Taxi drivers. In every city in the world they are the ones on top of things. Constantly driving around they are aware of everything, not just by looking at the world around them through their car windows, but also by talking with their passengers. They can tell you everything that is wrong and right about their city, the latest news, the juiciest gossip: they are the people to talk to. Although taxi drivers are not known for their intelligence or exceptional social perception, they do sometimes give a very accurate, and usually extremely funny look at the world around them.
Beirut is not an exception, and I would like to start with a small personal project on Beirut taxi driver stories. In the short period that I have been here, I’ve already heard so many, I just can’t help to share them with you guys.
On our way to school, our driver gave us an insight into a growing problem in the streets of Beirut: parking. (Traffic issues are, unsurprisingly, known to be very high upon the list of favorite subjects that taxi drivers like to talk about…) We drove through a busy shopping street, which was also an important vain for traffic going to the city centre. Our driver pointed out the many double-, and sometimes even triple-parked cars on the side of the road. The parked cars sometimes blocked the road completely, and this resulted in deafening, and mostly pointless horn-banging by drivers. “You see my friend, in Beirut parking is impossible! Stupid people parking everywhere blocking the road making many people angry, this is not good!” He shared his insights with us while we waited for a small truck which was unloading vegetables with an excruciating lack of urgency. “It is a problem yes? You know why? Building a parking garage is not making many people rich, instead they built other building making them very rich, so they buy more cars, and they cannot park also!”
Baffled by the brilliant simplicity of his logic, I asked him whether he could perhaps enlighten us with a solution to this problem. “No problem!” he told us, “We will have only taxi’s, no normal cars. Taxi’s never park, and also many dollars for me yes?”
That same day I took a “service” (the difference between service and taxi is an extra zero to your fare, good thing to know when moving around the city), and we passed a military checkpoint. I quickly grabbed my camera to make a picture of the dangerous looking men carrying loaded M16 assault rifles. The driver was quick to interfere. He told me that in Beirut you cannot use a camera anywhere, and if the military catch you using one, they won’t hesitate to break it or take your film/memory card.
Hold on a minute. We went to Beirut to undertake a huge mobile media project, and we are not even allowed to use our mobile media devices, by penalty of vandalism? Something is terribly wrong here, and I even started to doubt the usefulness of te entire mission. I asked the driver why the military is so paranoid about camera’s. “They are afraid of Hezbollah spies, they are afraid of them because they have bigger guns, and maybe they take pictures of the soldier and the Hezbollah come to his house and kill the wife and kids…”
Hezbollah, who still controls large parts of the city actually outgun the Lebanese army on many fronts (they have missiles, something the Lebanese army apparently don’t have access to), I knew this, but I never realized what this meant for the city. There is a constant sectarian power struggle going on (Hezbollah-Lebanese army is merely one of the many power struggles that are going on), and one of the countless intangible “victims” of this power struggle is the freedom to document as you please.
So how will we deal with this? Our main project is a large “mapping Beirut” project, in which we use small camera’s and hand-held devices to capture Beirut on as many fronts as possible. This ban on camera’s is making this rather difficult, to say the least. For example, if you get caught using a camera in the Hezbollah controlled part of Beirut, members of the militia could easily capture you and hold you for interrogation for several hours, or even days. They don’t have to follow any laws. This has happened to many Lebanese students I met and heard of.
So a challenge indeed. Me and Rawad will take this on. Armed with concealed camera’s and microphones and a crappy looking car to avoid attention and blend in, we will attempt to capture on film as many checkpoints and cranky looking soldiers as possible. We’ll drive past the president’s house, politicians houses, military bases, etcetera. When stopped by the military, we will try to capture the conversation on tape, using my mobile phone. We will implement the same strategy when we visit Dahier tomorrow. Let’s see if we can successfully take on this suffocating veil of sectarianism that lies over this city by using simple mobile technology and a passion for freedom of media.
Wish us luck…