Last week I wrote about how I was looking forward to driving in Lebanon again. I even mentioned that there were a couple of places in the world that might be more dangerous to drive in. I was wrong, dear reader - so very, very wrong. I'd forgotten just how "out there" driving in Lebanon can be. It's in a league of its own.
I think the most crucial aspect is control of the middle lane. Technically, there is no middle lane. It's not like Moscow, where every boulevard had a lane that ran straight down the middle, designated for the sole use of party apparatchiks. Oh no, Lebanon is not that organised and, besides, everyone would ignore it.
No Lebanese driver worth his salt will sit for an instant behind a car that he can in some way overtake. Clapped-out old Mercedes-Benzes, used as taxis, play "chicken" with flashy Range Rovers and Land Cruisers to see who will blink first, and try to barge back into their lane.
Size is important in Lebanese driving. This is the only country I can think of where owning a Hummer actually makes sense. The bigger your vehicle, the more clout you have when trying to smash your way through the traffic chaos.
It's not bad manners blatantly to cut somebody off or drive along the pavement to get ahead in a static traffic queue – it's just what's expected.
The freakiest thing you can do as a motorist in Beirut is to wave someone in or, God forbid, let a pedestrian cross. They look at you with an air of total confusion that rapidly turns into suspicion. "Why are you doing this?" I can see them think. They glower at you as if they've just been flashed at by a ladyboy.
Then there's the horn. This must be honked constantly, although a subtle knowledge of basic "hornish" would be useful. There are the communal taxi services that beep at every pedestrian in an "I'm here if you don't fancy walking …" kind of way. And there's the basic "Get out of the flaming way" beep. The "Why has everybody stopped? Get moving!" beep is legally compulsory in any traffic jam. Then there are subtler beeps like "Check that chick out" or "We're young and in our first Lamborghini" or even "My car might be rubbish, but I can beep more than any of you." As I write this, a cacophony of "hornish" is blaring into my room on the 10th floor in West Beirut.
But all that is just driving in Beirut. I took a gorgeously scenic road over Mount Lebanon and down into the Beqaa Valley. The main Beirut-to- Damascus route is widely acknowledged to be the most dangerous stretch of road anywhere in the world, where huge, overloaded trucks overtake each other on hairpin bends and hammer down the steep inclines with adrenalin for brake pads. The drive, however, was wonderful. True, I was actually forced off into the ditch twice by out-of-control minibuses, but the views were sublime.
At an army roadblock high above the town of Zahle, I was forced to take a soldier to Baalbek. I wanted to mooch about, so I decided to scare him into leaving the car. I roared down into the Beqaa, overtaking like a Frenchman on acid and paying even less heed to traffic signs than do the Lebanese. My passenger didn't even blink. Indeed, he spent the time laughing away on his mobile. I eventually changed tack and got rid of him by putting on "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats, very loudly and on a loop. He was unable to talk on the phone any more and was slowly going crazy. I screeched off in what I thought to be quite a cool cloud of dust, but he didn't even glance my way. I need a tank. Must go shopping tomorrow.Reuse content