Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Streetlife in Beirut: Crossing the Camels

"If you’re not tired, you’re not having fun." – Beirut taxi driver
           Imagine a caravan of camels. Beasts of burden plowing down an avenue under the whip of their drivers. They fill a street in Egypt, or anywhere that people have taken to driving large packs of dromedaries, through wadis, rues, paved streets, or crowded alleys for no doubt commercially minded purposes. You, the pedestrian, do not wish to wait for the whole parade of beasts to pass before your eyes before you cross the street to get where you are going. There might be another caravan right behind them. So you wade into the flow. You pick your spot. Your appearance among them causes the next rank of animals to slow a step or turn slightly aside to avoid you. A collision is annoying, even to a camel. So you advance a little further. You watch the beasts, the beasts watch you. You adjust, take advantage of tiny gaps that appear between them, step a little this way, a little that way, and then suddenly you have arrived on the other side.
            On the streets of Beirut, no camels appear but there is always another Carvan SUV, or more likely, a steady unbroken flow of motorized vehicles of all description. When you are in a place where there are no traffic signals and no break in the flow is likely or predicable, what you do is cross the camels. Somehow it works, since we’re all still here.    
            First impressions in Lebanon, after being away for two years, have everything to do with traffic. All forms of traffic on the streets of Beirut -- cars, trucks, junkers, black BMW SUVS with diplomatic plates, fat loud ego-stuffing motorcycles, low fast scuttery motorbikes, fat dirty construction vehicles with objects (and sometimes people) hanging off them – foot traffic as well -- compete for every square inch of pavement. Motorcycles drive the wrong way down one-way streets in order to jump up onto the sidewalk and then cut a corner into a clogged main street in order to resume the happy practice of zipping between lanes. It’s not just the motorcycles that execute unconventional appropriations of pavement. Cars behave the same way. Nobody bats an eye. It drives me crazy, and sometimes scares me, but I’ve never seen a fender bender. No accidents. I’ve never heard even any talk of a pedestrian accident. Quincy, full of lights and caution and rules, had a hundred pedestrian accidents a year ago, including a half-dozen fatalities.
            The Lebanese system works by a kind of “total awareness.” When on public pavement in Beirut you watch in all directions at once, including by the eyes in the back of your head, expecting anything and everything at any moment. If you’re approaching an intersection (or driveway or alley), assume something (or somebody) will come shooting out of it. If your are in a vehicle, you assume somebody (or something) will launch themselves off the sidewalk. Pedestrians adopt the same modus operandi. Particularly when crossing streets, but also while ambling along a sidewalk (no such thing as “safely on the sidewalk”: amble with eyes wide open).
We were shocked a few years ago when the city put in a few ‘walk’ lights. Some drivers even respect them. But that’s no reason to expect all will. Drivers also turn right on red through the walk light as they do in New York City. Here they also do ‘left on red.’ A decade ago people ignored lights completely: you slow down at an intersection to see if anyone is barreling out in a desperate attempt to get in front of you; if not, irrespective of traffic lights, you keep going. It the cars are stopping for a traffic light, that does not mean a motorbike will not suddenly appear from nowhere to whiz in front, behind or around you. He will not hit you, but you do not know that, so the maneuver may be, to say the least, startling. Motorcyclists do this constantly, every day, and have the timing down to a science. You’re a visitor, so just keep moving your head from side to side, like a bird. The hawks may not want to eat you, but you want to know if they're around.
Walking the sidewalks in Beirut is fun, stimulating, often entertaining, but you don’t do a lot of daydreaming. And when crossing the street, it’s advisable to avoid any sort of mental activity other than that required to keep moving.
            Simply keeping to the sidewalk, by itself, is a challenge Sidewalks exist almost everywhere in this time, but about half the time are unusable. While narrow, sidewalk are frequently appropriated for other uses besides ped-exing. Stores, restaurants and other establishments protrude their activities into the public space. Hotels place poles or minimalist fencing onto the sidewalk, generally to discourage parking in front of their grand entrances. High-end hotels or other businesses keep sidewalks clear for their own clientele, but they hire doormen or security for this purpose because the sidewalks and streets are remarkably free of policing. “Traffic safety” is an oxymoron here. Occasional soldiers or city police in their new gray fatigues stand around, but they don’t care how you drive or whether or not you can cross the street safely. We saw one police officer officiously direct traffic one afternoon on the heavily trafficked Corniche roadway. That lasted a few minutes until his girl friend (or his sister or his aunt) pulled over to the curb ("parking rules" is another oxymoron) and he sauntered off to talk to her, leaving motorists and pedestrians to their own devices.
            A shocking contrast to rule-happy France, driving, walking and other uses of public space in Lebanon is radically democratic and populist. Everyone has a right to do what they want within a broad and completely shared notion of what’s acceptable. On foot, you walk through other people, inches away from cars, over people’s business, between their conversations, through their restaurant or gas station, doing your best not to step on their toes -- and nobody bats an eye. You don’t touch, not intentionally, but a millimeter of separation is enough. If you do collide, a simple “pardon” is sufficient. Old half-lame women and dignified, Frenchified, silver-haired gentlemen follow the same rules. Children move out of your way without a pause in their usual occupations of games, mutual teasing and more or less good-humored badgering.
            As a rule people are remarkably considerate and polite. No public quarrels, no angry shouting. No fender benders, astoundingly, though I did hear a steady horn symphony when a van decided to attempt a U-turn on a narrow, crowded one-way street. In fact I don’t ever hear any swearing, except by me.