The taxi drivers are highly aggressive
Troy Media – by Mike Robinson
My newly Beiruti daughter suggested that our first sightseeing trip outside of Beirut be to the northern seaport of Byblos – at 6,000 years and counting, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
We paid 2,000 Lira each (less than $2.00) to take the minibus from the downtown bus depot. Almost as soon as we left the depot, the minibus began serially veering to curbside to pick up real or potential passengers. The bus driver had an assistant who sat to his right and constantly surveyed the crowds of pedestrians for pick-up interest. His visual cues seemed to be a raised inverted palm or a slight wave.
After a brief bus-side conversation, people either became passengers or turned on their heel. The fare was always the same: 2,000 Lira. While the road trip to Byblos is theoretically about one hour, the stop-discuss-start process consumed over two hours of travel time. When we finally reached Byblos, I was already thinking of a return trip by cab.
Riding home in (Lebanon) style
After a four-hour tour of the expansive archaeological ruins under a hot sun, and a two-hour lingering Mediterranean lunch, we decided to spend the money on a cab to ride home in style. Without too much effort we found an old Mercedes sedan with about a 30-year old driver waiting by the roundabout in the centre of town. By now it was 5 pm – rush hour on the Beirut highway, and I was tired from the archaeology, the heat, and the effort necessary to understand the lingua franca (the term was actually coined in Lebanon in the early 1800s), which, since the French colonial era, has seen Arabic mixed with French and English in much social conversation.
For example: “Bonjour monsieur, mish mushkila, the trip to Beirut takes about one hour, inshallah . . .”
I offered the driver 30,000 Lira for the trip, and we had a deal. Beiruti taxis have no meters and all deals are cash at the end of the trip. We entered the Visa-less universe, and hopped into the Mercedes, which roared away from the curb. The driver then began a never-ending process of what my anthropologist daughter calls “relational honking.”
By this she means constant honking to announce the presence of a ‘road relationship,’ and your imminent intention to pass, to turn, to stop. Every other driver’s job is to discern the nature of this relationship and therefore their necessary actions.
At the merge lane into the main stream of commuter traffic on the Beirut highway, the Mercedes charged forward into a straddling position over the two lanes heading south. Our driver then began his core strategy for the trip: tailgating the two vehicles meters ahead, relational honking, and grabbing advantage as either leading car moved slightly right or left. When a space emerged sufficient to nose the old Mercedes into the resultant gap, the driver took it with an accelerating rush and a loud series of relational honks. One or both of the challenged cars then had to pull to the edge of the highway and let us pass. Which we did at great speed, to reestablish the straddle position against the two new cars now just ahead of us.
Our driver was unrelenting in his game. I looked at him sideways from the front passenger seat from time to time, and noticed that he drove with his right hand on the wheel, so his left was free to honk, smoke, text or drink water from a plastic bottle. He didn’t look particularly fit or coordinated, yet his execution of the aggressive and repetitive straddle manoeuvre was flawless.
Just when I thought I had visually mastered his technique, he veer-lunged the Mercedes off the highway, sped through a gas station, and down an exit road that paralleled the main highway. He now raced to gain advantage over the commuter flow, secure in his knowledge of an upcoming merge ramp. Once we hit the ramp, the driver accelerated into the first evident space in the speeding traffic. A string of relational honks miraculously opened a space for the cab. Once again, we assumed the straddle position.
The final 20 minutes of our return were enlivened by the appearance of about 30 patch members of the Beirut Harley-Davidson Club, who were completing a daylong ride up the coast. They firmly occupied the fast lane, riding two abreast, and completely broke the rhythm of the straddle technique. Our driver was reduced to veering to the right as he passed slower cars, mostly driven by old men who stuck to the speed limit.
Order from chaos
As Beirut’s sky-scrapers loomed into smoggy relief, the edge of the highway also became more defined, with occasional menacing concrete-block obstacles left over from recent wars. There was little opportunity to straddle for advantage now, and the last five minutes of the trip became comparatively normal, except for a more urban form of relational honking aimed at pedestrians.
The next day over lunch I asked some young Beiruti friends why taxi drivers in Beirut were so aggressive? They explained that there was an underlying order to the chaos. All agreed that the taxi drivers were highly competitive for business, and their passengers wanted speedy delivery to their destinations. One suggested that the war years had created a continuing sense of urgency, tinged with fear and the need to keep moving. I sensed that in Beirut, speed doesn’t kill. Just the opposite.
Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in BC. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.