The traffic is like cattle. It flows endlessly over the uneven terrain of potholes like a drove of sturdy Welsh black cows jerking across hummocky pastures down the hillside, flank to steaming flank, belching and jostling to lead, straying briefly from the herd to snatch a tasty bite from one of the kaaka bread or chestnut stalls that line the roads. The decorative white markings which may be found on certain stretches of shoddy tarmac have as much influence on the vehicles as one would expect them to have on livestock. Occasionally the gregarious behaviour hits a snag, as a rebel element swerves into the fast lane without indication and lurches across the excuse for a central reservation to effect an about-turn on the highway.
Pedestrians, like flies on a hot day, are an irritating intrusion at high risk of being swatted. They persistently dodge death, darting across lanes of heavy traffic to go about their business, small children begging in the slow moving jams and small-time traders selling wares to drivers in rush hour exhaust fumes – flashing pens, walking sticks and electric razors are among the favourites. Like gnats, though, they remain impervious to their persona non grata status and their tenacity and symbiotic relationship with the taxi-services mean they thrive along the main arteries. The resilience of those on foot is matched only by the doggedness of the taxi-services in their efforts to hunt them down. Lebanon may not have oil resources but you wouldn’t know it from the number of taxis cruising up and down, bleating petulantly at one another, honking at anything that moves, cramming in the passengers for a stretch along the main roads for just over a dollar.
This environment makes any trip a real excursion. Take a simple visit to a family in Shaile, about 20km from Beirut city centre. First we get a bus north up the motorway along coast towards Nahr el Kalb (Dog River), where a tunnel through the hillside which bears the inscriptions of past conquerors, from Ramses II and Nebuchadnezzar to France and Britain. Here the bus slows to an almost stop, time enough for us to jump off and cross the busy road towards one of the ubiquitous old Mercedes waiting at a highway exit for custom. Then we have to wait until a fifth passenger turns up for the same direction, heading inland and uphill. That makes three in the back and three in the front. The taxi wheezes up the windy roads and at various points the other passengers hand over their grubby bills to the driver and get themselves dropped off. Two passengers being far too few, the driver homes in on a gaggle of Sri Lankans panting up the hill, and packs them all in for a bulk price, a kind of wholesale reduction, so there are seven of us in all with the driver puffing on a cigarette and the girls flashing their white teeth and gold nose rings as they chatter and joke in Sinhala all the way up the hill. The driver slows and pulls over every time he passes acquaintances at the garages or grocery stores to show off his sardine load. On the way we pass an indecently long white stretch Hummer parked on the side which we would have a been a tad more comfortable in.
If there’s no contrast, it’s not Lebanon.