Like peace, driving safely in the Middle East is an elusive thing. Much like American suburbia, most places here are built to drive in, with drive thru this and that and valet parking. The only difference is the apparent lack of urban planning and the regularity with which main roads and bridges get bombed into non-existence, wiping out any nascent impression that these rugged dark grey stretches were originally built for driving on, and not by tanks alone. If you’re planning to get behind the wheel anywhere in the Middle East then these tips from a Beiruti driver may help you get to your destination in one piece.
#1 First of all get your own tank. Look around the streets of Beirut city centre and you’ll see a disproportionate number of huge four wheel drives, and especially Hummers. You thought these armoured vehicles were for off-roading, camping in the mountains, exploring deserts in neighbouring countries? No, their raison d’être is exactly what you see them being used for. Mostly by women striking out alone on the perilous journey to the mall. There they are perched high up away from the filth, gliding over the potholes which gape open after every rainfall, while my own, low, battered sedan rattles into every ditch and gets submerged by a few days’ rain.
#2 Beirut is hilly and full of traffic jams, so make sure you get an automatic, since it will allow you to drive like a true local: baby on one arm and using the phone with the other. This could be tricky, or even slightly dangerous with a stick shift gearbox.
#3 The third technical requirement before hitting the road is a manicure. Indicating, where detectable, is done manually, and a slender hand with long red nails dangling lazily out of the window is the best way to cut across three lanes when you nearly miss your exit. Easy done since there are no real exits, just unsigned right-angle turnings. If you think painted red nails on the end of a large hairy masculine hand wouldn’t work so well (you’re right, as it happens) you could try sticking the arm of a plastic mannequin out the window. That way you could probably reach far enough to indicate right from time to time instead of only left. Or you can just go the extra mile on point #7.
#4 To stay alive at checkpoints, come to a brief stop, lower your window and, if it’s dark, turn on the inside light, until being waved on by the soldiers. Don’t get out the car unless asked and don’t wave your camera at them.
#5 The most important protection against accidents is probably eye contact. Since the Lebanese are subject to no recognisable highway code, a great deal of communication goes on between drivers about what they are doing and where they want to be. Again, there is a distinct disadvantage here to being a metre or so below everyone else for those who didn’t take the tank option.
#6 If you plan to stop at traffic lights, leave space for those who choose the other option to pass you by unhindered.
#7 Use your horn. Here people drive by ear as much as by sight. Always use your horn before overtaking, changing lane, leaving a parking spot, passing a car trying to park, if you spot any pedestrians at all, or if the sky is blue that day. If you don’t honk before you pass someone up, you can’t expect them to know you are there. After all mirrors are just for picking one’s teeth and reapplying lipstick.
#8 Get good insurance. Apart from all the disintegrating bangers around, there are indecent proportions of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Cadillacs and Porsches. And at least one Hummer limousine out there. Oh the rich poor divide.
Even the Lebanese will tell you that their roads are fowda - chaos. In comparison, Jordan has a much smoother network after over 40 years of peace, with modern intersections where people actually stop at traffic lights, while Syria is somewhere in between.
For information on finding your way around in Lebanon, have a look at Mentally mapping networks and for a behavioural study of Lebanese drivers take a look at Life forms on a Lebanese road. If the above has put you off the idea of hiring a car yourself, read about public transport in Beirut in Curb-crawling Competition.