The Fast, The Slow and The Furious

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” – George Carlin

Living in Beirut is a daily struggle. A struggle against power cuts, a struggle against nosy neighbours sticking their heads out of their windows as you stumble home at 5am, a struggle against red-tape and chain-smoking civil servants. But by far the most challenging daily battle is navigating the city’s streets in a motorized vehicle.

Driving in Beirut is the first thing any of my European friends talk about when they get to the city. They just can’t wrap their heads around how the system works. People drive the wrong way down one-way streets, and they do this at speed as if to cancel the illegality of their move by amplifying it. Boy racers zigzag in and out of traffic on battered scooters, pony tails flapping in the wind. Traffic cops urge you to ignore red lights, “Yella! Arrib, mfakar hallak bi Fransa?”.  Angry Aunties wrap their wrinkled hands around the horns of their Honda Accords and honk the day away, it’s cheaper than paying for therapy to complain about their unsatisfying husbands. Decaying cab drivers dangle their arms out of their battered relics, and wave them about for no apparent reason, pausing only to reach for a toxic Marlboro resting in a paper pack in their breast pocket. Zouzous in souped-up Japanese coupes with horrendous bodykits plastered with stickers for “Serround Bass” stare at you menacingly through a crack in their tinted windows, with the faint whine of a George Wassouf track in the background.

And the traffic. My lord the traffic! In a city that’s about the size of a Wal-Mart parking lot, it takes hours to get from one place to the next. Cars move along at a snail’s pace, bumper to bumper. Motorists let their heads sink into their hands in despair. Newspapers are read, children do their homework. A fight breaks out every now and again.  Men try to flirt and women try to avoid them. All civility starts to slowly evaporate. People start running red lights, because they feel they’re entitled to after having endured an hour of immobility. Two-lane streets suddenly become four-lane highways, with sidewalks miraculously accommodating anyone with a Four Wheel Drive vehicle.

In one sense, I’m lucky I learnt how to drive in Beirut. Even though I was taught by an off duty soldier and bought my license without ever taking a test, I feel like I could drive anywhere from Zimbabwe to Eastern Siberia and not be shocked by anything the world has to throw at me. I once took a blind corner in Hamra, and rammed into a speeding scooter coming the wrong way down a one way street, at speed (see above). I immediately rushed out to see if the guy was ok. He was apparently more than ok, since his first reaction was to chastise me, the law-abiding one, for not expecting him to come down the street. To add insult to injury, he decided to give me a little shove before he got back on his bike and rode off into the sunset. This episode, and many like it, made no sense at the time and still doesn’t. But then again, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably not supposed to, like everything else in our fair city.

There is hope though. I notice that people now stop at traffic lights. This really shouldn’t be considered a victory on the eve of the second decade of the 21st century, but it is when you remember what things were like a few years ago. As a friend of mine put it, there is a thirst for civility. And I think he’s right. I was in a cab to the airport the other day, and the driver started telling me how happy he was that there are traffic lights everywhere now. “Who says we don’t want order and civilization, things are easier when there’s a law to follow!”. It’s just a shame he said that as he reached for a crumpled Marlboro in his breast pocket and took a short-cut the wrong way down a one way street. Some things never change.

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