I got into a cab at the junction between Downtown and Ashrafieh around 6.30pm. I had been doing work stuff and had a shirt and smart trousers. I expect my outfit probably had as much to do with what followed as the fact that I am obviously not a native.
I told the driver I wanted a ‘service’ (short distance rate taxi, about $1.50) to Spinneys (a supermarket about 5 minutes drive from where I was standing). The driver pulled off the main street and took a turn. This was not unusual, most Taxi drivers know some backstreet route that they think will help them avoid the traffic. Then my phone buzzed with a text message.
Replying to the message I realised there were several other texts that I had not seen that also needed responding to. This meant that I spent the next 5 minutes playing about with my phone and not paying attention to where we were going. When I finished with the phone I looked up and didn’t have a clue where I was.
For about a minute I tried to look out for familiar buildings. I lived in the same area as the supermarket and it became obvious that we were not anywhere close. Then I saw the highway out of town.
‘Mate, where the fuck are you going?’ The driver ignored me at first. ‘Mate, this is not the way to Spinneys’. He looked at me in the mirror.
‘Spinneys this way’ he said pointing at the highway.
‘No, Spinneys is in Ashrafieh, close to where you picked me up. Pull over, now!’ He pulled the cab over at a roundabout.
We argued for some minutes about where Spinneys was. The driver was convinced there was no Spinneys in Ashrafieh, only one out on the highway. I told him he was wrong and that he should take me back there and I would show him. He was having none of it.
‘You pay me now. How much you pay me?’ He had turned around in his seat, an overweight man in his 40s. I said I was not going to pay him anything until he took me to Ashrafieh.
‘OK, I call Police.’
What we both knew, but he presumably did not think I knew, was that first of all the Police would never come if you were to ‘call’ them. They probably wouldn’t even come if someone had been murdered. Secondly, if the Police were to come they would almost certainly side with me in this situation. Nobody in Lebanon wants to project the image that foreigners get ripped off by everyone. This fact is probably what saved me, as we shall see. I looked him in the eye. ‘Call the Police.’
Knowing he had nothing else to bargain with a viscous rage engulfed the driver. Shouting wildly in Arabic he leaned into the back of the car and slowly pushed his fist into my face. I jumped out of the cab and so did he.
Now if we were in another part of town I could have just walked off. I was only 6.45 and there were plenty of people around. But we were parked next a very busy roundabout, crossing it would not be easy and I didn’t have a clue where I was. And the fat man was coming towards me.
I tried to rationalize the situation. Perhaps he really didn’t know where the supermarket was. Perhaps he thinks I am trying to rip him off. Perhaps I have been acting harshly. Then he stepped towards me and grabbed my throat.
In a reflex I bent his arm and pushed him off me and jumped back. Instant thought. Can I beat him in a fight. Answer? Yes, definitely. Second thought. Do I want to beat up a middle-aged Taxi driver in broad daylight in the middle of a busy roundabout? Answer. Definitely not.
As I pushed him away he had grasped again and caught hold of the headphones around my neck, big old-fashioned over-ear things. He had ripped one of the ear pieces right off and held it his hand and looked at it for a minute, before tossing it in the road and coming at me again.
I swung a warning punch at his face, not making any contact, and cocked my right arm dramatically ready to land a real one. He kept coming at me and I kept throwing jabs at him. By this point I had started screaming from the bottom of my lungs.
After a few more lunges he stepped back and started laughing. He had not expected this. Before he could try again a passing mob of young guys on mopeds had stopped and joined us on the roundabout. They left their bikes in the middle of the road, blocking traffic, which brought more people, getting out of cars joining the fun. The mob separated us and about 6 guys were holding me back.
At this point I realised I was in a bit of trouble. No one could speak English and unlike the Taxi driver, who was now calmly explaining away some bullshit to the mob, I cannot speak Arabic. Humans are human but a mob is animal. Another car pulled up wanting to get past the mass of vehicles blocking the road. Fortunately for me he could speak English.
Still guarded by two of the guys that had arrived on mopeds, I explained my situation, that the Taxi driver had taken me to wrong place then shoved a fist in mouth and tried to throttle me when I refused to pay unless he took me back. He relayed this information to the mob.
Within seconds then had surrounded the driver and pushed him back towards his cab. He was still protesting vociferously as they pushed him inside and told him to fuck off.
When he was gone the rounded me, asking if I was alright. One of the guys offered to take me back into town on the back of his moped. When I declined he offered me 5000LL to get another taxi. A young German-Lebanese guy emerged from the crowd and said he was going my way, we could share a cab together. The mob got back on their mopeds and we walked off down the hill together.
After walking down the hill a Taxi pulled up. ‘Hey boys, want a lift? Asharfieh? 10000LL?’ I don’t need to tell you who it was.
Two mopeds pulled up beside the cab and the mob boys from earlier jumped off and started screaming at the driver. I thought for a minute they would pull him through his window. He drove quickly off and they gave us a nod before driving off after him.