Not a long time ago, I was driving in Beirut, I entered a one-way street, but a car, driving the wrong way, blocked “my way”.
I decided to resist, simply because it was “my way”, I had the right to pass because of the rules the Beirut city had put up. But the other car was also resisting, and quite violently. It was a big 4×4, with black tainted windows, it had a short number on its plate, and the car was advancing with short bursts against the little space between our cars. The driver couldn’t be seen, but he (or she but most probably he) started to honk repeatedly. After one minute or so, I decided to “yield” the way and drove on a rear gear until the big car could pass. I had bent to force.
Residents of Lebanon spend a lot of time on the roads within cities and between them. Whether we use a private car or public transport, we are exposed to drivers / car owners who apply their power or high hierarchical positions on others drivers / road users. (within different contexts and environments).
We’ve all seen a convoy blocking a road for dozens of minutes, rendering the whole circulation still, we’ve been all harassed by a big car trying to push us aside, often, they will have a short matriculation plate number, if any, the drivers will be always males, violent, brutal.
We are exposed to a blunt display of power by those who hold it on roads. We “meet” them directly, physically, when a “normal” car owner is exposed to a convoy for example.
Some cars (and subsequently their owners) display power in a “formal” manner. We can think of any car in direct official positions of power within the parliament, government, security branches and state institutions. Their power is deemed as “legitimate” by some because of its “official” nature.
Others display it less formally, they do not hold official positions, but are high on the hierarchy of classes (ruling class), or are closely connected to the ruling class. (Big wasta, but no capital)
Lebanon is, I believe, quite unique with this display of power on the roads. The main message behind this display and application of power is: we own the country, and thus, we own the roads. Convoys, of course, do block general transport in other countries, but not at the same daily rate as in Lebanon, and certainly not in the same manner.
Taking back time and space.
We can look at the extreme [formal] example of convoys that block roads and main highways for sometimes dozens of minutes. While it is claimed that security is the first reason behind this phenomenon, the convoys carry a greater message of power. The “leaders” of this country are showing that they are able to own space and time. They show they own their own time by reducing useless traffic time, and own the time of the “normal” citizen, by elevating his or her time spent in traffic. They also own your space, even if it is not permanent, a convoy will block you from moving freely in your “own” country.
“Time is money”
Usually this saying is tied to the “opportunity costs” when “losing time”. Losing time means losing profits.
With convoys, time and space can be determined as an asset, or capital, taken away from the “normal citizens” (the ones outside of the ruling class). Time IS in fact money [i.e: capital] and losing time in traffic for the ruling class is not an option.
Sharing space, but not really.
Other examples could be a car owner that “shares” your space and time on the roads, but will try their best to take back this space and time for their benefits [and again, to expose their power]. Anyone driving or spending time on the roads of Lebanon can tell you about a car that tried, for no reason, to push you aside. These cars have often black tainted windows, adding to the supposed high elevation on the social strata. [could mean they hold tools of wealth / capital creation or just a direction “connection” to a powerful lord]. Drivers are often not seen not because of security reasons; black tainted windows just add a layer to the separation between the ruling class, and the classes under it.
Other cars will display power without really annoying your driving or ride, but by displaying this power, one will make sure to get away from them, and not attract problems. One could think about any car tied to the Internal Security Forces, General Security, the Army, Jamerek, any “political car” (with a yellow number). Most of them will own cars with black tainted windows, again, for so called security reasons.
Nabih Berri, the eternal head of the Lebanese parliament, arriving to Nabatieh.
Cars with “normal numbers” [white plates in Lebanon] will reveal the power of their owners in other ways, either again with black tainted windows, annoying and loud honks, and short numbers. Small numbers, or “unique” ones (i:e: 666444, 10000, 300) will send a clear message of power and capital accumulation. These numbers, often bought for thousands of dollars, will show that the drivers are not “anyone” but people that can hurt you if they are “hurt”, (if you would honk at them for example). These numbers of course are often associated with luxurious, sport cars, once again, showing prestige and power.
Some numbers even reportedly show a connection to some powerful politician from the ruling class, sending also a message to the regulating police for example that these cars and their owners can’t be annoyed by a red light, or general traffic rules.
Showing power with numbers [literally] doesn’t stop with car numbers, it also applies to telephone numbers. In Lebanon, holding a 03—— can mean a lot, [due to its current unavailability] but holding a number like 03030303 sends a message: “my number is important and can be remembered easily, also, I paid for it hundreds or thousands of dollars”. Today in Lebanon, it is normal to see “numbers on display” to be sold in telephones stores.
Machismo- Patriarchy on the roads.
Exhibiting your “power”, tied to the capital held by oneself, [capital here could also mean connections to the ruling class] on the roads is for most of the time intrinsically linked with patriarchy. “Applying your power” here also means “defending it”. Men, who basically hold power in patriarchal Lebanon, will thus expose themselves on the roads to defend the power they hold. This defense though, include harassment, and full machismo attitudes. This attitude can be deadly, as Lebanon witnessed a terrible stabbing of a man, Georges al-Rif, after an altercation on the road.
We could also recall the murder of a young man, Roy Hamouche, with a bullet in his head. Him and his friends were followed, cornered, and Hamouche was murdered coldly.
We feel Anger because roads are arranged into classes.
Drivers and riders in Lebanon might feel angrier and frustrated all the time, not only because of the endless congestion and the bad infrastructure, but also because car drivers are organized into classes.
Being exposed daily to a better treatment to a tiny minority, we feel an injustice and a certain rage. A recent study in air rage found:
Physical inequality on airplanes—that is, the presence of a first class cabin—is associated with more frequent air rage incidents in economy class. Situational inequality—boarding from the front (requiring walking through the first class cabin) versus the middle of the plane—also significantly increases the odds of air rage in both economy and first class.
We can deduce that classes on the roads, airlines, everywhere, might be one of the source of anger and frustration and even divisions among individuals that may be socioeconomically close to each other.
Conclusion: what to do?
Power is not an immobile phenomenon. It doesn’t only reside in the “rooms of power”, (Government palace, parliament). It moves through many layers of society. We could recall Michel Foucault sayings on power:
‘Power is everywhere’ and ‘comes from everywhere’ so in this sense is neither an agency nor a structure (Foucault 1998: 63).
We have to demystify power in Lebanon, and we might do it by redrawing what power itself means. Usually this means breaking the walls of fear around us, and this also means breaking the fortified walls of power, diffused all over the country.
Practically, regarding the road kingdom, we have to push for the near complete removal of black tainted windows and other features of blunt domination, including owning guns.