“Ya hawa ruh w ello.. Ello keer shtaatello,” the voice coming out of the radio speaker sings.
Playing loud romantic Arabic songs, nagging about politics and the rising living costs, or interfering in your personal relationships, taxi drivers in Beirut make your ride an adventure.
“They take long roads and bother you with romantic love songs,” Mira Abdallah, a management student at LAU, complained.
Charging only 2,000LBP for a ride from one side of Beirut to the other, taxi drivers are referred to as “service,” to distinguish them from corporate cab companies that demand much larger sums. They spend their entire day in the suffocating traffic of the city, looking for passengers wherever they can find them.
During the war, anyone who owned a car could become a taxi driver. Today, however, the profession is organized around a syndicate that regulates rates and ensures the security of passengers –a far cry from the chaotic and sometimes dangerous environment of taxi cabs in the 1980s.
Reminiscent of these days, however, is most drivers’ refusal to cross the phantom borders that divided East and West Beirut during combats. Also enduring are the nuisances of riding the “service.”
“Taxi drivers always use their loud car honks,” Rana Abu Mrad, an international business student, said. “My grandma once got in a cab and the driver started a political discussion with her. Suddenly, he lost his temper and asked her to leave the car because she had a divergent political view.”
More serious stories, including sexual harassment, sometimes occur. Victims refused to speak about personal experiences but witnesses were more outspoken.
Rami Rafeh, a graphic design student, was sitting in the back of a taxi cab when he saw the driver putting his hand on the lap of a woman sitting in the front with her son. “I asked him to stop the car immediately and asked the lady to get out of the cab,” Rafeh remembered.
Layla Jamal, a graphic design student, also witnessed sexual harassment when she rode a cab with her friend. “The taxi driver started talking to her weird things about body massage and he touched her hand,” she said.
But taxi drivers are not always a nuisance. Some people remember funny stories.
Dalia Fleihan, a chemistry student, once rode a cab who took an illegal road, claiming that “everything is permitted in Lebanon.” The young woman then pretended that her father is a military officer, took note of the car number and told the driver he would be punished. “The driver was so scared that he started begging me not to tell my father and, at the end, he didn’t let me pay for the ‘service’ when I got home,” Fleihan remembered, laughing.
Other LAU students said they enjoy taxi rides. Nour Araji, a biology student, prefers taking a “service” over riding her own car in Beirut. “At least I don’t have to worry on where to park the car,” Araji explained. Araji enjoys listening to the talks between the taxi driver and the riders. “Taxi drivers always have a lesson to teach you,” she said.
Perhaps Rola El Hajj, a business student, sums it up most succinctly. “Taking a ‘service’ in Beirut is a matter of luck,” she said. “Either you enjoy the loud song on the radio or you put your hands in your ears until you get out of the cab.”
By Sahar Moukaddem
LAU Tribune staff