Tag Archives: driving

Treks and the City

Of all the pleasures one misses when moving to a new country, the most taxing are often also the simplest. I, for example, miss a certain sense of anonymity which comes with living in a sprawling metropolis. This same anonymity which allows you to head to the supermarket unshowered and in your Superman pajamas free from the anxiety of a possible encounter with a distant relative, colleague or classmate. There are plenty of these little things I miss, but by far the thing I miss most is walking.

Walking in the Middle East as a whole seems to be an activity that is frowned upon. Indeed it is a region where the car is ubiquitous and often gargantuan and gas-guzzling. It is a region where walking from one end of a mall to the other is considered physically strenuous, as evidenced by a recent Economist study which shows the region to have the highest obesity rate in the world (with Lebanon way at the top at number 1. Woohoo, world champs!). I can understand the aversion to walking outdoors in Arab countries in Saharan Africa or in the Gulf, where the climate isn’t adapted to the pursuit of casual wandering, but we in Lebanon have no excuse.

Overall, the climate is typically Mediterranean and temperate, set aside a couple of scorching months in the summer and a month of torrential downpour in the winter. Granted, the city is quite uneven topographically (which could exert a wheeze from the less fit, such as myself) and the sidewalks are an afterthought in the city’s urban planning, if one can speak of such a thing. Indeed, sidewalks seem to be built without really taking into account that anyone may be adventurous enough to walk along them. They are about 30 centimeters in width, and most of that is taken up by illegally parked cars. If you do find a spot unencumbered by an immobile (sometimes even mobile) vehicle, you have to spend your time playing dodge with a plethora of nonsensical, ignored and improbably placed traffic signs. But, nevertheless, if you decided to park your car and trek across town, you could do it with relative ease.

I have to admit, I never really bothered walking around Beirut before. Although I was addicted to walking everywhere in London and on weekend trips around Europe, I got sucked into the prevailing ease with which one goes through life here. People drive their cars from their home to their given destination where they proceed to valet the vehicle. If no valet is available, they go into a prolonged panic even though the street is littered with spaces and parking lots. However, over the indescribably busy holiday period, I came upon a novel idea. Drive close enough to where you’re going, park your car, and proceed to walk around form meeting to meeting for the rest of the day. Journeys started to take ten pleasant minutes instead of a stressful half-hour. I noticed buildings I’d driven past hundreds of times but never bothered to look at.

Cities everywhere are successions of comfort-zones we create for ourselves. Our living rooms, our office cubicles, our favorite cafes and bars. Wherever you live, you fall into a routine that involves roaming around from one of these areas to the next. The capitals of the world like London and New York start to become manageable when you settle into this pattern of habituation. However, the moments where you interact with these cities come from pounding their pavements and engaging with their hive-like public transports networks. That is where you overhear conversations, come up against interesting characters, catch fleeting glimpses of would-be lovers, sneak peeks over people’s shoulders to read to check the progress of their crossword puzzles. Sadly in Beirut, we don’t have access to this hive. Our cars become an additional comfort zone, where we fail to interact with our surroundings, beyond the occasional fender bender and flipped finger from a rolled-down window.

Let’s not forget, that much like any city, Beirut is has a treasure trove of alleyways, architecture and people to discover once you stand upright and put one foot in front of the other. There are streets in Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael which you can only access by ascending uneven steps into pedestrian alleyways. A whole network of decrepit traditional colonial houses, replete with interesting characters awaits you. Having ventured into this labyrinth I’ve been met with the vicious gnarls of barely chained guard dogs as well as the warm smiles of ancient veiled widows tending to their colonies of feline companions. Elsewhere, wandering around the structured chaos of Hamra’s main thoroughfare and side streets is really the only way to discover the wealth of cafes, holes in the wall and jazz bars that litter the area. Aimlessly sauntering through its newly cobbled streets you’ll see blonde, blue eyed expats retracing the steps of their Missionary forefathers, although they’re probably more interested in the eponymous sexual position than the religious mission these days.

Once you abandon your car and walk around, you glide through traffic jams and drown out the sounds you hate. Much like swimming underwater on a sunny day, the sounds from the outside world become a dull and soothing thud, that leave you alone with your thoughts. Walking has long been viewed as the only true way to commune with a place or even to engage in creative thought. In his Confessions Jean-Jacques Rousseau says “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think, my mind only works on my legs”. Even in ancient Greece, the Peripatetic Philosophers, of which Aristotle was a member, owed their name to their inclination for walking whilst conjuring up great ideas. Maybe we owe some of our lackadaisical cultural pursuits in this town to our lack of curiosity to discovering it on foot. Next time you’re driving down the road for a kilometer journey, think of your health, the environment and your brain, park your car and hit our tiny and hazardous pavements.

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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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Becoming Lebanese: A Step-by-Step Guide

This post was first published on May 12th 2006 on my personal blog. It has since been re-posted on other blogs, forwarded as an email and plagiarized by the unimaginative.

Ladies and gentlemen, following this exclusive online guide is a sure-fire way to be mistaken for a Leb.

Driving

The driver’s seat must be in an uncomfortable and impractical reclined position at all times. No more than one hand shall be on the wheel at any time. The other hand should be on the window frame. Alternatively it may be located on the gear-shift or your girlfriend’s leg. Profuse use of horn is encouraged. Religious symbols are to be attached to dashboard at will. Shiny rims and tinted windows, accompanied by thinly veiled threats to fellow motorists on your back window are commonplace.

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