A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘traffic’ Category

Consumer equity: GPS in Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 15, 2008

When I flew to Damascus in November 2005 to spend a few pre-Christmas weeks visiting friends and favorite haunts, my friend M eagerly showed me his new car. Not being a car person, I’ve forgotten the brand, but it was one of the “big three” that meet Levantine standards for understated luxury: BMW, Jaguar, or Mercedes.

People here call it the alligator, M told me, grinning.

Your car? I asked, puzzled. I wasn’t criticizing: after all, I named my high school car “the Sharpei” (as in, “so ugly its cute”). And the vintage Chevy pick-up I drove whenever I was home for the summer during college was known as “Marvin”. But M didn’t seem like the type to name his car – and nor did his friends, the beefy, self-confident men of Damascus’ old Sunni merchant families.

Not my car, M explained, frowning a bit at me. The model. People call it an alligator because of the headlights and the hood. Everyone wants this car.

Oh, I said, nodding and trying to sound deserving of my good fortune at getting to ride in it.

The car was plush, and it certainly did glide through the city streets (although to be honest I’m not sure that “gliding” accurately describes how alligators move, at least on land). But in my mind it had one major, major flaw.

M’s alligator came with a built-in GPS console. This was 2005, so think first-generation GPS, the type that required the user to insert a CD with road information for the relevant country. (American users may never have had this experience – I believe that most early GPS cars sold in the US came with the CD pre-installed. But Europeans, who might have been more likely to drive to neighboring countries, probably did.)

Please insert the country CD so we can get started, the GPS voice would say each time M started the car, while the display flashed the same message. Every few minutes, the voice would repeat itself.

Can you turn it off? I asked M.

Oh, M said. Does it bother you?

Well, in a way. The voice was annoying, but I suppose it was a reminder to M’s passengers that he had bought not only the latest but also the most deluxe model.

For me, the voice was a reminder that all customers – even luxury customers – were not created equal. I don’t think that there was a CD for Syria – so M and other alligator drivers were stuck with the trappings of luxury, but without the reward.

GPS technology has improved over the past three years, with self-updating systems that offer flexibility and entertainment. Put on the sexy voice so diamond can hear it, my friend K said to her boyfriend J recently as we climbed into their SUV and headed to Brooklyn. It was a sexy voice – and a very funny one. I have another friend who chooses to GPS in Spanish, so his son can learn the language. (His vocabulary may be somewhat restricted, but he will be very good at giving clear directions.) And I understand that many GPS’es offer celebrity voices – when K & J aren’t laughing at the bedroom voice helping direct them to IKEA, they usually take directions from John Cleese.

But my friends in Syria and Lebanon were still driving without electronic help – and using their GPS displays for nothing more than to indicate what radio station was on. So yesterday I was delighted to see that in Lebanon, at least, one can now drive with GPS:

(Thanks to the Daily Star for this advertisement.)

Of course, driving with GPS is really only an improved version of driving with a map – something that no Lebanese person I know would willingly do.

Even H, who is generally pretty mellow about my weird American habits, draws the line at using maps. Last weekend I handed him three, detailing different possible routes to the Berkshires, and asked him to navigate.

Maps? he asked me. Are you serious?

Midway through the drive, he looked at the by-then crumpled up pieces of paper and frowned. If you had told me six months ago that I would be back in American AND READING A MAP, I would have laughed in your face, he said.

H was much happier once we got lost and had to actually start asking people for help. This is the real way to drive, he said, smiling. See? You just ask people.

So I’m not sure how well NavLeb will sell – but it gives me an idea for an ad campaign. If the NavLeb’ers can convince people that driving with GPS is just like having a local villager in the car with them, every step of the way, it might be a very big seller. All they need are a bunch of old men from the day3a to provide the voices 🙂 .

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Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Damascus, friends, humor, Lebanon, maps, traffic, travel, words | 6 Comments »

signs of difference

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 16, 2008

This sign made me laugh when I noticed it last weekend:

The Middle East, or at least the Jordan-Syria-Lebanon parts of it that I know best, would not survive without horn honking.

Honks are used to communicate all kinds of messages, from “I’m coming up on your left” to “this taxi is free”, from “I’ll slow down so you can cross” to “I’d like to order a coffee”, and from “you and you are triple-parked in front of me and I’d like to leave” to “I’m heading through this blind one-way intersection the wrong way”. These aren’t angry honks – they’re conversational.

Its much quieter in our new neighborhood than it was in Beirut, but there’s much less communication on the streets. And the only honks we hear are angry ones, from drivers impatient at having to wait behind a taxi or truck.

Patience, in Lebanon and the US, is a virtue. Impatient drivers deserve the $350 fine 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Beirut, Brooklyn, Lebanon, traffic, words | 2 Comments »

the party taxi

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 7, 2008

Yesterday evening we found ourselves following one of Lebanon’s more festive service/taxi cabs.

Of course, a festive Lebanese taxi can’t hold a candle to a festive Syrian taxi, which usually has multiple neon lights decorating everything from the gear-shift to the rear-view mirror, which itself often supports a plastic grape -vine and a cd printed with Quranic verses, both of which in turn hang above a photograph of the drivers’s young children/nieces and nephews and a sticker showing a beautiful pair of women’s eyes with tears spilling out of them, both attached to the dashboard.

So it wasn’t a festive Syrian taxi – but it was still pretty excited to be on the Beirut side of the Dora highway:

Notice the license plate? Yes, that’s right – its rimmed in fuschia neon. We loved it – and since I couldn’t get a great photograph on the first attempt, H kindly sped up until we were directly behind it:

Beautiful neon license frame! And see those brake lights? In our delight at the festivity, we lost track of what the traffic was doing – so we nearly had a very up-close-and-personal view of the neon.

Seeing the table tied to the cab’s roof-rack reminded me of when I brought a rocking chair home from the built-to-order furniture shop A introduced me to when I first moved here. I love that rocking chair, but I remember it looking absolutely ridiculous strapped to the top of the taxi. It was strapped in an upright position, so we drove through the city looking like a parade float in search of a prom queen to sit on it and smile and wave.

I hope the table’s new owners enjoyed the taxi ride as much as we enjoyed watching it drive in front of us, and I hope they enjoy their table as much as I enjoy my rocking chair.

Posted in Americans, Beirut, home, Lebanon, traffic | 2 Comments »

Communist Corner

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 2, 2008

On our way out of the city yesterday, H and I were compelled to detour by a Communist Party protest at the intersection of Spears and the street that comes up from the Phoenicia (can’t remember its name). The ISF soldiers on duty had the unpleasant task of turning aside cars whose drivers insisted on continuing on to Barbar despite the barricades. Needless to say, the one we spoke with – who, like Lebanon’s maids, was not benefiting from a Labor Day holiday – was less than supportive of the Communists.

We took a few photographs and continued on our drive without thinking much of the protest. It was small – colorful, thanks to the half-Lebanese flag, half-USSR flag that the protesters carried, but definitely small.

When I scanned my Google Alerts this afternoon, I realized that the protest must have been larger than we thought. Agence France Presse published an article devoted to it, and LBC covered the protest on its news broadcast this morning as well.

Here is the AFP article:

BEIRUT (AFP) — Hundreds of Lebanese protested against inflation on Thursday at a May Day rally organised by the communist party, demanding an increase in the minimum monthly wage.

Earlier this year Lebanon’s General Confederation of Workers (CGTL) called for the minimum wage to be tripled from 300,000 Lebanese pounds (200 dollars) to 900,000 pounds.

According to the consumer association prices have risen by 43 percent over the past 21 months, while the official unemployment rate stands at 10 percent. Independent estimates put it at 20 percent.

Up to 2,000 people took part in the protest, brandishing banners with anti-government slogans, while one group carried a giant loaf of bread to symbolise the rising cost of the staple.

“Where is Foufou? Is he eating a hungry man’s bread?” asked one banner, referring to Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

“Hunger kills more than the power vacuum,” said another.

Lebanon has been without a president since November because of a standoff between Siniora’s Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition supported by Syria and Iran.

Here is the photo that accompanied the article:

It looks a bit more densely populated than the protest as I remember it, but perhaps that is the result of viewing it from the back and side, rather than the front.

In contrast to the AFP photo, I am pasting in two that I took.

Here is the view from Spears, zooming in from just before Barbar:

And here is the view from the Phoenicia road, just before the turn west onto Masraf/Hamra:

I’m not sure that the fire truck was really necessary – but it did fit well with the red theme.

And I suppose it made sense that they protested on Spears: a bit further west, near Zico House, there are a whole slew of graffiti hammer and sickles painted on the exterior walls of one side street building. H and I call it “Communist Corner”, and joke that it is the one “area” that the Communists hold in today’s Beirut.

This is the Lebanese Communist Party’s flag:

The flag drives H nuts, because it so closely resembles the Lebanese flag. There should be laws here like there are in the US, he said as we snaked our way around Hamra.

I’m trying to imagine the effects of adding a no-desecrating-the-flag law to Lebanon’s usual political mess. But which flag? and what would count as desecration? Surely driving down the highway with a banner-sized flag hanging out the window is one form – and politicians giving three-hour press conferences in front of another mega-flag must be another.

Posted in Arabic, Beirut, holidays, Lebanon, media, politics, traffic, words | Leave a Comment »

“don’t block the box”, updated

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 1, 2008

While I was on my way back home yesterday, the US Embassy in Syria sent another warden message, with an update on the new traffic regulations. At first I thought it meant that Syria’s Ministry of Transportation reads my blog, but my better self tells me not to be so vain: the update was more likely mere coincidence.

Here is the update, for those of you out there getting ready to try your skills on the Syrian autostrades:

Additional Penalties

The following additional penalties have also been enacted:

· The “black box” speed governors are mandatory for public transport, small and large trucks.

· If someone is killed because a driver is violating the new traffic laws, that driver will be imprisoned for between three months and one year; will be fined between 50,000 and 100,000 Syrian lira; and will be banned from driving for two years.

· If a driver leaves the scene of an accident, speeds more than 40 km per hour over the designated speed limit, or drives without vehicle plates visible, that driver will be imprisoned for between one and three months; will be fined 25,000 Syrian lira; will have the vehicle seized by authorities; and will be given 16 points.

· If a driver leaves a vehicle parked on railway lines, allows materials to fall from a vehicle on public roads, or fails to have appropriate documents for Special Vehicles, that driver will be imprisoned for between ten days and seven months; will be fined 15,000 Syrian lira; will have the vehicle seized by authorities; and will be given eight points.

The only “black box” I’ve ever heard of is the one installed in airplanes – but I like the idea of “speed governors”. I wish there were black boxes for “lane governors”, “honking governors” and “parking governors” as well!

As for the apparently numerous drivers who choose to park on railroad tracks, I think remedial courses in basic logic might be more appropriate than imprisonment. Yes, I know that Syria only has one active train line – but still. Those who park on railroad tracks, like those who park in New York’s bus lanes, should enjoy their just desserts. Smashed-up car fondant with a creme chantilly fine, anyone?

Posted in Arab world, Syria, traffic, travel, words | 2 Comments »

“Don’t block the box” – Syrian style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 29, 2008

I love warden messages – especially when they include more than the usual boiler-plate about the State Department recommending that all Americans defer travel to – well, the rest of the world.

Today’s warden message is a total gem. It comes from the US Embassy in Syria, and announces the enforcement of a very assertive set of traffic laws. Here is the text of the message:

New Traffic Regulations in Syria

On May 01, 2008, the Syrian government will begin enforcement of new traffic regulations which were announced in January, 2008. Many of these regulations are designed to increase road safety for both vehicles and pedestrians, and call for fines and a “point system” for violations. The following is a partial summary. The full text in Arabic can be found at:

http://www.mot.gov.sy/index.php?d=177&id=597

Traffic Fines

Fines ranging from 500 to 10,000 Syrian lira (SYP) will be imposed for infractions such as:

· Children riding in the front seat or in the driver’s lap

· Tossing rubbish from vehicles while driving

· Playing loud music while driving through neighborhoods at night

· Failing to use directional signals when turning

· Reckless speed and changing of lanes

· Transporting items exceeding the body of the vehicle in a dangerous manner

· Using cellular phones (mobile phones) while driving

· Having a license plate with illegible numbers

· Allowing unlicensed drivers to drive the vehicle

· Passing other vehicles on corners, uphill slopes, tunnel, bridges and crossroads

· Driving without a valid insurance contract

· Not using safety belts in the front seat

· Not keeping a first aid (medical) kit in the vehicle

· Not keeping a fire extinguisher in the vehicle

· Driving with an expired license

Pedestrians may be fined 200 SYP for “jay-walking” — crossing the street not in the designated location or against the light.

I’m thrilled by these regulations – except for the jay-walking. The only city in the US that I remember enforcing jay-walking laws is Phoenix, AZ and its posh suburbs. I remember traveling there for a high school trip and being sternly warned by our chaperones not, on pain of incarceration and heavy fines, to cross against the light. And I remember thinking: this town must have every other possible issue under control if its government can afford to worry about pedestrian crossings

Using that same logic, I’m not sure the Syrian government should be focused on jay-walking just yet. Enforcing seat belt laws, requiring that children ride in the back seat, and punishing reckless driving are monumental tasks by themselves – and if the government’s enforcement is able to instill new driving habits in Syria’s drivers, it will be a great achievement. Save the jay-walking for another set of laws – and make sure that the next set includes a complementary law requiring drivers to stop at cross-walks if a pedestrian is there. Until that day, walking in Syria (and Lebanon) will continue to be the Hail Mary adventure that it is now.

One regulation that I don’t see is a drunk driving law. The number of drunk drivers in Syria and Lebanon must vastly exceed the proportionate number in the US – and when they drive drunk here, they drive very drunk. Pretending that drunk driving does not happen because these are Muslim-majority countries is no solution.

Finally, the new regulations include a very Manhattan-style point system. No word on whether any “don’t block the box” points are included in it, but the idea is the same:

In addition to fines, a “point system” has been developed to track repeat offenders. Each infraction carries a certain number of points, based on the severity of the infraction and the judgment of the official issuing the citation. The maximum number of points is sixteen (16). When someone reaches 16 points, the following rules apply:

· First instance of 16 points: suspension of driving license for three months

· Second instance of 16 points: suspension of driving license for six months and requirement to take a driving course

· Third instance of 16 points: suspension of driving license for nine months and requirement to take a driving course

· Fourth instance of 16 points: cancellation of driving privileges, requirement to take a driving course and a new examination will be required to get a new driving license. Also, a new license cannot be obtained in less than one year.

Most Syrian drivers I know are conscientious, safe drivers already. As for the rest – and for Syrian society generally – I think the regulations are a great thing.

And I’m sure that they will be enforced assiduously – at least for the first week.

Posted in Iowa, Syria, traffic, words | 5 Comments »

Lunch with love and protesters: Valentine’s Day in Saifi

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 16, 2008

Like many people in Lebanon, I had Thursday off, thanks to Prime Minister Siniora’s declaration that February 14 would be a national holiday in honor of Rafik Hariri.

I didn’t mind – it would have been difficult to get much done on Thursday anyway, with half the country staying home for fear of roadblocks and political tension, and the other half turning out in force either to the March 14 rally downtown or to Imad Mughniyeh’s funeral in Dahiyeh.

With two dueling politicized commemorations scheduled, not to mention Valentine’s Day, Thursday was the perfect day for a holiday – and a luncheon.

M & M live in Saifi, just below Gemmayze and a few blocks from Martyrs’ Square, where the March 14 rally was being held. None of us is ardently March 14, especially on a rainy winter day – but we all do like to eat, and we all love to keep up with current events. So when M invited H & I for lunch, we happily accepted.

Outside the downtown area, the city was largely deserted. I took this photograph of Hamra at 9:30, when the street is usually packed with honking cars & trucks:

img_0288.jpg

Ghost town.

We left for the M’s early, before noon, assuming that it might take us ages to reach their neighborhood. But we had almost free rein over the roads – at least, over roads like Basta, which were far from the scene of either side’s gathering, and heavily policed by army patrols.

In fact, the only trouble we encountered was the usual kind: parking trouble in Saifi/Gemmayze. Pasteur Street was blocked to non-neighborhood cars, and most street parking was taken by Ouwwet and Kataeb supporters who had come for the rally. Luckily, I had worn “walking” heels, and H had brought an umbrella – so we were well-prepared, by New York standards at least, for the long walk to M’s.

What amazed us were the number of people leaving – it was 12:30, and the rally was only half over, but the cold and rain were clearly sending some people off in search of warmth and dry clothing.

People leaving the rally on the near side of the divided road; people going to the rally on the far side:

img_0290.jpg

For us, the afternoon was all about warmth and dry clothing – not to mention good food. M had made a thick vegetable soup, followed by mjaddara with raita for me, and beef lasagne with salad for the normal (i.e., meat-eating) guests.

As we ate, we listened to the speeches and tried to discern who was speaking and what was being said. Since we heard both the rally’s loudspeakers and the Kataeb headquarter’s rebroadcasting, it was mostly a wash.

I think he just said “Hariri”, J said at one point. J’s Arabic is limited to “hello”, “thank you” and “all of it”, for when he goes to the barbershop for a head shave – but given the day and the occasion, “Hariri” was a good guess. (And when we needed confirmation, H would check with the television in the living room, where all the news channels were broadcasting the rally.)

Looking towards the northern edge of Martyrs’ Square from M’s mezzanine terrace:

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Looking towards the upper center of Martyrs’ Square (the white tent covers Hariri’s grave):

img_0292.jpg

Looking down at Pasteur Street and the lower end of the Kataeb building:

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Looking across the way to the next building, whose rooftop had been rented by France 24, according to H:

img_0297.jpg

The square emptied quickly once the rally ended – by the time we left the M’s, the neighborhood was as empty as Hamra had been that morning. But as we spooned up the chocolate mousse-cum-praline that M had made, round after round of machine gun fire reminded us that quiet is a relative term.

Does someone in Gemmayze love Nasrallah, who was just finishing his eulogy/call to war? We couldn’t figure it out. And what I can’t figure out is how five utterly sane people can hear sustained machine-gun fire and consider it so normal 😐 .

Posted in Beirut, food, French, friends, Lebanon, media, neighbors, photography, politics, rain, television, time, traffic, umbrellas, vanity, weather | 2 Comments »

the things that foreigners do

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 10, 2008

As I have mentioned before, I love walking. One of the characteristics that distinguishes the great cities of the world from those that are merely good, as far as I am concerned, is their walkability.

Paris, London, New York, Rome, Tokyo: Storied cities. Cities with uncommon vibrancy. Cities whose residents walk, and which as a result have a dynamic vivacity at street level.

Beirut should be one of the world’s great cities. It should be a city peopled with pedestrians. It should pulse with the colorful humanity of its inhabitants.

Instead, it pulses with me. To be fair, Hamra gathers a fairly sizable group of promenaders on weekend afternoons, and on weekend nights clumps of revelers … well .. clump on the sidewalks in front of the more popular bars.

But when I walk – going from one place to another, with the purpose of running an errand, going to work, meeting friends, and so on – I frequently find myself with almost zero competition for sidewalk space.

This was the case last Friday evening, when I decided to walk to the Monroe Hotel, where I was meeting a few friends for a “final, really final” showing of Haki Niswen, the Lebanese Arabic-language adaptation of The Vagina Monologues.

(More on that in a future post. If I stood out on the street while walking to the hotel, it was nothing compared to the degree to which I stood out – the only, and very obviously, non-Lebanese – at the theater.)

I chose to walk because it was a beautiful evening and because it would be short – ten minutes, fifteen minutes at the most. And it was a lovely walk: the air was fresh and the night sky was breathtaking.

But logistically speaking, the walk was a total pain. I’m not talking about the checkpoints, the armored personnel carriers or the Internal Security Forces stationed here and there. Yes, they were interested in me – but as a curiosity, not a security threat.

The challenge was much more literal: the sidewalks leading down to the hotel were cordoned off with cement barricades connected by chain linked metal “ropes”. So each time I came to the end (or the start) of a block, I had to hop over the metal “rope” in order to continue on my way.

I’m not much of a damsel in distress, even in three-inch heels. So delicately picking my way through the barricades was really no trouble.

But in terms of adding force to my campaign to make Beirut a great city – in terms of demonstrating the joys (and the virtues) of walking to the Beirutis passing by in cars and taxis … well … I suspect that it was at best a wash.

Instead, I imagine that most of the people who drove past me shook their heads, smiled, and said to one another:

Look – there goes another foreigner, doing those funny things that foreigners do.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, New York, Paris, traffic, travel, women, words | 1 Comment »

let the sun shine

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 13, 2007

The other night I decided to walk through downtown after an evening in Gemayze. (No, I hadn’t been drinking – I just think that treating downtown as a normal space is the only way to make it one.)

It was achingly empty. Even Gemmayze, with its third-full restaurants & bars, was more lively.

Last night I played a bit further with the color/contrast/brightness options on my photo editor. This is what a brightened, light-saturated view of upper downtown looks like:

 

al-azarieh-bright.jpg

The sun shines bright and beautiful here during Lebanon’s long summers – a light that can be as deceptive as it is warming.

A year ago today I spent most of a beautiful day indoors, frightened by what chaos might lurk in the streets. A year ago tomorrow I walked around downtown with C and another friend, part of a larger self-guided tour to see for ourselves how different areas were responding to the first day of bombing.

And a year ago Sunday I left, driving up and over the mountains on the most beautiful day yet – a day whose blue skies looked to my eyes just like those of New York nearly six years ago.

After a long dark year, Lebanon needs the sun to shine for real – starting with the south and starting with downtown, those two far-apart regions brought much closer by the protests of last winter. The heart of Beirut should not feel like the set of a play after the production has closed.

Posted in advertising, Beirut, economics, Lebanon, photography, politics, time, tourism, traffic, travel | Leave a Comment »

his & hers job ads: well, hers anyway

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 10, 2007

10_07_2007_005_018.jpg

I have vague memories of having to submit a photograph when I applied for a master’s program at Princeton years ago – or maybe it was even further back, when I was applying for my BA.

And having edited the CVs of several French friends, I understand that it is quite common to embed one’s photograph in the body of one’s CV – which does a lot to advance that country’s claims to race-blindness, of course.

Part of me assumes that the “latest picture” request is designed to ensure that only attractive candidates are called for an interview. After all, Jeddah is KSA’s “liberal” city. But part of me wonders whether I’m being too American in my reading. Maybe the request is designed to weed out those whose most recent photograph does not show them professionally attired in hijab.

Well. Looking at that last sentence, even my most Pollyanna bits are thinking: not a very likely maybe, is it?

Posted in advertising, Lebanon, media, traffic, travel, women, words | Leave a Comment »