Part 1: Becoming the Change
This week, I’m stripping it all back to the bare tacks: I’m grateful for the stories I’m able to tell. @BusMapProject was a bit of tactical urbanism, a modest gambit to capture a global moment when participatory data and collective mapping were becoming en vogue, in the service of a sociotechnical artifact that was very much not—and in doing so, it was a lot more than that. It was an attempt at re-writing a story that Lebanese people told themselves about themselves. In place of chaos, we wrote of everyday ordering; instead of lawlessness, we wrote of resilience. I’m grateful to have been at the right place and the right time, with the right guidance, insight, and friends, to have helped in telling a better story.
And I’m elated by how far we’ve come—@RidersRightsLB is not only the next chapter, but it’s also helping change the course of that story. With the launch of #BusLineHeroes, we’re doing more than mutual aid in the time of pandemic; we’re saying that transit riders and transit workers are invested in the same future, that we are more than cogs in the cycle of consumption—that another world is not only possible, it is necessary.
I could wax even more poetically, but I promised to strip it back. All week, I’ll be highlighting stories from my time riding the bus in Beirut, hoping that you’ll check out this campaign to raise funds for informal transit workers adversely affected by the COVID-19 lockdown. And by the end of the week, hopefully you’ll consider contributing too.
Above, you’ll see fragments from a collective storytelling and photo-documentation exercise that we organized in 2016.
Part 2: Awareness
December 6, 2017: There’s a leak in the roof of this bus, right at the edge of a naked lightbulb, but the driver’s manual is no help in situations like these. A few heads flit about, a few fingers reach between the wires, teasing out a quick fix. No dice. This common concern, this shared joke, this boundary broken—and now the levee’s overflown, and now a flood of conversation from Karm el-Zaytoun all the way to Aleppo.
June 2, 2016: “Na7na doqnal sa3b, inta mou day2o” (We have tasted a hardship that you haven’t tasted) – a bus driver from Syria.
June 3, 2015: Bus driver to two young men on the sidewalk: “Wen ray7een shabeb?” (Where are you heading, guys?)
“Wen ma raye7 khedna m3allem” (Wherever you’re going, take us, boss)
September 8, 2017: We’ve been hearing more and more about how support for refugees in #Lebanon is becoming “political”; how saying you’re doing X or Y for the Syrians in Lebanon is being read as taking X or Y away from the Lebanese in Lebanon. One approach to this has been to say things more delicately, “avoiding politics.” Another is to shout your politics from the rooftops. This morning, I’m thinking that a better approach might be to let “politics” take on a new meaning, one that refugees might define for us. Like how a Syrian bus driver assures an elderly compatriot who is close to tears that she no longer has to pay for her journeys: “from now on, you tell the driver you have no money, and you take a seat.” That’s the politics you can’t give out or take away. But I do hope it rubs off on us somehow.
Part 3: Desire
“Tal3een bel bosta, bel bosta, luk eh bel bosta…”
Two grown men with callused hands and plaster on their jeans cradling and singing made-up lullabies about public transport to a kitten on the Number 5 bus in #Lebanon.
“We’re taking the bus, the bus, oh yeah the bus…”
And how is your morning?
(October 26, 2016)
Part 4: Knowledge
Today’s story is a little less obvious and requires a lot more reading between the lines to appreciate, but it’s one of my favorite from Beirut’s recent transit past.
First, some context: There’s a rickety steel walkway connected to a bridge in the middle of the Jdeideh Highway that is all sorts of wrong & the butt of many jokes; a monument of sorts to the failures of urban planning in Lebanon, and there are many. But four summers ago, that walkway afforded me a view of an exciting yet almost imperceptible development that seemed to run against that trend: it was a bus with a municipal logo in the windshield.
Let me explain: in Lebanon, you can group mass transit into two general types: the state-owned “blue buses” and everything else—buses run by individual owner-drivers, mid-sized route associations and/or cartels, fully-incorporated business entities, but certainly nothing resembling a local government; I was surprised to see that logo, to say the least.
And the story we learned when @BusMapProject visited the Municipality of Bourj Hammoud was even more interesting than I could have imagined.
By the time I took these photos on September 17, 2016, the municipality had already set up “bus stations” or kiosks at the transit hub in Dora and on the Seaside Road that runs parallel to the highway, which served as the starting point for a newly-regulated but privately-run “Number 3” bus route from Dora to Byblos.
This route brought together a collection of different independent operators under the oversight of the municipality, who issued labels like the one I’d seen, and, crucially, time passes to drivers, to coordinate and schedule their trips, thereby eliminating competition between them.
Much of this may sound nerdy and prosaic, but every facet of this constellation of moving parts is actually a feat: these were private and public actors who voluntarily came together, with no law nor ministerial decree, and only the most localized of planning, to produce a new infrastructure—a new ordering, a new pact, a new standard of practice…
That’s something to celebrate in a sector infamous for endemic immobilism.
But what’s even more incredible is that this was not due to nonprofit advocacy or top-down governance: the fleet owners told us that they’d been lobbying the authorities for two years to help them better coordinate, to break their prisoners’ dilemma and end their toxic competition. They paid for everything themselves; all they asked from the municipality was to help them self-regulate—to give themselves the ability and permission to take turns.
I love this story because it defies our cultural and political expectations of the sector, but it also doesn’t romanticize it. The operators weren’t motivated by altruism or the greater good: they simply recognized that other bus routes that originated elsewhere were capturing a huge slice of their market share, so they knew they had to get their act together to survive. And in Lebanon, when you say “elsewhere,” you’re talking about an inside and an outside, an “us” and a “them”—elsewhere means “my territory” versus “their territory.” To even feel entitled to a market share is to say something about how you perceive this city, its inhabitants, and their divides.
No, this isn’t a story of saints, it’s a story of #BusLineHeroes, and every moment of pro-social labor under capitalism, through state neglect, is a heroic feat.
Part 5: Ability
Today is #MayDay and we are celebrating! @RidersRightsNet—a Seattle Transit Riders Union & @RidersRightsLB collab—has officially launched a GoFundMe in support of #BusLineHeroes, a campaign to raise funds for Lebanon’s informal transit workers. Please, please consider a donation today!
The fact that we’ve been talking about this campaign for a while & not a single person has attacked us for legitimizing an informal system is huge. The fact that comrades in Beirut have managed to build partnerships with groups that never gave us the time of day is huge. The discourse has shifted. The time to build long-lasting infrastructures of solidarity is now.
Exactly four years ago, @BusMapProject was still busy combatting the heavy stigma that this sector faced among generally liberal & eco-minded people in Lebanon; one way we tried to bridge that gap was by addressing gendered fears & biases that coded bus usage in danger & dread. We launched a campaign called #HerBus, and I’d like to share what I wrote that day:
“On International Workers’ Day, we remember & celebrate the often-times hidden labor that keeps our cities running. From bus drivers to sanitation workers, nurses to waiters—we salute you.#HerBus: ‘First Times and First Impressions‘ on the Bus Map Project blog
May Day is also a time to reflect on & challenge inequality. Attitudes towards public transport in Lebanon are often linked to class distinctions. Sometimes these attitudes are masked behind concerns over cleanliness or timeliness or safety—all of which are consumer rights that are not evenly distributed, and hence, are in themselves class markers; other times, attitudes will be much more direct in their aversion to mingling with ‘people who take the bus.’
Today, we want to share the first contribution to the series of posts on women’s experiences on public transport announced on International Women’s Day by highlighting the intersections of class, race and gender shaping how we get around Beirut. Zahra’s thoughtful story is about learning & unlearning, and the experience of challenging fear & privilege to participate more fully in the urban diversity of Beirut. This is a process that never ends, and requires bravery to face up to ourselves.”
Zahra’s a friend who wanted her name changed because she felt embarrassed about her own story, but I think it’s beautiful. It captures the moment a politic is (trans)formed, and I’m glad she shared it with us all those years ago, and with me, even earlier.
Here’s to the people who take the bus. Here’s to the friends we invite to join us. Here’s to beating this virus. Here’s to our common cause.
Happy May Day 🌹
Part 6: Recommitment
#BusLineHeroes has raised $500+ in ~24 hours… Thank you! Please help us keep the momentum going by sharing the link to our GoFundMe in my bio.
In this last post of stories from my time riding the bus in Beirut, I want to share one of my favorite instances of driver-rider solidarity, a topic that many transit rider unions in the U.S. are discussing right now:
November 25, 2016: A lady and her 20-something son were waiting by Badawi, when the driver turned the corner from Nahr Beirut Bridge and kept going, having not seen them standing there. The young man scowled and his mother yelled “you idiot!” (ya 7mar!) to get the driver’s attention, which she succeeded in doing. The passengers started to protest, telling the driver not to let her on for being so rude, but he silently coasted a little further before stopping. Passengers kept urging the driver to keep going, but he sat there waiting, silently watching our friends on Badawi stomp towards the bus. He waited until they were one parked car’s distance away. Then he sped off, smiling at his rearview mirror. Like a boss.
We were all very pleased. “Wossollak 7a2ak,” someone yelled. “You have received what you are entitled to.”
It was a small and fleeting victory, but it wasn’t nothing. Please keep supporting Lebanon’s transit sector! Follow @ridersrightslb and @ridersrightsnet and give what you can.