The cartoon above is from the delightful and extremely funny Sareen Akharjalian. Do have a look at her website Ink On The Side
I don’t write a lot about trips we make in Lebanon for the plain and simple reason that we don’t go out a lot here. Not because there are no nice places left in Lebanon (although the Lebanese are well on their way to destroying what's left of their natural heritage) no, it’s because of the getting there and back home!
I am a bit of a petrol head and always liked nice cars, always loved driving. On an average weekend in Europe it’s no exception we drive anything between 500 and a 1.000 Km. When we were stationed in Budapest I never made the 3.000 Km trip home and back by plane, always by car. I love fast German cars; I now own a gorgeous red BMW 428I. Love at first sight!
But driving in Lebanon is no fun, believe me. It’s good that I’ll be leaving the country in a few months as I am well on my way of committing violence against my fellow drivers…if one more Lebanese driver honks his horn behind me because I stop for a red traffic light I’ll make him eat his car horn, if one more motorbike tries to kill me and my dogs walking on the sidewalk I’ll hit him on the head – which will be quite painful for the rogue biker as no one ever wears a helmet on a motorbike in Lebanon :-)
It’s the middle of the afternoon, and I’m standing on the sidewalk off Emir Bashir Rd in front of the Belgian Embassy in Beirut. Three lanes of traffic are moving along in front of me. I wait for a gap in the vehicles to make my way to the other side of the road. A woman in a dusty BMW M5 flashes her headlights at me. I step onto the asphalt, but she doesn’t stop. In fact, she never even takes her foot off the gas...cursing me in Lebanese “Ya Khara”…(you shit guy)
Apparently, unlike in Europe, where headlight flashing is a sign that the driver is granting you the right of way to cross the street, in Lebanon it’s an act of luminescent aggression, declaring: “Stay back you vermin; I have no intention of yielding.”
Eventually, one of the lanes clears and the other lanes back up behind a taxi unloading his passengers slam bang in the middle of the road. I dash across, narrowly avoiding three kids and two adults on one (yes one) scooter coming the wrong way against traffic, and make my way safely to the other side.
Never ever go on a road trip in Lebanon. I used to love driving before I came to Lebanon, but now I must admit that driving in a real-life version of “Grand Theft Auto” can be quite taxing.
Beirut traffic only comes in two types: the first being "total gridlock", the other can only be described as "kamikaze". To me, as an outsider, it looks like complete chaos on the Lebanese roads. The latest models Ferraris and Porsches with coal-black tinted windows, beat-up old Mercedes taxis, huge 4X4’s and American muscle cars, construction vehicles, motorbikes, … all do whatever they can to keep from slowing down. Over and over again, drivers turn onto a road, cutting somebody off. Signaling is rare. Honking is the norm.
Traffic in Lebanon is like a lesson in fluid dynamics. The particles of a moving fluid (think of a river, for instance) never travel in lanes or stop at red lights. Instead, particles follow simple rules, like maintaining some relative distance between one another. They take care of their immediate surroundings, and they end up flowing forward together along a path.
As I’m not hailing from other countries where traffic rules are nothing more than long gone memories from a distant, mostly colonial past, and confronted by the overwhelming chaos they call traffic in Beirut, I decided to get a shot at describing the local “Rules of the Road”. Maybe I should start by declaring this rule # 1: there are no rules, or are there?
OK, here we go,
Rule #1: There Are Lanes, Mr. Spock, But Not As You Know Them.
When driving in Lebanon, it’s wise to be aware of the Middle Eastern right of way: if it’s in front of you, no matter how it got there, it’s your problem. Lanes don’t matter here; any Lebanese driver I talked to never understood why anyone would bother wasting perfectly good paint on a road! Some Lebanese roads do have (faded - probably dating from way back before the civil war) lane markings, but these are to be disregarded, meaning that when traffic is heavy, you can expect to have one or two more “lanes” in operation than the road can actually fit. Expect to move over a meter or two to make space for other road users while the “lanes” are transitioning.
Rather, as a driver in Beirut one focuses his attention on the spaces in between the vehicles. If there’s an opening, that is where you direct your car! I’m amazed by how cars seem to squeeze past one another as though they’re made of something soft and malleable. They don’t move in orderly, parallel lanes. They flow and meander in the direction of travel. Try to follow a lane and you’ll get sideswiped as cars push into you from one side or the other.
And the only thing that gets between a Lebanese driver and speed is the capacity of his vehicle, which means they will overtake absolutely anywhere, including in and before blind bends. Expect vehicles to be coming from every conceivable direction, including, but not limited to, down the wrong side of the road, in reverse, and turning left around you from the right lane...
Rule #2: The Horn Is Your Best Friend.
The Lebanese do like to hoot, and, while it may not feel like it when you have someone tooting the hell out of you for NOT jumping a red light, the horn is actually your friend. Always use it when overtaking to alert the person you are passing and in any of the many situations where someone’s driving suggests they don’t have a clue that there are other cars on the road.
If a space opens up in front of a car ahead of you and they delay moving into that space for less than a tenth of a second: HOOT!
If someone is about to cut you off: HOOOOT!!
If you get bored while flowing along a road like a particle in a river: HOOOOOOOOOOT !!!
The streets of Beirut are a staccato fugue of horn toots.
Rule #3: The Whole World Is Your Parking Lot
The Lebanese park anywhere. No really: anywhere! I’ve seen cars parked on sidewalks, roundabouts, at traffic lights, at a 45-degree angle across the road, on motorway slip roads and on all sorts of corners, including busy intersections and blind bends.
Incredibly horrible parking, such as at traffic lights or across a road, will often, but not always, be signaled as temporary by use of hazard lights or leaving a car door or two open. Double parking is normal, as is triple parking which generally indicates either a valet parking spot outside a nightclub or an informal workplace car park solution.
Rule #4: Are You Looking At Me?
I’ll let you in on another secret to driving in Lebanon: never make eye contact. The instant you do so, your fellow driver knows that you’ve spotted them, and they’ll proceed to cut you off. If you fail to make eye contact, however, they can’t be sure that you’ve seen them, and so they’re more likely to delay for the brief moment you need to cut them off. Maybe this is the basis of the next rule!
Rule #5: If They Act Drunk, They’re Drunk Or On The Phone
There ARE drink-driving laws in Lebanon, but I would dearly love to see what kind of driving counts as erratic enough to attract official attention.
During the summer party season the rooftop bars and mega-clubs of Beirut, Jounieh and Byblos stay open till dawn and beyond, so expect a lot of road users to be drunk, sleepless, high and all of the above.
Every self-respecting driver in Lebanon is multitasking. They are all on their iPhones discussing the latest speech of sheikh Nazrallah of Hezbolla with their mates from the mosque, texting the location of this unique shoe shop to their friends, working on their Whatsapp messaging, Facebook, upgrading their make-up, watching videos, … Seeming to be blissfully ignorant of traffic around them…until they cut you off because you were lulled into leaving 10 cm between the car in front of you and your car.
Rule #6: A Red Light Means “Pause”, Not “Stop”
Traffic lights in Lebanon are more of an indication of what to do than an actual instruction — if a man in uniform beckons you through one (or, for that matter, the wrong way across one), do as you are told!
Most Lebanese drivers will jump red lights if the intersection is clear (and plenty even if it’s not). When turning, expect the flow of traffic to continue long after the light has turned red. Oh and drivers can get quite cross and angry with you if you fail to jump a red light when the intersection’s clear (and plenty even if it’s not)
Rule #7: Intersections Are Crazy
There is no right of way on an intersection, which are not generally signed. This means you fundamentally have to nudge and barge your way through, grabbing whatever gap you see.
Expect vehicles to be coming from every conceivable direction, including, but not limited to, down the wrong side of the road, in reverse, and turning left around you from the right lane.
Rule #8: Roundabouts Are Absolutely Terrifying
In Lebanon, roundabouts are rarely signed and rules about lanes and positioning do not really exist. So, as at intersections, find a place that has space for your car, nip into it, and then defend it against all comers.
If you’re in danger of missing your exit, hand signals come in very handy, as does braking. Parking on roundabouts, driving the wrong way round a roundabout for an exit or two, and reversing onto roundabouts are common.
Rule #9: Who? Me?
In Lebanon any rule or law only applies to others but never to oneself. And this general rule of course includes traffic rules.
My dedicated Lebanese taxi driver (who spent decades in Germany) or the drivers of the Embassy are giving me a lecture about the total lack of respect of the Lebanese for any rule, the reason, it seems, their country is going down the drain… whilst themselves at the same time going the wrong way through at least a few one-way streets and jumping a red light or two…
The thing is: I’m doing the same thing when I drive my car around in Lebanon. Because if you don’t, you’ll be stuck in your driveway forever and never get anywhere...
Rule #10: The Joke Is On You.
This Lebanese alternative way of driving really seems to work. Until I see a heap of glass shards strewn across the road in front of me. Accidents do happen. After all, cars aren’t water molecules and we’re not actually in a river.
According to the World Health Organization, road accidents in Lebanon claim an estimated 22.3 lives per 100,000 in population, an extremely poor record that appears to be getting worse.
To give you something to compare this with: in Belgium, and we Belgians are well on our way to winning a reputation as the EU’s worst drivers, this number stands at 7.2 lives per 100,000 in population. In Denmark it’s a mere 3 lives per 100,000 in population. France: 4.9! Gone are the days that French roads were littered with corpses!
Statistically Lebanon is in the good company of nice countries like Kazakhstan, Ghana, Gabon, Sierra Leone and Tanzania!
Cheers and (try to anyway) drive safely!