If we share our roads better, could we then learn to share the country better?

Monday, August 19, 2019
Dr. Jack Tohme

An-Nahar News: Another month long visit to Lebanon by an expatriate was just concluded, and that urge is here again just like last year to write, draw or sculpt an impression.

Lebanon remains mired in its existential and its societal problems, both broad based issues seemingly unsolvable since 1975. All parties seem to play the existential issues (Qadaya massiriyyi) wrong because there’s only one way of dealing with them and that is authentic internal unity.

Still one can be pleasantly surprised and grateful that we are at a great advantage compared to our Arab neighbors and beyond. We have more political vibrancy and the terrible discord is in and by itself a sign of a livelier society than most of our neighbors.

And we have more peaceful coexistence on a community level than most other countries. But what is it about the societal issues (Qadaya hayetiyyi) that they keep looking so bleak, and do they really have to stay as such, basically without improvement over three decades since the war ended?

Electricity and internet are neither pleasant enough nor business friendly for investors. The garbage and pollution troubles keep demoralizing everyone. Simpler things like the roads having no car lanes seem inexplicable leaving driver citizens simulating dangerously an Indy racetrack. The sidewalks have the same stains and potholes as 44 years ago.

The stairs to public buildings have not been washed or touched in 44 long years. The gap between civic space dilapidation and personal home glitz is the widest in the world especially when you watch interviews with politicians from their homes.

Some paradoxes can be even more tantalizing: the bathrooms in high end restaurants are ultra modern with decor and glisten; but the bathrooms in most if not all ministries and public and governmental buildings smell viciously where you also cannot find toilet paper or a bar of soap. Most hotels and bed-and-breakfasts push down their sink and shower stoppers so the rooms don’t smell.

That assault on the olfactory grooves of visitors is only matched by the noise pollution and then the retinal pollution of smog and garbage mounds. Even the fourth and fifth integumentary and gustatory senses are challenged: witness the mixed feelings of pleasure and fear delving into a fattoush plate. Year after year the usual immune defense response to the above goes through the left ventricle and on to the soul, blocking all assaults on the senses in a deep rooted seizure of nostalgia and a faintly undying hope in the future.

When you experience all above and you’re at war you hope for postwar construction and renaissance. And when you’re relatively younger you can return to your sanctuary city in the West or the Gulf and hope for a better day next year and keep planning some sort of return. But when you are not at war for 30 years and nothing is improved year after year, and especially when you are at almost 70 years of age and contemplating retirement, you may just stop believing in your dreams!

Well of course I am not pessimistic to the point of not considering returning to visit or even invest. The glorious sun rays and the breeze that run by the tall leafy green trees of the towns of the Bekaa and the Chouf, the South and the Qadisha Valley villages … those rays and that breeze are usually on their way to caress your face; they even sneak to the balconic views from the high rises of the Beirut waterfront; letting you feel the weight of history and the good times, then comes the overjoy of immersing oneself in the vibrant night life; with the day usually capped by the tight loving hugs of cousins and old time friends.

That is all just too precious to walk away from; and equivalent to the rarest of rare stones that people can spend a whole decade or even a lifetime actively pursuing. We have all that accessible to us on only an 18 hour plane ride from New York, a 5 hour ride from Europe and less from the Gulf.

So the questions of what to do, can we contribute, can we retire? are questions that keep popping up during, and long after, every visit to the motherland. Last year on these pages I floated the idea of a two tier government: one government that deals with the big existential issues tied covalently to relations with neighboring regional powers, defunct ideologies, and permanent religious warfares; and a second government that deals with societal issues. Some responders thought it was a good idea but the majority retorted that the political establishment will not allow the second tier government to exist for obvious turf, control and financial reasons.

But we have spent 30 years without war yet without reconstruction; we bring excellent ministers but place them under the spell of self serving not national serving political leaders and repeatedly little or nothing is achieved. I often wondered how many hours a week on average does a minister spend in his office at the ministry working on the issues pertaining to the average citizen, not otherwise tending to the broader politics of keeping their seat and analyzing regional and international politics which in Lebanese/Arabic slang is equivalent to “eating air”.

The narrative that development, investment and reconstruction in general cannot precede but must follow fundamental political progress does not apply any more in Lebanon. We have reached the point where absent accountability there will be no more development. And absent development we are running the risk that there is no more a viable nation where any meaningful politics can be played.

Accountability of a government is the basic role of parliament but that has proven to be also almost impossible especially after governments have become cheese shop mini parliaments. Perhaps our civic society and our expatriates can cooperate on forming a National Accountability Board that could be made public and could generate great interest and become a pressure group. There’s been also talk of revolutions but I am now convinced that sectarianism has been able to destroy revolutionary spirits.

We just must start making some progress on societal issues. Any success there could re-ignite pride and inspire more similar projects and thus more hope. People’s hope and morale may make or break this country, small as it is in its size yet being acknowledged as a very large country in its message and its potential as a beacon of tolerance and prosperity in this miserable Middle East.

An easier goal to achieve and that may be huge on an inspirational level is changing the pervasive poor communication skills among Lebanese politicians but also among average citizens. Nowhere is this more apparent and repulsive than in our driving habits.

For expatriates it has become a cliche question: do you drive in Lebanon??? For the resident population nothing shows our inability to respect each others’ spaces, rights, and safety more than observing how we share the road. It is a microcosm of how we don’t know how to “accept the other”, even of the same sect.

Put differently we ought to move from “accepting or quboul the other” to “embracing the other or al iqbal ala el akhar”. I am literally paraphrasing great advice from a cousin, a one time successful but now frustrated industrialist. So in driving we desperately need well drawn traffic lanes with nice white and yellow lines that stop drivers from swerving incessantly increasing the risks of accidents and the stress of driving; and help remove that feeling on the roads that we are all in a race to get there first; again demonstrating the huge divide between absent civic sense and that yet most developed generosity and warmth on a personal level. We double and triple park to pick up a man’oucheh or a medication (even when a hundred meters down there is a manageable parking spot). We take off into the fast traffic on a highway without even looking back on the incoming cars to negotiate and navigate a safe and respectful entry. We pour disrespectfully from right and from left onto a one lane line of cars conflagrating in front of an army checkpoint basically consecrating the me first race mentality. Compare this behavior with the same people standing at the door of a Lebanese house party and being exceedingly nice to each other inviting the next person to walk in first so respectfully and warmly.

Driving misconduct is a sign of the social and political dysfunction in the country, and improving driving conditions will send a powerful message to all, that correcting the way we share the road could inspire improvement in the way we share the country. I call on the ministry of public works to instill white and yellow demarcated lanes on all roads immediately. It must also name and number all buildings and houses so we can use GPS technology better. Having no addresses to any building is just unconscionable in this century. The government must also man the roads with enforcing police officers, trained to be gentle, explaining infractions, starting with warnings first… and creating jobs for young Lebanese men and women in the process.

The journey of a thousand miles starts with small steps that have now become existential in value. Some forward motion is bound to re-ignite pride and re-inspire hope and perhaps generate motion forward on other issues.

Dr. Jack Tohme is an endocrinologist in the New York area and is affiliated with Columbia University and the Valley Hospital in New Jersey. He left Lebanon in the 1980s after having studied medicine and practiced in Beirut at the American University of Beirut Faculty of Medicine. He has now been in practice in the U.S. for more than 33 years. Dr. Tohme is also a board member of the American Task Force For Lebanon.