Lebanese cabbies know it all - shame about their vehicles

Cabbies in Lebanon come in a wide variety, as do their cars. But calls to standardise taxis will do little to change that, writes Michael Karam.

In a galaxy in which taxi drivers are universally acknowledged as the founts of all wisdom, Lebanon is the mother ship. AFP
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In a galaxy in which taxi drivers are universally acknowledged as the founts of all wisdom, Lebanon is the mother ship. Nowhere have I come across cabbies with such a fantastic range of theories on how the world functions.

Clearly, the rule of thumb is that the smaller the country, the more its people take an interest in world affairs as they are more likely to feel the trickle-down effect of foreign policy, and hence the reason many Americans know about nothing beyond their neighbourhood.

To make things more interesting, Lebanon, like most Middle East nations, is a hotbed of conspiracy theories. Add to this the fact that many Lebanese taxi drivers know a smattering of foreign languages and one gets all the ingredients for a spontaneous lecture on global politics.

They know who was behind the September 11 attacks on the US and they are convinced that Diana, the princess of Wales, died because she was dallying with an Egyptian.

The classic chauffeur from central casting drives a 40-year-old Mercedes-Benz in various states of disrepair. I am surely not the only one to have been in the front seat of a Lebanese cab and seen the road whizz by under my feet due to a gaping hole in the floor.

There is however a new generation of cabbie, a hungrier, cheekier species who drives the newer and much-coveted Toyota Avenza, and there are the private taxi companies staffed by part-timers with their own cars, who undercut the regular taxis and, to be honest, offer a safer ride.

There is also the female-only Banet Taxi, a company born out Lebanese women's frustration at being ogled by toothless septuagenarians. And then there are the private solo operators - such as the coiffeured owner of Elvis Taxi, who parks his gleaming Mercedes near my home.

The latter cater to long-cultivated private customers: elderly women who don't drive and foreign correspondents who hire them at lucrative day rates that are claimed back on expenses.

All of these and more will be rubbing their hands with glee at last week's decision by parliament to award the country's 40,000 taxi and minibus drivers three-monthly subsidies of between 350,000 Lebanese pounds (Dh850) and 470,000 pounds, a cost to the state of about 48 billion pounds. The money is meant to offset the burden of rising fuel costs.

Opponents of the decision argue that the payments are a waste of money and point to a still-born 2004 transport plan that proposed adding about 250 new, or newish, buses to what is an ageing government fleet.

This we are told would have been four times cheaper than the subsidies and eased Lebanon's chronic traffic problem because it would have encouraged people to take the bus.

But what is most alarming, or amusing depending on one's mood, is that the head of the taxi and minibus drivers union, flush from his victory at securing the subsidy, is also calling for regulation of the sector, in particular of what he calls non-licensed taxis.

Anyone who has taken enough licensed Lebanese taxis will have horror stories.

Many cars, like overburdened Japanese businessmen (although that is where the similarity ends), simply expire while at work, leaving customers to find alternative ways of getting to point B and the driver prodding at the metal carcass of a once proud German piece of auto engineering. Yes, they are the licensed ones.

Licensed in Lebanon does not mean roadworthy. Owning the coveted red licence plate appears to override all else, including it seems Lebanese law, which stipulates all cars over four years old must undergo a roadworthiness test.

And a very rigid test it is too. I once had to replace the brake light on my 2005 VW. Fair enough you might think, but thousands of cars across Lebanon do not even have lights let alone brake lights (in fact a lot do not even have brakes) and yet they are still on the road. Law enforcement is clearly a moveable feast.

So here is my point: surely the government, before it shells out millions to Lebanon's cabbies and minibus drivers, should make as a prerequisite for receiving payment a car with a clean bill of health; and by that I mean they must present the car along with the certificate.

The current situation simply perpetuates a culture of danger: danger to pedestrians and other road users and a danger to environment (and anyone who has been in Lebanon for over a day will testify to the plumes of black smoke that swirl out of a staggering number of the nation's cars and buses).

Almost every European and American that visits the country not only goes away with a warm sense of hospitality and vibrancy but also permanent mental trauma from having endured the mayhem on our roads.

Yes it may cost a bit more to create a system of inspection for Lebanon's taxis, but in the long run the expense will be well worth it.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer and communication consultant based in Beirut