Two things one hears daily in Lebanon: The government is more corrupt than ever, and relations between people are becoming harsh. Let’s consider whether any correlation exists between government neglect and widespread individual survivalism. And let’s focus on highway transportation, where public policy and private use overlap.
If you offer to take a friend and her four children to the airport, you must drive because no one has rebuilt the country’s pre-war train system. Uncharitable tongues claim that the costly new highway system serves foreign construction interests and upper-class Lebanese at the expense of the wider public.
Be that as it may, you approach your car in the morning braced for the dented fender or broken light that carelessness wreaks nightly. You’re relieved to find your tires still inflated, since most people, blind to anything but their own immediate interests, pitch sharp hazards into the street at others’ expense.
Worming your way out of the parking space, you obstruct traffic momentarily. Brassy horns howl. You know and successfully avoid the poorly patched shell craters pocking the road. Arriving in front of your friend’s house, you rejoice at finding a parking space, until an old man in a folding chair shakes his finder at you: This spot on the public street belongs to the neighborhood mukhtar (alderman). You invoke the usufruct of public space while shopkeepers and passersby — who ought to be your allies against City Hall — crowd around and try to bring you to see sweet reason in unmerited privilege. Calling you “brother,” one places an avuncular hand on your shoulder; another suggests alternative parking sites. Defeated, you end up lugging suitcases several blocks so that the mukhtar’s space remains free.
En route at last! You’re doing the Beirut bump and grind in rush-hour traffic. A convoy of opaque-windowed government Range Rovers straddles lane markers and swerves arrogantly through traffic. Monkey-see, monkey-do, high-roller wannabes soon careen through traffic in smooth arabesques. Your turnoff is coming up, but nobody lets you change lanes, so at the last instant you swerve across three lanes and snuggle near the front of the line that’s backed up for a mile at the exit. Horns bleat for justice.
You play good citizen and halt piously at a traffic light as city buses, cars and a fish peddler on a bicycle cross against the red. The signals, erected only two years ago, remain uncoordinated. After minutes of waiting for the light to change, you advance furtively and are nearly sideswiped. Musing on the Doppler effect of a wailing horn, you calmly decide to damn the torpedoes. Eyes agleam, thumb on the horn, you compensate for ineffectual traffic control with dazzling hand-eye-foot coordination reminiscent of a James Dean chicken race.
Then, as you approach the airport prepared for the worst, it seems as though natural laws have suddenly been suspended. You turn smoothly into the brand new airport terminal, and the passenger dropoff unfolds without a hitch. Goodbyes mingle with praise for the efficiency of the terminal. An aura of good will from this rare, successful experience soothes the roughness of the rest of the day. Hope sprouts in rocky hearts; you remonstrate with those discouraged by the struggle to rebuild the country. They call you a fool, but the vision of a better future always looks foolish from a bleak present. Nobody said it would be easy.
The next morning, your friend calls. Not from Europe, but from the Beirut International Airport. She and her children, along with dozens of other passengers, were callously bumped from their pre-paid, reserved seats with the national carrier, Middle East Air.
Newspapers report that some passengers paid $100 bribes to airline employees in order to obtain seats. Those who would not or could not pay were left to fend for their own emergency accommodations without so much as a bus ride back to the city. They also discovered that the shiny new airport terminal lacked public telephones — those wealthy enough to travel are presumably never without their cellular phones.
Responding to charges of bribery, the airline’s president Muhammad Hout declared that “the company offers compensation for passengers and provides hotel rooms for those who are stranded until they travel.”
You hang up the phone and embark for work, enduring your commute. Trudging into the office, your gesture — a flick of the wrist with fingers extended at shoulder level — punctuates your righteous sigh, “Ma fi nizam bi hal balad!” — “There’s no order in this country!”