Story

Negotiating Traffic in Beirut

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Cars weave in and out on roads where lanes mean nothing. Image by Ari Daniel. Lebanon, 2014.

It’s the middle of the afternoon, and I’m standing on a thin median strip in Sin El Fil, an eastern suburb of Beirut. Two lanes of traffic are moving along at a good clip on either side 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 car flashes her headlights at me. I step onto the asphalt, but she doesn’t stop. In fact, she never takes her foot off the gas. My friend, Farid, calls from behind me: “Get back here!”

Apparently, unlike in the U.S. 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. I have no intention of yielding.”

Eventually, one of the lanes clears and the other lane backs up behind a temporarily parked car. Farid and I dash across the road, and make our way back to our vehicle. Farid slips behind the wheel, throws the car into gear, and says, “Red Bull should really consider putting a GoPro on the dashboard of a car in Lebanon.” He turns and grins at me. “Driving here is an extreme sport.”

The “rules” of the “road”

To me, an outsider, it looks like complete chaos on the roads. Sports cars, beat-up buggies, construction vehicles, and motorbikes 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.

This same scene isn’t chaotic for Farid, who grew up in Beirut before moving to the U.S. after college. He says that 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.

Rule #1:

Farid says lanes don’t matter here. (In fact, until he moved to the U.S., he never understood why anyone would bother painting a road.) Rather, Farid focuses his attention on the spaces in between the vehicles. If there’s an opening, that’s where he directs his 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, Farid cautions, and you’ll get side-swiped as cars push into you from one side or the other.

Rule #2:

If a space opens up in front of a car ahead of you and they delay moving into that space for less than a second, you tap your horn. If someone is about to cut you off, you tap your horn. If you get bored while flowing along a road like a particle in a river, you tap your horn. The streets of Beirut are a staccato fugue of horn toots.

Farid admits that driving in a real-life version of Grand Theft Auto can be taxing. In college, he used to get so stressed out that he routinely took a half hour at the end of each day just to unwind from all the driving.

Rule #3:

Farid agrees to let me in on one last 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.

Listening to Farid, this other way of driving really seems to work. Until we see a heap of glass shards strewn across the road in front of us. 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, a poor record that appears to be getting worse. A third of those fatalities are pedestrians.

So I’ll know better the next time I see someone flash their lights at me.