kidnapped months ago - reporter Jeremy Levin, embassy official William Buckley, and the Rev. Benjamin Weir - have still not turned up.

Meanwhile, Palestinian guerrillas who evacuated Beirut under a United Nations-negotiated cease-fire after the Israeli invasion have begun to infiltrate the Lebanese capital again. None of the major Muslim militias want them back, but there is little they can do. Arab and East-bloc sources claim that an estimated 1,500 have returned quietly over the past few months.

While the superficial mood is one of escape, the underlying current is one of despair. The dramatic drop in the value of the Lebanese pound, despite the peace , to less than one-half its value four years ago seems to represent the loss of resiliency that once so characterized the Lebanese spirit.

And with it has gone the sense of nationhood. Although shops still close on national holidays, it is the sectarian anniversaries that bring out the emotional parades and speeches.

One week this fall was typical: Christians marked the second anniversary of the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Druzes commemorated the first anniversary of massacres during the ''mountain war'' in the Shouf. Palestinians marked the second anniversary of the mass killing of refugees in Sabra and Shatila.

All the events centered on past acts of violence, leading a Christian businessman to comment: ''Of course we try to escape at times like this. There is so much to escape from.''

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