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Copyright© 2001-2010, Renato Obeid
"Top blog/Renato Obeid's World/Today's pick: This rambling weblog is worth reading not so much for its satirical posts but more for its insight into the minutiae of life in Lebanon, including the etiquette of road accidents and how to hire a taxi.”
-Jane Perrone, The Guardian
Sunday, February 29, 2004
LAST CHANCE TO "BUY THINGS"
Today is the last day of the annual Lebanese Shopping Festival commemorated throughout February.
Several years ago a friend of mine was living in furnished apartments across the street from the American University of Beirut.
The street is quite appropriately named Bliss Street (after a past president of the AUB) – a wonderfully chaotic strip lined by the university on one side and shops, restaurants, cafes, bars etc on the other catering primarily to the cosmopolitan polyglot students from the university.
The 30 something year-old manager of the apartments/hotel wasn’t much of a sophisticate or polyglot though (an exception among Lebanese).
My friend witnessed the manager in action with a group of Nordic tourists.
The manager approached them in the lobby and introduced himself by way of repeatedly patting himself on the chest with an open palm and saying "me manager" after which he'd then wave his hand around a bit to express God knows what – probably the expanse of his territory or maybe it was his sign language for management.
The tourist said something like "hi' at which point the manager felt compelled to repeat the whole aforementioned process.
The tourists then said something like "pleased to meet you".
The manager then me managered again.
Eventually the tourists somehow managed to get him past that point and to tell them about the prices.
Me Manager answered "yoojewely (usually) 40 dollars but now…shaher el tasawek (as the Shopping Festival is known locally)…buying things, 20 dollars".
The hotel also featured a middle-aged male gypsy receptionist who's only English seemed to be the phrase "youuuuu telefooooone".
Example, an English speaking guest would return to the hotel after being out and would be informed by gypsy man that someone had called in his absence by saying "youuuuu telefooooone".
"Ok, do you know who it was?"
"Youuuuu telefooooone" (with a slightly different intonation).
"Did they leave a number?"
"Youuuuu telefooooone" (with yet another slightly different intonation).
"Did they say they'd call back?"
"Youuuuu telefooooone" (what can I say? this man was full of slightly different intonations).
And so on and so forth.
Saturday, February 28, 2004
TELL US SOMETHING WE DON’T KNOW
Front page headline from the Gulf News Wednesday 4th February "Saudis pledge to adhere to Islamic law".
Shock horror – the Saudis are going to ditch Rastafarianism! (When did this happen?).
Now that would have been real front page news had it been "Jamaicans pledge to adhere to Islamic law".
TOMMY SMITH JUMPS OF WESTGATE BRIDGE
- school friend unsure whether he'll follow suit
- proverbial Australian parental rhetorical question, "if so and so jumped off the Westgate Bridge would you?", now needs real answer
My cousin Omar is the only child I know of to have ever answered a variation of that old chestnut in the affirmative – I rhetorically asked him ‘’if your friends jumped off the roof would you’’.
His one word answer was ‘’yes’’.
So that settles that.
Literary pick of the week
So I Married An Axis Murderer - autobiography of Mrs. Saddam Hussein.
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
INVESTIGATORS BLAME PILATE ERROR FOR CRUCIFIXION
Dwayne Chambers' two year suspension after testing positive for the banned performance enhancing drug THG strikes me as selective justice.
Today's professional sport is awash with unfair performance enhancement.
The money for one – million dollar payments would make me run faster!
Pay me millions of dollars (as Chambers is) and watch me go.
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
WEATHER NOT "HOT ENOUGH" FOR MELBOURNE MAN
- global warming theory tipped on its head
MELBOURNE:A Melbourne man made history and caused shock waves worldwide when he become the first person to answer the traditional Australian phatic question "hot enough for you?" in the negative.
John Smith, forty-five of Williamstown, was quoted as replying "no, it's not" to the jocular sardonic rhetorical ironic question long a staple of Australian summers.
Seen in the context of a heat wave the Southern Australian city has been suffering (with temperatures reaching as high as forty-seven degrees Celsius) this was a startling reply that has caused widespread panic amidst fear of another ice age.
Federal authorities' desperate efforts to calm these fears have achieved little success.
The meteorological bureau issued a statement saying that "it is indeed 'hot enough''.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard cut short a visit to Washington - returning home to make a televised nationwide prime-time address to the nation where he assured Australians that the weather was "hot enough for me".
Mr. Howard's reassurances went unheeded at stock exchanges worldwide where dinosaur shares plummeted due to fear of another ice age (so detrimental to dinosaurs last time around) and oil prices skyrocketed as governments, companies and consumers hoarded the commodity in anticipation of increased heating requirements.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced that it is to reassess the global warming theory.
EPA Administrator Ian Jones said "the commonly held consensus amongst scientists for the past two decades has been that global warming is indeed occurring and temperatures have been increasing, i.e. that it was 'hot enough', but Mr. Smith's comments would appear to belie this and consequently we are going to have to reassess our theory in light of this".
US President George W Bush put a positive spin on developments saying that they vindicated his decision not to sign the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming.
The Smith family is no stranger to controversy – Mr. Smiths father John Smith Senior caused a stir in 1970 when he became the first and last person (until Mr. Smith Junior) to ever actually answer the "hot enough for you?" question when he replied "yes, it is".
Friday, February 13, 2004
WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION
Spot quiz – what's 7+1?
If your answer was 8, congratulations – you're a genius!
Anywhere in the world, 7+1=8.
In Lebanon, 7+1=TROUBLE!
To wit, this piece from today's Daily Star,
"Beirut’s Chief Investigating Magistrate Hatem Madi concluded investigations on Thursday into a case brought by Beirut’s public prosecution against the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) television station, for stirring sectarian strife.
LBC had broadcast a news bulletin on June 31, 2002, following the murder of eight employees of the Teachers’ Fund at UNESCO. The news report had hinted that the victims were shot for sectarian reasons, as they were all of the same religion"
Sectarianism is an ugly beast that Lebanon can well do without but is it sectarian to merely report the news – i.e. the full identities of the victims?
Is it sectarian to say that one plus one is two, to put two and two together and seven and one together and come up with eight?
Quite simply, seven of the victims were of the one religion and it wasn’t the religion of the murderer.
What's wrong with stating that?
Is that a crime?
Since when do we have Math's Police in this country?
Why shoot the messenger?
The murderer was dealt with by a fair non-sectarian judiciary and duly executed.
Tuesday, February 10, 2004
A Lebanese friend of mine who'd studied in Canada was telling me about his experiences with car accident "protocol" in Canada.
He'd had a minor car accident and went about trying to arrange an "Expert" – not succeeding in that but succeeding in thoroughly confusing the other driver.
He was told that the police were the people to call in such cases as in most other cases.
It's amazing how important the police are in so-called democracies.
For instance Australia (where I was born and bred) is practically a police state (although not in the political sense) with a fascistic, corrupt and ubiquitous police force who have set quotas for fines levied, summonses issued etc.
My aunt received a fine in the mail for slowing down – not stopping – in a no parking zone outside a train station to pick up my cousin (the time cited was "between 6.22 and 6.23 PM" and even that was an exaggeration).
But, on the other hand, thankfully the army is noticeable by its absence – so much so that a Lebanese girl (used to Lebanon's ubiquitous army) who'd visited Australia asked me whether Australia actually had an army.
When I told her that they indeed did she asked me where they were (she had not noticed them).
I digress; the point is that there are no "Experts" in Canada (or anywhere else in the world as far as I know).
So what is an "Expert" in Lebanon?
From what I can fathom an "Expert" (capital E please, it's an actual title) is an officially certified (by the state) traffic accident assessor not someone expert at getting into traffic accidents or causing them (that’s a common trait of Lebanese in general).
I have found that out empirically (over the years) here in Lebanon.
The first accident I was involved in (way back at the beginning of my time here) involved a girl I was "interested in" (but, as is always the case, was only "interested in" me as long as I wasn’t "interested in" her) a traffic policeman who wasn’t interested in directing traffic (at any time) and an interesting ramshackle excuse for a truck.
We were at an intersection – she was driving – when the cop waved us through; the fact that he'd also waved through a big truck intersecting across our path didn’t seem incompatible to him.
The truck ended up hitting us, all be it lightly – although even a light blow from a big truck is enough.
When the dust had settled and everybody had emerged unscathed I asked the truck driver for his drivers' license (standard procedure in other parts of the world) which, of course, made no sense to him (comparable to my friend asking the Canadian motorist for an "Expert").
I can't remember the "Expert" who materialized from thin air (as they do) but I remember his verdict – 70% the truck drivers fault, 30% our fault!
The Lebanese no victor no vanquished "solution" is pervasive everywhere; another accident I was involved in saw a police jeep REVERSE into us and (surprise, surprise!) – 70% they're fault and 30% our fault! (of course it's our fault for letting a police jeep REVERSE into us).
The only "Expert" I can claim to know is a taxi driver I occasionally use.
Taxi / service* drivers (the bane of my existence) ought to know all about accidents.
They're the root cause of all traffic accidents and the root of all evil! **
Scientists say that in the event of a nuclear holocaust only cockroaches will survive – I think we can safely add those one-window-refuses-to-open, one-window-refuses-to-close*** beat-up old Mercedes services' and their dogged drivers to that list.
Forget earthquakes, asteroids etc, we'll really know the end of the world is nigh when presentient taxi drivers wont stop for us – I always feel a bit uneasy on the rare and occasional "night that services' forgot".
Anyway, this taxi / service driver / "Expert", although (by his own account) quite successful and good at his job, wasn’t very expert in other areas.
We all have our vices, but habitually sucking (yes, literally sucking) Panadol tablets is a bit weird to me (especially as he wasn’t taking them for medicinal reasons but simply enjoyed the taste).
He also wasn’t an expert numismatoligist.
Because American two dollar notes aren’t in circulation in Lebanon (where the greenback is as commonly used as the Lebanese Lira) he'd paid TWENTY DOLLARS FOR TWO 2$ NOTES – one for himself and one for his girlfriend (how romantic, that’s why I haven’t been succeeding with women – I'm not trying the right moves).
That’s ten dollars a piece.
Twenty dollars for currency worth four dollars.
Sixteen dollars more than they're worth.
When he told me this I tried to keep a poker-face but obviously such manifest stupidity can't totally not affect ones countenance.
Noticing this, he told me (in Arabic, so it wont translate perfectly) "its not that I'm stupid or anything – when the dodgers were born we were distributing mughlee (a votive celebratory boiled wheat dessert distributed in Christian communities after the birth of a child)".
He antedates the dodgers and is also a close relative or friend (they're the ones who usually distribute the mughlee).
No matter how much I intellectualize or analyze that statement, I'll never understand its profundity.
If you're ever in Lebanon and, God forbid, are involved in a traffic accident and have to pay the exorbitant fee for an "Expert" (about one hundred dollars from every party involved), ask him if he wants it in two dollar notes – you may save eighty percent.
*Shared taxi's who prowl the roads trolling for customers – most taxi drivers alternate between taxi and service often at the same time, leading to the most incredible permutations (i.e. passenger in the front is paying full taxi fare to go off route, passengers in the back paying service fare – usually one fifth of a regular taxi fare).
**Not all service drivers are like this. To them, or him, I extend my apologies and deepest gratitude.
***This causes the condition known as "service hair" (medical name – servicus Libani hairus) which is tousled messed up hair leaning to one side like a comb over of which I'm a chronic sufferer of – why do I even bother to brush my hair before I go out?
SELECTED VIGNETTES FROM A CAREER SERVICE PASSENGER
A friend and I once caught a service into Beirut at around midnight and stumbled upon "The Arab Michael Jackson Impersonating Champion".
We'd just got into the back of the service when the driver (one of my regulars) introduced the passenger riding shotgun as (I'm translating directly here) "the Arab Champion in Michael Shackson (sic – very sick actually) Dancing".
I didn’t even know that there was an Arab Michael Jackson Impersonating Championship.
Is it adjudicated by the Arab League?
And what was even more exciting was that "The Champion" (who apart from his dark features, dreadlocks and costume looked about as much like Michael "Shackson"* as I do – which is not at all) was en route from a gig and was dressed in his full regalia.
Through our discussions with him and the service driver (who, apart from being his "limo" driver, handled most of the pesky questions) it transpired that he'd won a competition on a Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation television program and was thus crowned.
In a quite aside to my friend, I conjectured that there wouldn’t be too much competition from the rest of the Arab world – I can't imagine a Saudi Arabian Michael "Shackson" impersonator, although the Libyans and Egyptians could put up a good fight.
The driver insisted that not only did his fare look exactly like Michael "Shackson" but sang exactly like him too and got him to sing for us!
I can't remember what he sang and I can't remember if I cried (although it was that bad that I felt like crying) but he sounded as much like Michael "Shackson" as I do (which, once again, is not at all).
Hit the road "Shack"!
*You don’t even need to look like Michael Jackson to look like Michael Jackson.
Being black is often just enough.
Years ago I knew this gigantic Nigerian basketball player who played for one of the local teams.
We were at the movies in Beirut once and some matron with her teenage daughter in tow approached us and said to him in a Borat accent and in Borat style ‘’we like you a lot – you remind us of Michael Jackson’’.
Apart from being black, which does not necessarily make you look like another black person, this tall well-built shaven-headed Nigerian looked as much like Michael Jackson as I did (which, again, is not very much).
He very politely (and admirably in my opinion) replied ‘’thank you madam’’.
Whilst Lebanese are used to the peculiarities of their transport system it can be a bit perplexing for those who aren’t.
An English friend of mine told me about how when he first jumped into a taxi and/or service and told the driver where he was going, the driver asked him "taxi?" (meaning full fare instant and exclusive delivery rather than service - waiting for the car to fill up with other passengers).
My friend said something to the extent of "Yes, you're a taxi driver driving a taxi; I'm a passenger who wants you to take me somewhere…"
"Mia casa tua casa"
The famed Lebanese hospitality is irrepressible – even when they're trying to hustle you.
I was waiting for service up the mountain early one evening and a driver was trying to get me to pay servicen (two fares – often enough to get a stationary service rolling).
Lebanon is very much an autostrade-orientated society – the cluttered, crowded, polluted and chaotic autostrades are the local equivalent of the Ganges River*, everything happens on or near them.
Subsequently it's hard to get a service driver to go off the beaten track – as they're usually found on the autostrade; where anybody on foot within a 500-meter radius (including people on balconies) are beeped and hassled and practically forced to sign a contract stating they have no intention of going anywhere.
According to my zero tolerance policy, I refused.
He persisted, warning me that it was late and I'd be stuck there if I didn’t comply.
I finally told him that I'd rather sleep there on the street if I couldn’t get a ride.
"No" he replied "if you can't get a ride you'll sleep at my house".
*Which is India's equivalent of a municipal council – i.e. it provides water, sewerage and waste disposal, transport, leisure facilities, undertaking services, etc.
Pillars of the community
I was coming home from a night out in Beirut at 3.00 am one morning and caught the usually dodgy Beirut night service (no picnic during the day, they're even worse at night).
I suppose I shouldn’t feel flattered, service drivers talk to anybody but I'm' particularly blessed and am a service driver talk magnet – so he proceeded to tell me his life history.
Starting with the present – he told me he wasn’t sure where he was going (which was no surprise to me) because he'd just got out of jail (very reassuring to hear).
I asked him what he'd "been in for?" – trying to get down to his level by talking American movie prison talk.
He rewarded me with the dodgiest sentence I've ever heard in my life – "I was standing next to a bank…"
As fate would have it, at that exact moment we picked up another passenger and he was forced to temporarily halt his epic.
But that was for the better because nothing could possibly match the sentence he'd started with and everything else after that would be anticlimactic and superfluous.
When we dropped off the intruding passenger and he eventually continued his story it had changed totally – he told me that he'd killed a policeman in defense of his brother or something or other but had escaped capture by being evacuated with the PLO in 1982 (although he said that he wasn’t a Palestinian, but that the PLO had taken scores of stragglers along with them – "even the chewing gum sellers").
He eventually took advantage of a post-war amnesty by returning to Lebanon and serving a reduced jail term.
Back on Civvy Street (I'd switched from American movie prison talk to British television series prison talk Guv) he was now looking for a supplementary job as a chauffer and asked me if I knew anybody who wanted one – "preferably (I kid you not) a judge or a lawyer".
Yeah right, judges and lawyers are going to be lining up to employ a convicted cop killer (a friend of mine speculated that he possibly wanted revenge).
Maybe he'll find a Dickensian Mr. Jaeger type lawyer.
This may seem like a confession of a misdemeanor (although five and a half years have elapsed so maybe there's a statute of limitations and I can now declassify it), the bragging of a vigilante or a story about a petty hooligan prank but I beg to differ.
For years I've been hassled, harassed, ripped of etc by taxi/service drivers (the bane of my existence) and, although I've always held my ground, I'd finally had enough and decided to do something proactive after constant and extreme provocation.
The straw that broke the camels back occurred when I was waiting for a friend on Red Street*.
I was approached by a taxi driver who asked me if I wanted a taxi (surprise, surprise).
"No interested" I replied.
He then asked me if I wanted a woman.
Hang on, hang on – that doesn’t sound right, let me clarify that I am interested in women, but not prostitutes offered by short, fat, bald alcoholic pimp taxi drivers.
Finally, third time lucky, I asked him I could use his cell phone to call my friend.
I called my friend and told him that I was there and that was it.
Six seconds according to the phones read-out.
I asked Fat Taxi how much I owed him.
After the usual "as much as you like", he demanded ten dollars!
Ten dollars for a six second phone call!
I gave him 2000 Lebanese Liras which was much more than enough!
Not in his opinion though, he started ranting and raving – mainly about how I'd used up all his "unit" – and threw the money back at me.
I'm not in the habit of street fighting but when a plebe attempts to humiliate you in public you have to respond in kind.
My response "in kind" included threatening to squash him – not an easy task, he's… fat and I'm no Mike Tyson.
My friend appeared and separated us and that was the end of that …until…
Until a couple of weeks later.
It was a Saturday night, that same friend and I had been out and I'd had a few drinks (I've just realized that if you add "me Lord" and a cockney accent to that sentence It'd sound like any magistrates court on a Monday morning) and I decided that, rather than tell all and sundry "you're me best mate", I'd visit Fat Taxi at his corner.
Fat Taxi, as usual, was drunk and didn’t recognize me as the person who "owed" him 8.6 $ (he'd ended up taking the 2000LL last week) and greeted me with the drunken Arabic equivalent of "you're me best mate".
I told him that I'd just arrived from America** and knew nothing and nobody (my chronically accented Arabic helped me for a change) and needed to take a taxi to Saida (some forty kilometers south of Beirut).
Not surprisingly, he obliged and, not surprisingly again, quoted me "as much as you like".
I said that I'd pay him "as much as you like" but insisted on knowing the price up front (what did I care? I wasn’t going to pay).
He came up with the bargain price of "only a hundred dollars".
Trying to keep a straight face I asked him if "only a hundred dollars" was enough.
He assured me that he would of charged anybody else much more but, seeing "you're me best mate", he wanted to give me a special price.
I got in and we went off on our merry way.
Merry but short.
About five hundred meters down the road, I asked him to stop outside an all-night corner shawarma joint (let's just call it "Governor General of Potato's") because I wanted provisions for our odyssey.
I asked him if he wanted anything (he didn’t), got out of the car, stopped for a moment and then took off – bolting down an intersecting side street.
I'd planed to go to a friends (the same friend who'd "saved" Fat Taxi from being squashed a couple of weeks ago and had been out drinking with me that night who was now, by arrangement, waiting outside the restaurant to watch the fun) apartment at the end of that side street, but I hadn’t expected Fat Taxi to give chase.
Which he did, shouting "sho back, sho beck?" ("What's wrong with you, what's wrong with you?").
Although I had the advantage of surprise, he had the advantage of a motor vehicle and we were soon neck and neck – me running like Id' never run before and he still yelling "sho beck, sho beck?".
I realized that I couldn’t go to my refuge just yet, so I turned into another street and – he did too.
Then I turned into another street and he did too – a street that ended in a dead end.
I wasn’t afraid, I just wanted to get rid off him and complete my one-off prank/revenge mission – I'm not in the habit of doing this sort of thing.
Besides, this was getting desultory as there was no way he could of caught me (he would have been worse off if he'd resorted to close quarters chasing on foot) and I had visions of us running back and forth all night like Tom and Jerry.
Furthermore, Lebanese aren’t into exercising so anybody running through the streets of Beirut in the middle of the night is bound to be seen as being up to no good by the various ubiquitous security forces that are doing an overall good job of restoring law and order and confidence.
Apart from the security forces, Lebanese are pretty macho and keen to intervene in anything happening around them (Lebanon – home of the instant civilian "traffic cops" who appear from nowhere to direct something as minor as a car being parked) – I can just imagine ten civilians pulling out guns and confronting a robber during a bank robbery.
I looked ahead – dead end!
I looked to my right – Fat Taxi!
I looked to my left – alley that lead to across the road from my friends apartment with a car parked in it thus no space for another vehicle (Fat Taxi), but just enough space for a person (me)to pass!
Just like in the movies!
I couldn’t believe my luck!
I ran through it and to safety.
The moral of the story is that short, fat, bald alcoholic taxi drivers shouldn’t terrorize people and that their victims shouldn’t think that getting their revenge is an altogether easy matter.
Although he prowled the streets for a while looking for me he didn’t recognize me when, after a couple of hours, my friend and I emerged from our hideout and approached him at his corner and he greeted us as "me best mates".
*I've very cleverly disguised the name of a main thoroughfare in a main city – the name have been changed to protect the guilty).
Look out for more of these.
**Naïve, presumably rich, returned Lebanese emigrants are the stuff of taxi drivers' dreams.
"I could have been a contender"
I'm used to service drivers asking me "do you know how to get there?" but I never expected this question – "by the way, can you drive?"
One sunny afternoon an emigrant Iraqi driver complained of dizziness (very reassuring), having been up since 5 a.m.
Would I mind, he asked, taking over the wheel for a while?
Much to my disappointment, the car was a manual.
I can't drive a manual, so I wasn’t able to realize my life-long ambition to be a service driver.
"Ich bin ein service driver"
During my conversation with a service driver once it transpired that he was one of four brothers who were all service drivers and all at the same garage (taxi company) in Tripoli.
Which I found remarkable – this must be a record!
I had stumbled upon the Kennedy’s of Lebanese service driving!
Services and their instrumental role in the space program
The following extract from my blog explains it all,
RENATO OBEID ANNOUNCES MOON MISSION
I'm putting a man on the moon!
For a while I've been marvelling at the fact that they can put a man on the moon but that so and so cant do this or that etc - i.e. that it would be easier for me to put a man on the moon then for so and so to do such and such and that I might as well put a man on the moon then try and get whatever it is done.
The final straw and launch of my space program was the service driver I stopped on the Jounieh highway who couldn't comprehend that I wanted to get off at Jal el Dib (some ten minutes away) on the highway but on the left hand side of the right bound lane (permissible and quite common in Lebanon) and not on the right hand side so I wouldn't have to cross the busy highway.
He kept insisting that he's not going into Jal el Dib proper (that is the town) just through Jal el Dib (on the highway) and I said that that's where I'm going but on the left.
We finally appeared to of reached an understanding and I got in - only to be dropped off about a kilometre down the road when he said (surprise, surprise!) that he's not going into Jal el Dib proper (that is the town) just through Jal el Dib (on the highway) and I said that that's where I'm going but on the left.
Short of making a scale model of that section of the highway and using a pointy stick (military style) to push a toy car over from the right side of the highway over to the left side of the highway I wasn't going to convince him so I decided to put a man on the moon instead.
It will cost about a billion dollars.
Don’t bother looking for a seatbelt in a service – like all other unnecessary accoutrements they would of long since been removed.
If you can't do without a seatbelt then I recommend that you employ what I call the Lebanese (Christian) Seatbelt – namely the sign of the cross that most Lebanese Christians do before driving.
If you think crossing yourself before you drive is a bit excessive then you haven’t been on a Lebanese road.
A Lebanese friend of mine who was studying in Europe was on a visit home one summer and was asked by a soldier at a checkpoint if he was visiting for long.
My friend looks and sounds Lebanese and the soldier didn’t know him or anything about him, so how did the soldier know that he was living abroad? - The seatbelt gave him away!
Belatedly, seatbelt awareness and usage is increasing in Lebanon.
An Irish friend of mine was in the car with his Lebanese wife when a traffic policeman made a sign at him that to a Western eye looked a lot like the sign employed to indicate that someone is fond of…how shall I put this delicately…his own company.
So my friend stuck his finger up at the policeman in reply.
His astonished wife asked him why and he said "he just called me a w----r".
She had to explain to him that in local sign language that meant "put your seatbelt on".
In late 2003, there was a short-lived ‘’crackdown’’ on motorists not wearing seatbelts (i.e. all of them).
There were even random checkpoints set up to catch and book offenders.
Lebanese police haven’t yet cottoned on to the practice of motorists flashing their lights at oncoming motorists to warn them of police ahead.
I was travelling to the north with some relatives when we were thus warned about a checkpoint ahead and, like everyone else, promptly put our seatbelts on.
I overheard a policemen at the checkpoint marvelling ‘’they’ve all got their seatbelts on’’ to a colleague.
Service drivers are highly sought-after busy professionals so a sort of service sign language has evolved to help us communicate to them – with various gestures indicating various destinations.
Unfortunately none of those gestures are the types of gestures I often feel compelled to convey to service drivers – namely those gestures that involve one or two fingers.
Here are two of them.
-When you stand by the side of the road and wave your finger around as if you're indicating some kind of downwards whirlpool motion (try it - it's fun!) you are indicating that you want to go to Dora.
Some five kilometers north of Beirut, Dora, meaning literally "roundabout" in Arabic, is the Armenian quarter and a transport hub for passengers going anywhere north of Beirut.
If Lebanon is indeed the crossroads of the Middle East as it has often been known throughout history then Dora is the crossroads of the crossroads of the Middle East.
-North of Beirut, standing by the side of the road and thrusting and shaking your hand in a sort of chopping motion in a northerly direction indicates that you want to go to Tripoli, Lebanon's second city some eighty kilometers north of Beirut (it also helps if you're carrying a black plastic bag - a Tripoli suitcase).
But, be warned, this particularly esoteric gesture doesn’t mean much in the rest of Lebanon and sharing this with people who have never caught a service to Tripoli can expose you to disbelief and ridicule (for two main reasons).
Primarily because it’s a very funny and stupid looking gesture (try it) and also because this is coupled with the fact that it's associated with the North which is often seen as being a little bit backwards by the rest of the country and is the butt of many jokes.
As I found out the hard way when I shared this specialized knowledge with friends of mine from Beirut and the South.
When their howls of laughter eventually subsided they insisted that we road test this weird gesture there and then – at around midnight on a Saturday night out!
We spilled out of the Beirut pub we were in and they stopped services and did the gesture asking them if they knew what it meant.
I was against this because it only means something north of Beirut and to drivers who are familiar with the route and might be meaningless to the Beirut centric drivers we were stopping.
Which was the case as none of the tested drivers knew what it meant.
Laugh you may but drivers in the know and the North know it and take it very seriously.
So much so that one night in a service I witnessed a service driver who was only going to Jounieh (some twenty kilometers north of Beirut) tell off a potential passenger (who had stopped him only to tell him that he wanted to go to Tripoli) for not using the gesture for Tripoli – "why didn’t you do this (chopping motion)? instead of stopping me".
If that wasn’t enough, after we drove off he continued complaining – asking me "why didn’t he do this (chop, chop)?"
Never enter a stationary service.
That’s not to say that you should get into a service whilst it’s moving (very bad – not advisable) but that you generally shouldn’t enter one that is just waiting there because that lack of motion is a bad sign that can only mean that they’re a) waiting for a fantasy taxi fare or b) waiting to fill up with the ideal load of five passengers.
I’ve long given up on lecturing service drivers and trying to translate “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” into bad Arabic so I just keep walking, telling them that I’ll go when they go.
Even then you’re not totally clear because they’ll often tell you that, yes indeed, they are going to get moving when they often have no intention of doing any such thing but just want to secure you in their vehicle.
Having done that, they’ll then proceed to go through all sorts of elaborate pretending aimed at giving the appearance that they’re preparing for takeoff.
They’ll shift about in their seat a bit, fiddle around, look in the rear view mirror, start the engine, idle it for a while, inch out bit by bit and, finally, if you’re lucky, get moving.But even even then you’re still not guaranteed expeditious motion because they’ll often then proceed to go around the block trolling for more passengers before they start the journey proper and you’ll end up right back where you started from.
The same passengers seem to of been in every service I have ever caught: soldier, nun and girl too plain to be picked up hitchhiking.
Domestic workers are also regular service users when and if they're allowed out by their employees and when they're not being chauffeured by their employees.
It's a refreshing role reversal - the only time I've ever seen white people chauffeuring black people around is in Lebanon.
This strange anomaly is by no means intentional.
"Poor" Lebanese ladies who can't afford a chauffer and have to take their maids* somewhere put them in the back whilst they sit alone up the front driving because they can't have their maids, shock horror, sitting next to them as if they were equals.
This has the opposite effect then the one intended as they are effectively and to all intents and purposes chauffeuring their maids – well that’s what it looks like from the outside.
Most of those domestics are Sri Lankan but that may soon change as I read in the classifieds section of today's (8/3/2004) Daily Star that "NSC provides maids in a short period of time with special offer from Madagascar (French language)"
The bold type is theirs.
*Essentially black white goods - we don't have a full-time maid as we have a dishwasher that I call "the white Sri Lankan".
WALK LIKE AN EGYPITAN
If all this puts you off services and you decide to walk instead, you should bear in mind that in Lebanon it is primarily the underclass that walk and that are on the streets.
Lebanon has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world and very few Lebanese walk anywhere.
Especially the upper classes, who live, shop and socialize in what are practically exclusive isolated enclaves.
Often going straight from car to carpet, I doubt that their feet have ever touched pavement.
The McDonalds in Ain el Mreiseh on the Beirut corniche is the only McDonalds in the world with valet parking.
Not very surprising when you consider that MacDonald’s in Lebanon has more of an upper class clientele as opposed to the mainly lower middle class and lower class clientele it has in the West – Lebanon ranked number two on the Economist’s Big Mac Index (after Switzerland) in 2002.
(incidentally, the Pizza Hut in Jounieh is the only one in the world with a dance floor).
So if you're walking around, particularly at night, you're basically sharing the streets with the Dickensian underclass who reclaim the streets and the country after dark – foreign laborers (usually Egyptians and Syrians) and domestics, young larrikins, poor writers and other seedy characters.
Standard service procedure is as follows: State destination then, if agreement is reached, get into the car and exchange formalities (no service driver wants to waste social pleasantries on a non-passenger).
Marlboro Reds are the choice of service drivers and passengers everywhere – if you want to hear a very hearty laugh, ask them to put it out.
Media outlets looking for a service correspondent (I'm thinking of you CNN!) could do a lot worse than hire me – a self-styled service expert.
As to what I expect in payment, I quote the standard service driver line in these matters – "As much as you like, we're not going to disagree (which is exactly what ends up happening), you're generous and we're worthy".
All I need to know about life I learnt in a service.
Sunday, February 08, 2004
SADDAM SMOKED INDOORS
- ex-dictator was a clear and present danger
A highly paid Iraqi informant has revealed that the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein smoked indoors in the presence of non-smokers without even opening a window.
Commenting on the revelations, President Bush told NBC's Meet The Press "this dangerous and anti-social behavior once again underscores the danger Saddam posed to those around him and to the world and further vindicates our decision to go to war".
The anonymous informant also revealed that Saddam
-Regularly drank milk straight from the carton.
-Entered his palaces without wiping his feet.
-Returned rental videos without rewinding them.
-Did not properly sort plastic and paper into his recycling bins
Thursday, February 05, 2004
SADDAM IMPORTED ALUMINIUM FOIL
CIA Director George Tenet has just revealed that the former Iraqi regime clandestinely imported two rolls of aluminum foil.
In an address at Georgetown University (televised live by news networks worldwide) Tenet revealed that the 28.8 meters x 0.3 meters rolls were "intended for wrapping weapons to make them look shinier and scarier and stuff" – which he claimed was a direct violation and breach of UN Security Council sanctions prohibiting Iraq from obtaining materiel intended for wrapping weapons to make them look shinier and scarier and stuff.
The proscribed materiel was allegedly purchased in late 2001 at a Tesco Supermarket in London by the then Iraq military attaché to London posing as a shopper.
In a wide ranging defense of pre-war intelligence Tenet said that the CIA was also investigating claims that Iraqi diplomats at the UN in New York purchased Glad Wrap "intended to keep weapons dry and stuff".
Sunday, February 01, 2004
I’m “quizless” at the moment after the last pub quiz wound down last month.A friend of mine speculated that there probably is another quiz being held somewhere but they’re not telling me about it.