x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Bus to considerate society does not stop in Lebanon

Michael Karam says the Lebanese love to drive everywhere and if there is nowhere to park, it is someone else's problem. And that someone is usually the underpaid and thoughtless valet parking attendant.

Parking is a nagging issue for drivers in Beirut. Joseph Eid / AFP
Parking is a nagging issue for drivers in Beirut. Joseph Eid / AFP

Trending on Twitter yesterday was this quote attributed to the mayor of Bogota, who is said to have declared: "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transport."

I tried to find the name of this mayor and it seems to be Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing rebel. In any case, Bilal Hamad, Mr Petro's counterpart in Beirut, would do well to heed his words. Because to admit to taking the bus in this town is tantamount to saying you have leprosy.

The Lebanese drive everywhere and if there is nowhere to park,it is someone else's problem. And that someone is usually an underpaid and thoughtless valet parking attendant. I use the word "valet" loosely because very little happens when you hand over your keys.

I thought of this the other night when I strolled down the tree-lined alley where I take my dog, Lady, for her evening walk. The lane is also a favourite with the many parking attendants in my neighbourhood. While Lady was engrossed in her pre-elimination sniffing, I spotted a polo-shirted young man hurrying up the road clutching a car key and munching on a shawarma sandwich. The gleaming Range Rover next to me flashed and he confidently climbed aboard. Lady and I moved aside to give him space, but I needn't have bothered. Instead of reversing out of the slot he rammed into the BMW in front, setting off its alarm. He panicked and, throwing it into reverse, he scraped the back fender against the sidewall.

I pretended not to pay any attention as he inspected his handiwork before getting back in and delivering the car to the unsuspecting owner and his wife, both of whom were clearly oblivious to the damage because they tipped the man for his efforts.

Now, whenever I pass him, we nod to each other as if bonded by this grubby secret. There was a time when the running joke in Beirut was: "We may not have electricity but we do have valet parking at McDonald's."

The boast was meant to paint us as lovable snobs but as Beirut's nightlife has encroached into what were originally residential areas with little or no road parking, the valet culture has developed into an unruly and sinister racket with many residents finding parking spaces illegally blocked off. Attempts to complain are often met with menace.

Clearly, the situation got so bad someone decided a bit of positive public relations work was required. Thus Porsche Lebanon and Valet Parking Services (VPS), one of the country's more organised "parking solution" companies, teamed up to set new standards in how we treat other people's cars.

Forty VPS "supervisors" attended a workshop after which they were "certified" in parking all Porsche models.

What about my humble VW Touareg, which is often returned to me with the seat setting all awry and playing a different radio channel? Still, the message was not lost. VPS wanted to up its game and did the smart thing in getting together with Porsche. It is yet another instance in which the private sector has had to step in to self-regulate in a country where the government generally leaves the business community alone.

Of course the long-term solution is to provide decent public transport and encourage the rich - and the poor - to use it. At the very least, we could all take taxis. But no, we Lebanese live in our bubble. We will not be inconvenienced, even if we inconvenience others.

So when the young man scraped the Range Rover, I wasn't outraged by his sloppy driving or the fact he didn't own up. It was simply collateral damage.

Michael Karam is a writer based in Beirut