With my friend Haruk at the controls of his light blue Peugeot we moved with great dispatch across Lebanon to the northern seacoast city of Beirut.
As I reflect on it now, the journey could only be described as a terrifying experience. It was Haruk's habit to only give way on the narrow roads of Lebanon to tanks, troop transports and armored personnel carriers. When such vehicles approached us he would veer off the road, slow down, wave and yell in various dialects. I inquired as to what he was saying. "Always, the same thing, `Victory over the enemy!' It is safe. Who can dispute a statement like this?"Another peculiar habit of Haruk's was to swerve to the other side of the road and accelerate to a Mach II speed whenever we passed an abandoned Renault or Le Car, especially if they were double parked in any of the small cities we drove through. I asked why he had such a dislike for these French-made automobiles. "I love French cars. Why do you think I drive my Peugeot? But the Renaults and the Le Car are the favorites of the Shiite Islamic Amal for their car bombs. They would never think of using a Fiat or a Volkswagen, and American cars completely are out of the question!"
Haruk seemed to be particularly bothered by pedestrian traffic along the highways. He would curse at them incessantly. If they foolishly made any attempt to cross the highway, even at a pedestrian crossing, Haruk experienced a shot of pure adrenalin. He accelerated the Peugeot and laughed aloud in a peculiar demented manner. Anyone foolhardy enough to make a run at it was guaranteed to spend the night in a CAT scanner.
I ventured a general question about his manic behavior toward foot traffic on the highway. Haruk laughed it off with the response, "They need to understand how dangerous our roads are! I have also been told that these peasants along the road say dark things about the drivers of taxis." I told Haruk he could share their comments with me. I promised I would never pass them on. "Well, I was told by a friend, another taxi driver, that these pedestrian peasants tell their children that a full-grown chimpanzee can operate a motor car better than we can."
As Haruk careened to the right of the road to deflect an old man on a bicycle toward a ditch, I told him what an unfair generalization that was. He agreed completely.
There is a certain irascibility that seems to permeate every aspect of life in Lebanon. It has been said that one of the first casualties of war is human kindness. The war has gone on too long here. Even if the war were to end tomorrow it would take years to clear the rubbish away. They could never get the traffic moving again and what of the human rubbish of distrust, suspicion and hatred? What does one do to eradicate these deep scars of the Lebanese psyche?
Lebanon has been correctly called the impossible country. It stands between the sea and the desert, has access to no great river, has no resources of iron or coal, commands no industrial hinterland, has little technology and worst of all, the populace is completely undisciplined.
Before traveling here I was informed by a Lebanese businessman that all it would take to bring it all together would be a little give and take. "The Catholics will have to become more Arab. The Sunni and Shiite Muslims will have to become more Phoenician and everyone will have to give as much loyalty to the government of the country as they do to their clans and sects. Then it just may work."
I tend not to hold out too much hope for this country. History and the human disposition being what they are, the whole idea seems utterly unworkable to me. Maybe if I had employed a different taxi driver, I might have felt somewhat different.