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Outside View: Driving in Beirut
I love driving in Beirut but that’s because I like driving among caffeine-fueled, race-car drivers, all jamming at high speed, with little consideration for stop signs, stop lights, pedestrians or emergency vehicles.
That I like this, and indeed, have adapted to driving like this, essentially qualifies me as an “honorary Beirut driver.”
That I do stop, however, for elderly pedestrians and women with prams seems to make me the target of unmitigated scorn by my fellow automobile operators.
The average Levantine driver I consider a person of uncanny ability, driving with an incredible Zen, employing all five senses, and a sixth sense, too.
There is, for instance, the cat-like ability of a driver who is changing lanes and about to hit you broadside, who suddenly swings off, having “sensed” your car at the last moment, after not having seen you in their blind spot.
That they “vibe” a neighboring vehicle at all is incredible giving the general distraction created by a maelstrom of storming metal, often precluding notice of the little things, such as a nearby auto.
While my Lebanese-French fiancee will drive with me, many other Lebanese decline — thinking that if someone is driving like a Lebanese it had better be a Lebanese because naturally an expat, an “etranger,” could never capably drive the roads of the Levant.
Whom did I learn my Beirut driving from?” The “Best.” For my first several months going to work at the Markaziah building in the Central District, from the hilly suburb of Broummana, I used a car service whose experts gladly showed me the ropes of high-speed lane changing, queue jumping, lane weaving, Burj Hammoud cut throughs off the highway, and other “quickie” detours.
My favorite, Driver No. “54,” once stopped at a gas station and proposed we swap the Mercedes for his Harley, sans helmet as is the local custom. I jumped at the chance to show my expat courage and hopped on the back as he skidded out from the station at high speed onto the highway.
It was quite invigorating!
A veteran of LA, New York and Washington, DC-driving — all some of the most challenging conditions known in the world and statistically shown to be rated as horrible, I found new challenges in Beirut.
Let me list a few things to look out for:
Running red lights with regularity. No matter where or when the red light, someone or several someones will blithely run through it well after it has turned the color that means “stop.”
Cars that either back at high speed into traffic from the many retail parking lots, which front the major highways, or cars that stop outright in the highway, realizing that they have missed an important turn, and will back up into traffic.
The ever-popular “riding the center” lane to fully leverage your highway position; or better yet, starting a whole new lane, by driving into oncoming traffic, for a short detour.
My top favorite — “jumping the queue.” Why should you wait in line on an off ramp like everyone else? You are special!
Adding to this is not only double-parking on many small streets, but triple-parking, thus not only blocking other drivers in until you return but effectively rendering the street impassable.
Also, just for minor mention, is cutting hard right for an off turn from the far left lane, or reversely, hard left, for a left turn, from the far right lane, thus throwing your car across multiple lanes of traffic.
And no critique on Beirut/Lebanese traffic would be complete without mention of “kamikaze” motorbikes, scooters, “cafe-racers,” mobilettes and mopeds. Delivery guys not only going wrong ways on streets but seemingly coming out of nowhere and crossing horizontal to the traffic, causing sudden stops and near crashes. It almost goes without mention that delivery driving on sidewalks is a given.
Among cab drivers, who negotiate seemingly impossible lane weaving, there is the use of something auto-sociologists call “relational honking” as part of their almost flawless execution of driving akin to a Formula One Grand Prix race. Honk and weave, honk and weave. Try it.
A local radio personality, reported with some outrage and frustration recently that a gentleman driver had stopped and blocked a lane of traffic on a two-lane southbound route, as he calmly took a commuting-hour N’argilla break.
Perhaps a small irony — underneath this dense fabric of traffic are the bones of the Ottoman-era railway, which formerly connected not only all of Lebanon as one economic zone but a great deal of the Middle East.
The remaining parts of this rail infrastructure was decimated during the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, the remnants left to further decay in the interceding years. Reviving it might not be so costly but the coffers of the government are empty as to large scale infrastructure projects, running one of the highest government debt-to-GDP ratios in the world, and there is little political will to reestablish a light rail.
I voice no opinion, though I would like a high-speed water-taxi running out of Beirut on a north-south axis- down to Tyre and Sidon and up to Jounieh, Byblos and Tripoli.
Private funds have been pledged previously — or at least plans put forward by private investors — but any action was tabled several years ago by the government.
The above said, I have a sneaking affection for local driving habits. Whenever arriving back to Beirut and hitting the airport road back to town, I smile to see my old chums, who seem to like this stretch of highway — the motorcycle wheelie gangs. Seemingly immortal, five or six of them will go off at once, launching their front tire into thin air and keeping it aloft for several kilometers at high speed! For some reason in calls to mind Cocteau’s movie updating of the “Orpheus” myth.
Viewed in the proper light — given local traffic conditions — all the above is not bad driving, rather it is “evolved” driving in order to effectively navigate to wherever the destination.
The amiable chaos of Beirut traffic lends a certain — I don’t know what quality. With equal amounts of exhilaration, frustration and jaw dropping, surreal disbelief, one isn’t a victim on the roads in Beirut; rather everyone is equally culpable in driving for the moment!
(Chief business editor for UPI until 2008, T.K. Maloy is a senior business correspondent for the Beirut Daily Star and a contributing writer for Entrepreneur magazine (Middle East edition). He has worked in Abu Dhabi; Beijing; Washington; New York; Dover, Del.; and Gettysburg, Pa., covering everything from Wall Street to Main Street Contact: email@example.com.)
(United Press International’s “Outside View” commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
Copyright 2012 by United Press International