Archive | November, 2010

The Nomadic Wisdom of Taxi Drivers.

Beirut is a city of two million souls and what often feels like 16 million cars. Organized, reliable and clean public transport is virtually inexistent. We use our cars drive 15 minutes through dense traffic to a place we could have walked to in half the time. Everyday new combinations of swearwords are concocted by irate motorists, festering behind the wheels of their vehicles, their palms dampened, their brows collecting sweat above angry eyes. The ubiquitous car horn overshadows your in-car musical selection, and adds that crowning touch to the symphony of mayhem that are Lebanese roads.

Whilst in a rush hour traffic jam ten days ago, I got rear-ended by a distracted female driver. And it’s not as fun as it sounds. My car is in the shop for a few weeks, so I’m rediscovering the joys (or lack thereof) of making my way around Beirut using my wits and some crumpled thousand lira notes, which inevitably means a succession of taxis and serveeces.

The taxi driver anywhere in the world is an odd entity. Part driver, part psychiatrist, part friend, part annoyance. As a motorist in Lebanon, I’ve found them mainly to be an annoyance so far, with their frequent stops and blatant disregard for traffic regulations, where they exist. But now as a passenger, I’ve come to love these unsung heroes of the road.

As I was heading to work the other day, my cabbie surprised me by assaulting me with a plethora of obscure facts about global warming. He then elaborated on his entire political belief system, which he very accurately described as Northern European Social Democrat. After single-handedly finding a solution to Middle East peace, he’d managed to restore my faith in humanity in 10 stress-free minutes. He tried to refuse to take any money from me, since he’d enjoyed the conversation as much as I had. But I insisted, such good work couldn’t go unappreciated.

Later that same day I hailed the archetypal battered old Mercedes serveece. I’ve always believed Mercedes should use these cars as posters for the endurance of their vehicles. This particular Merc seemed to have about 10% of its original parts, and was held together mainly by wishful thinking rather than any sort of welding work. The driver started discussing the various types of surgeries he’d seen performed on the Reality Channel. After initially fearing this meant he was going to drive me down a dark alley and remove my spleen with a pocket knife, I realized he as just very proud of his intellectual curiosity. As was I.

This got me thinking about how many times taxi drivers have proven to be the highlight of my day…

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On Saturday afternoon, I decided to head out to a café alone to enjoy a bit of sunshine. I ordered a lemonade with crushed ice, since it’s still quite warm in Beirut, and settled in for a spot of people watching. The fact that I was sitting alone, not waiting for anyone and didn’t have a laptop with me, seemed to puzzle my waiter. He kept asking if anyone was joining me, and I kept saying no. I was tempted to tell him he needn’t feel too much pity, that I’ve got plenty of friends but occasionally enjoy a bit of time alone with my thoughts. But I decided against it for fear of blowing his mind and straining his seemingly limited IQ.

A quick glance at the café’s patrons revealed every Beirut cliché. From the bored housewives ignoring their kids whilst armies of Filipino maids struggled to contain the nascent wrath of the bevy of spoilt little brats to the wannabe Golden Boys, wearing hand-me-down suits on a Saturday, smoking a fat cigars jacked from daddy’s cabinet. It was fascinating to just sit there, ignoring the contents of every conversation and just watching the social interactions. Listening in on the conversations wouldn’t have added much to my understanding of this herd anyway, since their focus seems to be primarily on appearance.

Now, anyone who says they don’t care about appearances is a consummate liar. We all care, and it’s probably a good thing. As evolved social beings, we are programmed to infer a certain amount of information just by looking at our surroundings, which include the people around us. Over time, we make decisions over who is approachable, less so, threatening and so on. A lot of these assumptions will probably turn out to be erroneous, but it’s a practical social construct.

Most of us don’t head out into the world every morning looking quite the way we woke up. We wash our face; put on some form of clothing that we think reflects our mood or our obligations. I personally tend to lather a non-negligible amount of gel into my hair on a daily basis to live up to the visual stereotype of a sleazy Mediterranean. So, we all know that our appearance matters. For some it matters more than others, and for some it becomes a sickness.

Beyond the things we can manage through a new haircut or a funky pair of jeans, there are deeper changes to our appearance that require a bit more work. And just as I was thinking this, and explaining to my waiter’s colleague that I really truly wasn’t waiting for an imaginary friend, it hit me. About 50% of the people around me had had some form of plastic surgery.

It’s no secret that Lebanon has a love affair with the scalpel and Botox…

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Will You Save Aya?

I’m not usually one for heartfelt posts about serious subjects, but today is different.

We often get caught up in the machinations of daily life and lose sight of what’s really important. For example, that idiot who cut you off in traffic today has managed to ruin your whole week. But taking a step back can make us realize most of us have a lot to be thankful for.

I took that step back when I met Aya.

Aya is a 13 year-old girl who was born with a dying liver. She’s coped any way she could so far, but things are getting tough now and she needs a liver transplant urgently, she has less than five months to live.

I feel humbled to be involved with the campaign to raise the money Aya needs for the operation that will allow her to live the life every teenager deserves. A life with its ups and downs, but a healthy one with a bright future.

Some of you may have noticed a Facebook page called SAVE AYA showing up in your friends’ minifeeds in the last couple of weeks. If you haven’t joined the page yet, please do. Everyone is encouraged to upload their photos with messages of support for Aya. From what I gather, the effect the messages have been having on her is really quite something.

But beyond the messages of support, the real life-saving work happens over at That’s where you can donate online through Bank Audi’s secure payment system and really make a difference in this little girl’s life.

The fundraising effort is an initiative of Hep Attitude Positive. So far they’ve raised around USD 10,000 dollars through the campaign. Which is great. But we all have a responsibility to get to that USD 50,000 mark, which is where we really make a difference.

Will you Save Aya?

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