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Dilapidated metaphors on Lebanon roads

Times Staff Writer

The scarred Mercedes taxi rumbles to a halt. Its flaking paint exposes a layer of rust. It spews a noxious brown exhaust. That it can move at all appears to be a miracle.

In most countries, police would have hauled the vehicle away, laid it to rest at a scrap yard on the outskirts and slapped the driver with a stiff fine for dragging such a heap onto the public roadways.

But we are in Lebanon at the height of the country’s worst political crisis since its civil war ended 17 years ago, and traffic enforcement has fallen by the wayside.

So we find ourselves sitting in a deathtrap, careening down the highway to an appointment in south Beirut.

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The driver is an enormous Shiite Muslim with teeth as in need of care as his car.

I eye a baby pacifier that hangs from his rearview mirror. “It’s for my kid,” he explains, to my relief.

Perhaps the taxi is a metaphor for the broad malaise that afflicts Lebanon. Never a very solid proposition to begin with, the government is caught in a seemingly intractable deadlock, with two opposing camps so far unable to come up with a president and name a government as a Friday deadline looms.

On one side is the coalition of U.S.-backed parties and factions led by Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in a massive bomb explosion in February 2005. On the other side is the Syrian- and Iranian-backed alliance led by Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political party.

France and Saudi Arabia, long major players here, have waded into Lebanon’s political swamp in an attempt to mediate.

No one is quite sure what will happen if the deadline passes without a president being named. The pro-U.S. forces might form a government without the consent of their rivals, who might decide to name their own government.

Presumably, two vying governments would then be in charge of Lebanon, collecting taxes and maybe even enforcing traffic rules.

The Mercedes’ radiator has already overheated once. The driver pulls off to the side of the road, rushes into a minimarket and fills a big plastic jug with water. The car staggers forward, stalls and then sputters to life again.

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“This is a very strong car,” the driver says.

We drive past motor scooters, once banned by police because of purse-snatchings and traffic accidents, and maneuver around triple-parked vehicles blocking traffic. Angry motorists lean on their horns.

Earlier in the day, another driver eased the tension by singing Elvis Presley songs.

“It’s now or never,” he crooned. “Come hold me tight.”

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But now I can do without entertainment. I cross my fingers and hope that the driver will get us to our destination before his car disintegrates or veers into a median.

We drive past billboards advertising instant Western Union wire transfers from abroad and $69 flights to Dubai, in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

The decades-long exodus of Lebanon’s young and talented has intensified since the inconclusive war between Israel and Hezbollah last year.

Investors also have shied away. Businesses nervously clean out their inventories. I bought a pricey pair of couches from an upscale furniture shop. The store accepted credit cards, but the owner demanded cash. When I insisted on some kind of receipt, he photocopied the $100 bills I’d handed him.

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Worried about tensions, authorities last week banned fans from watching a soccer match between a team backed by the Hariri camp and one by the Hezbollah movement. The players faced off in an empty stadium.

Inside a darkened print shop where I went to get business cards, a sign said, “Please don’t talk about politics here.”

One television channel, Future TV, has even begun using the country’s troubles to promote its upcoming 24-hour news channel. Its billboards feature pictures of a child armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a burly, bearded militant.

“Before you repeat [the past],” the signs say, “watch Future TV.”

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We alert the driver that we’ve just passed our destination, though it turns out we are wrong. He does battle with the gearbox until it locks into reverse, and then he backs up along the highway as motorists honk in rage.

We stumble out of the car. The driver offers to wait to take us back up north, but we pay him, thank him effusively and send him on his way.

We’ll try our luck with another taxi.

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daragahi@latimes.com


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