There was a time when it was well known that in the streets of Beirut, more sedans and luxury cars circulated than in many posh cities of the world. The number of cars per inhabitant was one of the highest on the planet and the sale of cars, one of the most lucrative businesses, served by a system of bank loans which sometimes made bosses say that their orderlies had more beautiful and more efficient vehicles than theirs.
A social marker, an emblem of success as well as boastfulness, the car seemed more useful to the Lebanese citizen than a vacation in the tropics, a country house or a modernly equipped kitchen.
→ ANALYSIS. “Everyone is doing very badly”: in Lebanon, the great depression
With the collapse of the economy and the ruin of the banks, this has changed a bit and should gradually change the spectacle of the streets and the state of the car park. For the time being, however, the change is not yet really perceptible, because the middle class is still resisting, as much as possible, the imperatives created by the crisis. What has changed, however, and which indicates the violence of the shock suffered by the most modest classes, is the invasion of urban space by two-wheelers, and especially by small motorcycles and mopeds.
Motorcycles and mopeds have become one of the scourges of the streets of the Lebanese capital. They come in swarms, circulate in all directions, without rules and without logic, and constantly constitute the threat of an accident. But they are the means of transport for many people who no longer have a car or can no longer afford gas. There are those of the delivery people, of course – having meals delivered to your home at any time being a way of life in its own right – and here are the motorcyclists backfiring all day long, speeding around with, on their backs, their bag or trunk with the logos of burger, salad, mezze or sushi merchants.
But bikers are also couriers, craftsmen, workers, farm boys and peasants, sometimes masons or plumbers, a whole world of work that rides without a helmet, in the wrong direction, slaloming, slipping and overtaking you without scruples both on the right and on the left.
→ REPORT. In Lebanon, in the era of cash
It also obviously sometimes gives comical or spectacular scenes, not the least of which are those of these 1970s motorcycles carrying entire families, the husband, the wife and sometimes three or four children compressed between their parents. But I also saw a blacksmith driving a scooter and, behind him, his apprentice holding the frame of a window that was three meters high, standing like a gate. I saw a carpenter driving in the wrong direction with, across his moped, two beams protruding three meters on each side.
I saw a veiled young woman, sitting side-saddle behind her husband or friend and acrobatically trying to lean forward and put her phone screen in front of his face to take a selfie with him.
I saw bikers carrying gas canisters and others delivering hookahs and the embers that go with them, I saw some who slipped, fell, straightened up and started again as if they were in a race, I saw a motorcyclist lose his helmet, who rolled in front of him like a little puppy, I saw some as we see constantly who roll while looking at their phone, who cling to the back of vans to go faster , who stop to ask directions then turn around and ask again a little further on, and I saw one who slowly approached a distracted passer-by to snatch his phone before disappearing in rushes without anyone being able to stop it.
→ READ ALSO. Moped ride on the roads of Europe
Sometimes, in the car, a scooter passes you, and you think that the guy on it is yelling at you, but in fact no, he is on the phone and talking loudly, to drown out the noise of his backfiring. And sometimes, you are told things that you cannot imagine, for example the fact that the money changers go on mopeds with their bags stuffed with money and currency, because mopeds are more manoeuvrable, you are less easily caught in the trap traffic jams and they prevent robberies, even if my money changer one day crashed into the door of a 4×4 and almost crashed through it. Three months later, he had married the woman who at that moment opened his door and had almost sent him to hell.